Fear, Loss, and Hope in “songs we used to dance to”

Written while living in a self-destructive society on the coattails of a global pandemic, courtney marie’s second collection of poems, songs we used to dance to, has been called a “revolution overdue.” It’s perfect for those willing to take an unflinching look at self and country, like that found in “this country is a hungry fist,” a poem which looks at the ways the United States can “feast on the dreams of the innocent.” This stunning collection refuses to back down from the struggles of identity and the post-pandemic realities, as explored in the poem “nothing will ever be the same”:

in all the horror of this year
one thing sets it apart from all the horrors of all the other years: the
distance between us.

Through the course of the pandemic, identities changed as Americans began seeing themselves in a different light due to the vast distance placed between themselves and those they love. Marie evaluates these changes in identity by approaching them as something transcendent, “something in-between,” in the poem “death of the party”:

i identify as anxiety attack
a high-functioning breakdown
a cat on its last life
something I can’t yet articulate
but my chest is full of doom

Marie explores the moments before self-awakening, when the alignment between projected self and perceived self are locked in conflict. In “always never,” this dual nature is expressed, “i have [always / never] been wrong/  [always / never] understood.” This dualism can also be seen in the complication of maintaining the identity of self while in love  — the intoxication of a new love, the heartbreak of when it fails — and how this can change the individual in striking ways. The loss and grief of love, the shifting of self, can be felt in poems such as “a raindrop reflects on a burning plain”:

& though i am very small
        merely a teardrop

i will remember that together we become a river
together we can be ocean or storm
	calm or furious
	warm or cold
	danger or safety

Duality is hidden in the strikethrough of text and intentional blank space between. In “things were never like you think they used to be,” they use these conventions in a way that is raw and open. The text becomes an artistic medium fracturing the page — allowing these poems to be approached again and again.

there was beauty before the ruin
though we didn’t see it

we were armed with answers
	in the shape of twitter threads
we solved problems
        with money

Embodied by the splintering of text, the stark use of language becomes the bold and unapologetic focus. In “what to expect when you are expecting nothing,” they express how identity can be a type of performance, a charade for those around you:

keep the glass balanced delicately between two fingers
while twirling and laughing at something no one else can see

keep telling yourself
	[to breathe /
	that no bad dream will last forever]

keep billowing
	[a curl of smoke trapped in a bell jar /
	A flameless moth at twilight]

keep telling yourself that there will be a tomorrow
(the worst that can happen is you will be wrong)

Identity, like the meaning and intention of these poems, adapts and changes over time. Each reading comes with a different understanding, made clearer through marie’s purposeful artistic design. Identity shifts with self-discovery, though the greatest moments of self-actualization are often born out of the tragedy of heartbreak. “anything for you” is one of many poems in the collection expressing identity through the loss of intimacy:

i start a letter that is more condemnation than forgiveness, time has
ceased to exist and i am frozen in horror. noticing what i could not.
would not. it is all too familiar. and i know what comes next.

This collection is built on the ashes of our most intimate relationships — with ourselves or others. The past becomes the ghost of self, the returning question of identity that ceases to linger by the completion of the collection; instead, the ghost and the self realign to become one in the final poems, a reminder that self-view and self-portrayal align over time. Perhaps, the final poem, “the end,” offers the clearest view of this collection:

there are flowers
        though the world is burning
there is yet hope
	though we all will die

this life is a hallway of a thousand doors beckoning
	& we are the wondering

We are wondering along the journey of love and self-discovery, just as it is expressed in “a love story,” “the beautiful thing about a street/ is that it never ends.” Like a road, their work is a collection that never ends.

The passion that drives marie into “making art for the people” is something that “cannot be bought or sold.” songs we used to dance to is a true gallery of the arts open to the public regardless of politics or identity. Perhaps most of all, it is an expression of hope, an acknowledgement that a better world is possible.

songs we used to dance to
By courtney marie
Goliad Media Group, LLC
Published March 31, 2022