“We Record the First Line” by Phoebe Wagner is, at its core, about rituals and longevity. The collection begins with “Plant Sequoias,” a passage that pushes expectation and patience in an individual for the sake of an enduring society. “We” used again and again, denoting a sowing that will not see harvest within this lifetime. “We know we don’t plant for our children or grandchildren. We plant for the millennia—and the next.” A royal we? Perhaps. But it doesn’t seem likely. The inclusive pronoun seems more like an attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful, belonging. Especially when you consider the transition into the next piece.
“Learning to Taste Again” abruptly switches to first-person and uses brutal words like “killing,” “ripped,” and “burst,” right off the bat. On the surface, it’s about a parent teaching their child to appreciate the land and its gifts. On a deeper level, however, the peppering of adjectives like “lost,” “cold,” and “darkness” seem too intentional to produce a heart-warming story. It leaves the reader, like the parent at the end, asking, “Yes, and what else?”
In the third story, “Seed to Root” the pronoun“you” is engaged tactfully. Now, the burden of ritual is shifted from self to other. “Only the old ones will tell tales of a different time and you will not understand why they are sad.”
In all three pieces, there is a sense of independence and protest, a polite shake of the head at social norms that says, “Thanks, but no thanks. We have our own way of doing things”. And, in a world hiding behind the mask of tradition, that’s the most refreshing of all. Encouraging a new crop to take the torch, not only to light the way for a future generation, but also to burn down the past.