K E V I N K I L L I A N
THE TENTH ANNUAL GEORGE OPPEN MEMORIAL LECTURE
ON TWENTIETH CENTURY POETICS (1995)
presented by the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives
of San Francisco State University
Whose tail is in his mouth: he is
Of evil, [ . . . ] Digested
And digesting—Fool object,
In the gutter
Of Atlantic Avenue!
Let it alone! It is deadly.
(George Oppen, “A Narrative ”) 1
Most of you know the entire career of George Oppen better than I know my own name, but for the newbies among you I'll try to sketch out his life in four parts. He was born in 1908, in New Rochelle—like The Dick Van Dyke Show —but ten years later his family—a wealthy Jewish family—came here to California. In college Oppen met Mary Colby, a Gentile beauty from a lower class family in Oregon, and the two of them abandoned school and hitch-hiked to New York. Then they came back and tried to settle into the high society of San Francisco, but they couldn't. On a later trip to New York they joined the avant-garde circles of Louis Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Reznikoff. By the early 30s the “Objectivists” were established as a school, but after writing one book, Discrete Series, Oppen decided to abandon poetry and pursue political activism instead.
The second phase of his life includes membership in the Communist party, being drafted by the Army and serving overseas during World War II, the birth of a daughter, Linda. In 1950 hounded by McCarthy's secret police, the Oppens left this country for Mexico City, where George worked as a furniture maker and truck driver, etc. In 1958 they returned to New York, whereupon Oppen began to write again.
The third phase includes writing six books and winning a Pulitzer Prize and becoming famous and giving many interviews. And moving to San Francisco in 1969. During this time Mary Oppen assumes her rightful place as George's other half. You have to read between the lines in a lot of the supplementary material, but it's clear that if you wanted to meet George Oppen during this time, you had to be vetted by Mary. Many interviewers seem to have submitted to this protocol, so there are a number of articles called, “An Interview with George and Mary Oppen,” even though Mary's credentials must have seemed of the Whitmanic sort. “I was the woman—I suffered—I was there.” The fourth phase, the tragic one, begins with the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and ends with George's death in 1984. Each of these phases of Oppen's life has a special, and distinct, interest for a guy like me, because each of them has its own glamor and its own foreboding. I hope my queer reading of Oppen offends none of his old friends and family, please understand that I am trying to find a foothold in his great shadows. After the initial shock your heads will start to nod, as if on their own accord, and your mouths will open and say, “Yes, Kevin, you are right and no one has ever seen this before.” But in the meantime forgive my clumsy lack of tact. I propose to work the “malentendu” of Jacques Lacan—the “tragic misunderstanding” between intention and interpretation which Lacan pioneered in his Ecrits, written at the same time Oppen began his poetic career. “Style is the man,” wrote Lacan, “to whom one is speaking.”2 I misconstrue Oppen's equation of heterosexual monogamy with living, opposing it through a thin veil of viral meninges. My agency gives answer to the questions posed by the writing. I am his family now. Lacan: a family, beleaguered by its own models, has been caught in the “imaginary impasse of sexual polarization involving cultural patterns, mores, the arts, rebelling and thought.” I start with the holes in Oppen's poem “Solution”:
The puzzle assembled
At last in the box lid showing a green
Hillside, a house,
A barn and man
And wife and children,
All of it polychrome,
Lucid, backed by the blue
Sky. The jigsaw of cracks
Crazes the landscape but there is no gap,
No actual edged hole
Nowhere the wooden texture of the table top
Glares out of scale in the picture,
Sordid as cellars, as bare foundations:
There is no piece missing. The puzzle is complete
Now in its red and green and brown.
