Daylight

The man in the field with the silk hat (dead man? Living man? It doesn't really matter, does it, since the Civil War's been over for 70 years, that man is dead). The woman in the bed, “simple legs in silk.” Okay, so there's a silk thing going on here, but that's because silk became so rare in 1929 with foreign imports slowing down. It became the prize fabric. “The after-/ Sun passes” in the one poem.” It's “daylight” in the next. The heterosexual matrix of Oppen's Collected Poems is a defense, an overdetermination of completeness. There is the peculiar picture of the two of them, hitchhiking through Depression America, both fabulously beautiful, preferring to live for their work. Also, the wonderful position of having money from a rich family, and being able to leave it alone Their story is very Hollywood, and why not? Hollywood in the 30s was a reflection of the Communist party's interest in infiltration. But how about “Plant, I breathe—”? In interviews Oppen suggested that the speaker sees himself as a plant, with a particular plant-like solitude, that the life of plants mirrors the simple nature of heterosexual love, a love more developed, more spiritual, than animal lust. A heterosexuality so organic it turns men and women into plants. Sex for these plants means breathing in and breathing out, or making chlorophyll or whatever. One of the poems addressed to Mary says, “Your body in the sun . . . / It is you who truly excel the vegetable.” I take it that this conceit, borrowed from Marvell, has been embellished by the science fiction cliches of the day, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian novels for example, with their insanely overgrown vegetation, and yes, the Oz books, with the talking trees that grab the child like the oozing Lacanian placenta-like skin of desire.

1934, the year of Depression anxiety in which Oppen published Discrete Series, Russel Wright opened his all-aluminum room at the “Machine Art” show at the Modern Museum, and Jacques Lacan began investigating the case of the two Lapin sisters, but let us go now and watch these dishes again. As design scholars have pointed out, the Depression public that bought up these pieces in droves apparently did not mind that they break all the time (they are among the most fragile of modern mass-produced objects) and that their function is often obscured by the peculiarities of their design (the mouth of the water pitcher, for example, does not allow ice cubes to escape). It was a public entranced by the particular shapes and color that Russel Wright, heavily influenced by Surrealist sculpture, obviously Arp imparted in an obsessive quest to change society from its table tops. Just like Oppen, he had a fear of specularity, of letting the surface of the table show through. I remember writing to Rachel Blau DuPlessis and asking her for information on the Oppen-Wright connection. Puzzled, Rachel told me that in all of the Oppen papers in the UCSD archives, there are no extant letters from either Russel or Mary Wright. Correspondingly, in the Russel Wright papers at Syracuse—80 boxes worth—there is nothing pertaining to the Oppens. What's being displaced, what's being concealed? The “prudery of Frigidaire” refers not only to the Freud-Stekel-D H Lawrence ideas about female frigidity, but to one selling campaign of GE, that played on the male householder's fear of the ice man visiting his wife at home while he's away at the office. Oppen seems to be scoffing at this “prudery”—shall I read the poem again?

Daylight

Maude Blessingbourne, a character from Henry James' “The Story In It,” is an adulterous woman without the courage to commit adultery, a woman of truly Frigidairean prudery. In James' terms, Blessingbourne's approach to the window, “as if to see what was really going on,” is a Rorschach test of her character, her refusal to see, to immerse herself in the destructive element. I close with suggesting once again the murderous aspects which Oppen's Collected Poems reenacts in tableau—the physical thrill in death, the unrelenting focus on helplessness, weakness, the corrupt: “fool object! Dingy medallion in the gutter of Atlantic Avenue! Let it alone! It is deadly”; the pleasure and the sublimity which result from their depiction. I think of George Oppen as I cover my table with these plates: they are faces of all the lovers I have had who died before I was born and after I died. At first I knew I was a child, then I didn't know what sex I was, then I forgot if I was the subject of the world or the little thing someone, someday, might want for his own. I think of Russel Wright crying over the colors of the vegetables in the Jewish ghetto in the Lower East Side, those painful trays of fruits and lettuce, then I think of George and Mary, making love, their monstrous bodies growing over each other like vines. I reclaim a secret identity inside the dish world of the dead, the dead little girl says, “I am the one who guffaws in horror inside the lungs of the live one. And you are the only one in the world who knows it. Get me out of here at once!”