Written in 1991 at the end of the Reagan era, the poem looks back on "those years," the years at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s when a resurgence of American individualism twice elected as president a movie star touting small government. The collective action and social consciousness that defined the Vietnam war era, as well as Rich's own life in 1970s New York City, had given way to a more conservative era. Likewise, radical feminism had seemingly given way to liberal feminism, with a greater focus on individual women receiving powerful jobs and corporate representation as opposed to collective action.
In the first stanza, the poet imagines that "people will say" that she and her contemporaries "lost track of the meaning of we"—they lost their sense of community and togetherness. The larger, collective "we" was reduced to a number of individual "I"s, and this resulted in a society that was "silly, ironic, terrible." Wrapped up in their personal lives, people were unable to "bear witness" to each other.
In the second stanza, the poet discusses the consequence of this focus on the "I" rather than the "we." The poem shifts from the general narrative of the first stanza to imagine the "dark birds of history" screaming and plunging past the shores where individuals stand saying "I."
The poem's two stanzas create fourteen lines, the traditional length of a sonnet. It can be said to have a sonnet's turn between the first and second stanza, as it goes from literal to metaphoric.
The first nine-line stanza of this poem features strong enjambment, emphasizing the difference between we, I, and you. The first line sets the scene, with the speaker imagining that “people” will look back on her and others—Americans, American women, feminists—and believe they “lost track,” or found themselves on the wrong path. This introduces a tone of regret that persists throughout the poem. The strong enjambment between the first two lines separates out “the meaning of we, of you,” on a line by itself, placing additional emphasis on the speaker’s misdirection and confusion, as well as expanding on the meaning of “we.” "We" includes both a sense of community (us together) as well as the recognition of others within that community (you vs. me). The enjambment of the third line, “reduced to an I,” further emphasizes the separation between individuals.
In line 4, the speaker begins to describe the consequences of this separation: the result is “silly, ironic, terrible.” This group of adjectives is important, in part because some of the terms seem mutually exclusive. “Silly” implies that this separation is funny and even unimportant. However, “ironic” shows that it has the opposite of the intended effect. Finally, “terrible” contradicts silly, showing that the consequences are decidedly negative.
The colon after this list of adjectives implies that the speaker will next give more context. We might connect the following three lines to these three adjectives: the desire to live “personal lives” might imply a silly, small-minded focus. In this sense, the line “and yes, that was the only life” has a double meaning, spanning the lines before it and the lines after it: when one’s personal life becomes “the only life,” that life becomes narrow, which can lead to silliness and negative consequences. The negative consequences are laid out in the next line, “we could bear witness to.” When one cannot bear witness to others’ lives and suffering, one enables violence to persist as long is it does not affect oneself.
While stanza one is plain-spoken and free of imagery, stanza two develops the image of individuals standing along a beach saying “I” while the “dark birds of history” plunge into their lives. Here, the dark birds of history are a metaphor for larger structures of violence and oppression. While these originally seem to pass overhead, as if they are migrating somewhere else and will not affect the speaker and other individuals, they soon “plunge” into her “personal weather.” Her focus on herself has not saved her from their forces.
Here, we might interpret “They were headed somewhere else” several ways. It may mean that the dark forces of history were headed elsewhere, but would commit violence on their intended path as necessary: no one was safe. Alternately, the “fog” on the beach could imply that the violence was in fact confused and directionless, so bound to land in several places, sometimes by chance. Finally, it might even mean that when the speaker and others did notice and cry out against these dark forces, they were prepared to attack back.
Whatever the case, the image of the lone individual standing saying “I” on the beach is one of fragility: at the shore, the individual is in front of the waves insisting on the importance of their individual life even in the face of something as indifferent and powerful as the ocean. This image reaffirms the inherent fragility of any individual, and hence the necessity of creating communities of "we" in order to stand up to the dark forces of history.