“There is no piece missing.” The puzzle, the puzzle assembled at last, the cultural fad artifact of the late modern age, that first swept France and England in the wake of the First World War (1919), an emblem for an age where confusion and determination to reassemble invented the perfect reflection of the soul's own struggle. It's showing off to assemble it in the box lid, something like doing a crossword puzzle in ink, but that's part of Oppen's bravura, he is among other things a handy man, a mensch, good with tools. Anyway all of us assemble our puzzles without reference to the box lid in the sense that the picture we are assembling is invisible to us until the very last moment, then we are left with extra pieces or whatever, or we find that the puzzle we thought we were working on is not the picture on the front of the box, etc . . . The puzzle showing a green hillside, a house, a barn, the sentimental landscapes you see on most box lids. The barn and man and wife and children, all of it polychrome, lucid; this matches the general pattern of rhetoric about the Oppen's own home life, in which only a few important figures make themselves felt in the landscape, a man, a wife, a little girl. Though it is odd that all these human figures are referred to as “it,” instead of the more natural “them.” (“A barn and man/ And wife and children/ All of them polychrome,/ Lucid.”) And also, the specificity of the plural “children” jars a little bit, when you think that after all, George and Mary had only the one daughter, Linda, isn't the disparity hinting that no, all was not picture perfect in the Oppen's domestic life, shouldn't they have had more children instead of the abortions Mary later reveals in her memoir Meaning A Life? Despite how one feels about abortion, there is something kind of murky about it, something in opposition to the lucid normative family “solved” in this poem. Polychrome—and you will remember Polychrome from the Oz books too, the kind of repellently flighty fairy Dorothy gets so enchanted by, you don't find creatures like Polly in Kansas, do you? Polychrome, lucid, and “backed by the blue sky,” . . . “backed” in the sense of “supported by moral assistance,” or “substantiated.” Nature connives and supports the family unit, without its assistance the figures would assume rather different shapes, perhaps more sinister ones. Lucid, suffused with light, backed by the blue sky, translucent, lucid, as in sane, having full use of one's faculties, lucid, intelligible, easily read. Okay, that's the picture, the family, now the poem shows the “jigsaw of cracks,” and the salient part leaps up, yes, the puzzle is filled with cracks, a jigsaw after all is a powerful carving tool, its knife-edge infinitely sharp and painful, used to mutilate the recalcitrant body of the text, in this case, the lucid picture, the “jigsaw of cracks” suggesting the violence with which the oppositions are defined and maintained within mainstream culture. Compare with Auden: the crack in the teacup that looks all the way down to the pit of Hell. I.e. I cite Auden as the gay modernist who's always going on and on comparing bourgeois family life with hell. This jigsaw of cracks “crazes the landscape,” the poem tells us, “but there is no gap,” why not? If we were to really look at our 3-D world would we see and recognize and read the cracks in our bourgeois solidity, and realize the jigsaw as its most accurate representation? Why no gap? The opposition between the “lucid,” sane, and the “crazed,” the “crushed,” the demolished, the stunned. Of course there's the hint of the “craze” in there, too, the fad, in the sense that the jigsaw puzzle makes the landscape, the family, popular in an “exaggerated and often transient enthusiasm.” Jigsaw, modernity, makes landscape into fashion. The gap, that there is none of—is the “actual edged hole,” the missing orifice, or, as we read it inside the flat world of the jigsaw puzzle, the orifice that is solidly filled, there is no longer an “actual edged hole,” the triumph of materiality over lack, or, the continuous repression of the genital, despite the cracks there is no actual edged hole. The poem is turning into a series of “no”s—but these “no's,” oddly, become positive and reassuring entities, these little words each one hammering home another reason why the speaker or reader should not be anxious. “Nowhere the wooden texture of the table top/ Glares out of scale in the picture.” Because of this emphasis on reassurance, the glare becomes the most important thing in the poem. It's not there, but it might have been. What's so bad about seeing part of a table top? And this is the poem of a man who made tables for a “living,” and did not hesitate to point out the Christology involved in hiring a “Jewish carpenter.” So how does the table top frighten? Well, it glares, like a monster, or an angry human, or the heat of the sun. And, it's out of scale. Hence it shows up the landscape and its figures as having been a construction, a miniaturization, somehow a falsification of the realities of existence. But at the same time this sight, the ghastliness of it, is “nowhere,” thanks to the successful “solution” of the puzzle, the success of its maker. We may also think of the seance, of table-tapping, there is a horror involved in the table top in that it has an underside, like the mind, like the narrow membrane between life and death. “Nowhere the wooden texture of the table top/ /Sordid as cellars, as bare foundations:” the sordidity of the cellar is linked inevitably to the concept of the unconscious, the sordid drives, the sex and death drives, that have created the house, barn, man, wife, children, the bare foundations the rag and bone shop of the heart, the . . . it's like a horror movie, What Happened in the Cellar? It is not for the eye that's for sure. It is the glimpse into hell, it is the genital, it is the actual edged hole, it may not be seen, it is the unspeakable, and it must be covered. In fact I think of it as the homosexual. “There is no piece missing. The puzzle is complete/ Now in its red and green and brown.” Lacan, taking up the ideas of Melanie Klein would argue that the puzzle is not complete, that the “body” does not exist, except as a mere pile of parts or pieces, a fragmented and thus violent body.
The “solution” provides a veneer of identity, yet as Catherine Clement insists, identity is a “mere outer skin that constantly distorts one's relations to others.”3 And so it is with the poem, a fixed discrete entity that nevertheless leaks with sloppy, messy juices. The poem “says,” but since it is composed of words, parts, it creates its own desire for that which it does not have or want. The poem lacks meaning, and reader, and slithers across the earth to find both or either. In this case it found me.
Me, who came to Oppen by way of Russel Wright, attaching the domestic and romantic glamor of the Oppens' lives and work to the work of Mr. Russel Wright, the industrial designer who lived from 1904 to 1976. Do any of you collect Russel Wright? Show of hands . . . Russel Wright became big news all over again when Andy Warhol revealed the depths of his Wright collection in 1979, in a big New York Times Magazine article discussing his fascination with these dishes. I'd like you to picture two big slides over my head—one of them, on the left, the Bauhaus movement, and the other, the arts and crafts William Morris English home farm industry pre-opted by Vanessa Bell and what's his name. Wright was the first designer of the portable radio, the radio and phonograph console, spun aluminum accessories, the first to use rattan, hemp rope or wood in informal serving pieces. He imported blonde wood furniture from Europe. To advertise Campbell's soup, he invented the Campbell Kids, two chubby kids, a twinned boy and girl with the gamin aspect of Raggedy Ann and Andy, but less pickaninny in their appeal, a boy and girl bursting out of their clothes in twin bursts of good health and nutrition—a kind of deracination, de-Negrization of the famous red-heads. To Russel we owe the invention of aluminum blinds, stainless steel flatware and Melamine used for synthetic dinnerware. Do you know those ashtrays that have little grooves for the cigarettes to sit in when you don't have them in your mouth? Do you remember those school desks with the seats attached to them, the desks with lids you open and shut? Those are the products of Russel Wright. Another innovation was sectional furniture, and I was going to make an analogy between sectional and modular furniture, and the serial poem, how they both responded to changes in consumer needs under pressure of modernism, but I don't have the time, you can do it yourself with a moment's thought—without using your memory. Lacan: “All suffering is the sign of some reminiscence.”4
In 1929 Russel Wright married Mary Small Einstein, and she became his partner, manager, angel—the social and financial force behind her husband's work. Einstein, who was George Oppen's cousin, was wealthy and well-connected, same as Oppen. The two cousins had a lot in common; of course it was their marriages to gentiles I'm thinking of now. As Mary Oppen explains in her memoir, the Wrights were their closest friends in New York during the period in which Oppen was composing the poems of Discrete Series, and I read their influence all over the book. It was Mary Wright who introduced George to Louis Zukofsky, for example. "'Oh,' said Mary Wright, 'you are a poet, you must meet our friend Zukofsky.'
George said, “He wrote “Poem beginning “The.”'”
Mary said, “You are the only one in the world who knows it.” This reply has always struck me as worthy of one of those logic puzzles we used to do in the Dell Crossword Books when I was a kid. If I tell you, you are the only one in the world to know X, it is certainly a great piece of self-effacement on my part. Or it makes me opaque, a kind of vessel, a computer perhaps, that knows what it does not know and knows you know it. My knowledge of your unique knowledge renders me empty, but rather full at the same time, like the glass seen by the optimist and pessimist, except more so. It was actually Mary Small who coined the term “blonde” to describe the furniture that Russel had dreamed up—the unstained maple struck her as peculiarly Aryan, sellable, in vogue. She had a weakness for blondes, and Jean Harlow was one of those the Oppens met in the studio she built for Russel Wright.
They—the Wrights—were the emblems of the chic modernity towards which Oppen's powerful flow of sympathy and attraction waxes and wanes. They even took the Oppens slumming—scouring through Yiddish lower East Side, where the tenements parted to reveal fruit stands, vegetable stands, horse-drawn wagons piled with “heaps of color created by oranges, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons. Russel wept with the color.” Russel, a former stage designer who worked with the director George Cukor—another George—on several stage productions, knew all the gay theater people, and Mary cultivated them too, flattering them, inviting them to studio visits, making sure Vanity Fair was publishing Russel's work in its pages. Russel was sensitive, the artistic type. Although he wanted to continue his innovative stage design, Mary pushed him into the industrial design work that made him famous. The Oppens watched as Mary Small Einstein made Russel a household name. In one telling anecdote Mary and Russel take George and Mary to Coney Island, where Mary's skirt is blown into the air by a blast of air, like Marilyn in the Seven Year Itch; “she was a pretty flower, a half-naked shrieking girl.” Then they all go on the Ferris wheel, which stops with their car reaches the top. “Russel starts screaming.” Then they enter the Hall of Mirrors—and laugh at themselves—the Wrights are the mirror images of the Oppens, except they represent a wrong turning. On first reading Oppen's Collected Poems you think there are only two people in the world—George and Mary themselves, surrounded by a host of poor people who come up only to their knees. But a closer reading reveals the crowded New York avant-garde art world of 1930, a site where gay design and culture had triumphed in the midst of the Depression.
From a crowd a white powdered face
Eyes and mouth making three—
It doesn't take a very close reading to realize that holes make Oppen uneasy. Looking into the critical literature that surrounds Oppen I have the familiar feeling that only heterosexual men and women have ever turned their attention to this poet, and it is easy to see why. A host of obstacles, like Cerberus, like dragon's teeth, deflect much queer attention. First and foremost is the extradiagetical veneration accorded Oppen's marriage and/or conscience. This great myth, more powerful than any of their books, is a fascinating exercise on social construction, But it has led to some shy-making critical passages, like this from the late Eric Mottram: “Children are the constant gift to the world, a possible hope; and behind them, the constancy of love, whose example throughout the poems is—if one may say it so bluntly, but without the least sentimentality—George and Mary Oppen, a ground base to all the inventions.”5
I get nervous when I encounter a poetry of exemplum, a recuperative poetry. In Oppen's emphasis on triangulation among himself, Mary Oppen, and the daughter, Linda, we see triangulation's Freudian side effects—the forced, shifting identification into father, mother, child. This unity of feeling squelches or suppresses a number of fluid disjunctions between each figure for the purpose of creating an artificial maleness. The male body is in limbo throughout this work, the serpent, Ourobouros, its mouth eating its own tail, which its consequent suggestions (“Digesting . . . digested”) or coprophilia, solipsism, auto-fellatio etc—the “deadly” or “fatal” object. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Michael Heller, among others, compare the poems of Discrete Series to the paintings of Edward Hopper, perhaps because both Hopper and Oppen have made electric and neon light this ghastly modernist horror. But I think rather of the Surrealists and their turning over the new machine-made products of the day and seeing how they were instruments of the unconscious. I note the Oppens' love of science fiction, and suggest a science fiction universe has made its presence inside the texts, an alternate universe of transgressive sexuality and twisted life forms. Look at the opening of Discrete Series, the famous poem about the elevator:
White. From the
Under arm of T
The red globe.
From the quiet
Stone floor . . .
Or is it an elevator? Some of the commentators think it might indeed be a picture, fractured or fragmented in the way of Duchamp, of Mary's nude body. Actually it is the “object-little-a.” That's Lacan's term for the libido, the strange almost amniotic fluid that coats the body of the sleeping infant, the organ generated by separation. Supposedly in 30s elevators there was a white “T” shape with a red globe under each—well, you might call it an arm. One said “up,” the other said, “down.” Like I really believe this. These call buttons are also the “Round/ Shiny fixed/ alternatives.” Uh-huh, uh-huh. The Discrete Series was written at a time of intense excitement for Oppen, a sexual heat that makes these thirty poems glow and stutter. He was writing, Zukofsky was writing, Reznikoff was writing, all of these young men writing under the great eye of the absent father, Ezra Pound. In Russel and Mary Wright's studio, littered with spun aluminum and science-fiction drawings of the future, they were showing each other their poems in an intense competition for the father's eye. “An egg breaks,” says Catherine Clement, paraphrasing Lacan in her book The Life and Legends of Jacques Lacan. “The amniotic sac ruptures to make ay for the child. Suppose something comes out of the egg at the very moment it breaks open. A thin wafer, as flat and slippery as a crepe but as lively as an amoeba. Now suppose that this wafer, now free of the egg, is destined to coat the body of the newborn. It is immortal—a product of separation but itself resistant to any further division. Suppose it comes and coats the child's body while the baby is sleeping. Guess what Lacan chose to call this amoeba-like, baby-devouring crepe. The Hommelette (a pun, of course, on l'homme, French for man, and omelette). ‘You can't make an Hommelette without breaking eggs.'” Actually I am nervous about Mary and George Oppen because, in their intense unity, they force identification with the mother and father of my own primal scene. Now Oppen continues:
of Frigidaire, of
Plane of lunch, of wives
(as soda-jerking from
the private act
According to this poem, cracking eggs is a private act, cracking eggs is to the private as soda jerking is to the public. We know that when the Oppens joined the C.P., they gave up their rights to read just any old things you and I might. Their reading was proscribed. There were certain books you could not have in your house. Somewhere the Party organizers must have decided that science fiction was okay. So it's not just arbitrary. If the only thing you could read, besides party-approved books on political and socio-economic themes, was science fiction, I bet you'd be reading a lot of it too. I bet you might open one of your own books of poetry with a quote from Mr. Robert A. Heinlein, as Oppen does, even though Heinlein is famously one of the most right-wing of all social thinkers. But they loved him! I always think, well, maybe they loved the spanking scenes, for Heinlein's unabashed relish for c/p led him to include many such scenes in all of his books. Hey, I've written enough porn to know that “red globes” are one of the utter cliches of spanking writing. The progress from white to red ditto. I think also of the oozing content of the egg, that creeps over the body of the sleeping child. What's “the plane of lunch, of wives”? I understand how lunch and wives tie a man down, entrap him in identity via the body, but the plane is the odd word. “Throughout his life, Man (L'Homme), separated from the Hommelette, feels this other creature pressing upon one part of his body or another, investing that portion of the body with a temporary local desire. Growing in the Hommelette, desire takes root in a specific place: preferable in some minute detail, such as a slight infirmity, a winking eye, an out-of-place curl, a minor defect, a tiny feature, a leather whip, or an artificial penis—a fetish, in short. To make it easier to talk about this subject, Lacan introduces the rather odd locution, the ‘objet-petit-a.'” Following Freud, Lacan says that the object of desire need not be in any sense complete. As Clement says, “The ‘objet-petit-a' is found wherever there is a passageway on the body linking the interior to the exterior.” The breath, the voice, the tear, the feces, the urine, the glance: “through a hole in the body, the flat amoeba slithers out, the libido slips through. The Other is merely a support for an item of waste.” Hence Oppen:
Near your eyes—
Love at the pelvis
Reaches the generic, gratuitous
(Your eyes like snail-tracks)
It reminds me of the old joke my boss told me, “Why do women have legs?” “Otherwise they'd be leaving tracks like snails.” But actually this excretion, like the glimpse of the table-top, has formed the object little a. What's the prudery of Frigidaire, anyhow? “Thus/ hides the/ parts.” As Melanie Klein knew, from her studies of children's fears, the body has exploded. The murderous, cannibalistic fantasies of the young child, revealed through game, song, question and response, had been recently mirrored, in the carnage of the Great War, where piles of body parts became commonplace.
She lies, hip high,
On a flat bed
The flat bed = the plane of wives?
She lies, hip high,
On a flat bed
While the after-
Plant, I breathe—
“Plane” + “plant” = planet? Pliant? Planet of wives?
Plant, I breathe—
Eyes legs arms hands fingers,
Simple legs in silk.6
“Eyes legs arms hands fingers”—a love scene viewed through a child's sexuality as an exploded tangle of limbs. The poem ends and another begins—Oppen's poetics into “Civil War photo.” The line between disjunction and conjunction itself becomes blurred, permeable:
Civil war photo:
Grass near the lens;
Man in the field
In silk hat. Daylight.
The cannon of that day
In our parks.
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?
of Frigidaire, of
Plane of lunch, of wives
(as soda-jerking from
the private act
Not only "Frigidaire" but "soda-jerking" exemplify prudery; while both terms sound dated today, we must recall that they were brand new words at the time of Discrete Series: "soda-jerking" was only first used in 1927, giving this poem the peculiar modern force that Oppen so admired in Russel Wright's dreams of a new American house. (Parenthetically, the "jerking-off" which today lies behind our reading of this piece had not yet come into common usage, and it was of course a product of a deeper Depression, where all of society had gathered into a sullen torpidity and the Oppens had become communists to block this.) Upon introduction, the flowing lines, exaggerated spouts, and folded lips of many of Russel Wright's American Modern pieces were dismissed with distaste by dish critics. This was a dinnerware too sexual, too monstrous for the table, and it took years to catch on. As Julia Kristeva has noted, slang, “because of its strangeness, its very violence, and especially because the reader does not always understand it, is of course a radical instrument of separation, of rejection, and, at the limit, of hatred. Slang produces a semantic fuzziness, if not interruption, within the utterances that it punctuates and rhythmicizes.”7 Wright's colors are especially striking—they're so hideous, even as he claimed the colors were supposed to enhance food (white, he said, makes food look “dead”), yet it took a hardy soul to deliberately eat off plates with colors like “Chartreuse Curry” and “Bean Brown.”
Inaudibly soars; bole-like, tapering:
Sail flattens from it beneath the wind.
The limp water holds the boat's round
Slants dry light on the deck.
Beneath us glide
Rocks, sands, and unrimmed holes.
This is from Discrete Series, published in 1934. I focus, I call into your focus, the way it begins with the erection of the mast—the unfurling of the phallus—and mutates into the “rocks, sands, and unrimmed holes.” Bear with me as I read the “unrimmed holes” in deliberately obscene terms, a reference to a kind of oral-anal sex act that time and experience have made us leery of since the 1980's and the coming of HIV. “In the mouths,/ Rims/ / In this place, two geraniums/ In your window-box/ Are his life's eyes.” Oppen's career was composed of expulsions, strategic removal; there was first the expulsion from the family, triggered as much by his marriage to Mary Colby as his election to poetry. In “Myth of the Blaze,” his last poem, Oppen writes of his early life as though recalling some dimly-recalled chamber of horrors:
boyhood degradation other
degradations and this crime I will not recover
from that landscape it will be in my mind
it will fill my mind and this is horrible
death bed pavement the secret taste
of being lost
clown in the birds'
world what names
(but my name)
and my love's name to speak
in the shack
in the knife-cut
and the opaque
bread each side of the knife
(“Myth of the Blaze”)
I read Oppen's Collected Poems much as I would any other book, as a fantasia of dismemberment, libido, violent expulsion, excretion, death and desire—the themes of Kristeva in her “essay in abjection” Powers of Horror; and of course the Lacanian themes of late memory. “A split seems to have set in between, on the one hand, the body's territory where an authority without guilt prevails, a kind of fusion between mother and nature, and on the other hand, a totally different universe of socially signifying performances where embarrassment, shame, guilt, desire, etc., come into play—the order of the phallus.” In the second phase of his life, Oppen is expelled from poetry, so the Discrete Series remains as a kind of fetish, the link between one orifice and another. The second, or Communist phase, the years of exile. We know that George and Mary Oppen moved to Mexico, in the same year (1950) that Russel and Mary Wright wrote their masterpiece, Guide to Easier Living. Mary Wright died two years later, and Oppen returned to poetry, and to the States, six years after that. Isn't it funny how there is no Mexico in the poems that follow his return? God, I hate travel poetry and poems about exotic places, but you'd think he mention Mexico once! There's an enormous sense of distance from the recent past in The Materials. It begins with a quote from Maritain: “We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things,” and continues without a pause like Rip Van Winkle, to the marvelous engines and windows and machines and the “art/ De luxe” of 25 years past.
The man who has been a child returns to childhood warily, as the narrating subject of “A Narrative” (This in Which) relates:
But at night the park
She said, is horrible. And Bronk said
Perhaps the world
She did not understand. He meant
The waves or pellets
Are thrown from the process
Of the suns and like radar
Bounce where they strike. The eye
But it is dark.
It is the nature
Of the world:
It is as dark as radar.
In decline, Russel Wright built a vast house in the Hudson Highlands, right above New Rochelle, that he called Dragon Rock. It's still standing, now part of the National Heritage Trust, and Bob Gluck and Loring McAlpin went there a few years ago and reported kind of a cross between Xanadu and Fallingwater. In this house, built on indigenous rock and wood, the forest floors continue inside the house, the walls contain slate, rocks protrude into rooms, and trees grow in and out of the walls. “It must be so hard to vacuum,” Bob mused. It is the house of abjection, a meeting place where ecology and shame bleed into each other slowlu, the walls concrete and glass, windows on which nature views civilization, watches trees sprout from the fireplace.
Shine, the fire
Glows in the fallacy
Of words. And one may cherish
Invention and the invented terms
We act on. But the park
Or the river at night
She said again
The park is the place of dead things (I take it that the park is the cemetery of the Civil War poem), the place where the living meet the dead, under surveillance of radar, trapped in a vicious war between two warring ideologies. The undead, surveyed by radar. Compare Spicer's “Radar”: “I crawled into bed with sorrow that night/ Couldn't touch his fingers. See the splash/ Of the water/ The noisy movement of cloud/ The push of the humpbacked mountains/ Deep at the sand's edge.”8 Then there's politics, which entails the cessation of writing. (I think of the years that have gone by, and I have not yet written my next novel, because of AIDS, since I can't decide how to reconcile my art with my desire for activism.) As Hugh Kenner said, it was 25 years between poems. In the third phase of Oppen's career, George Oppen returns to poetry—and to money, too—with great flair. The six books that ensue are unanimously acclaimed. The poetry community in the early 60's welcomes the supposed signal of the end to the Cold War, a misnomer for the play of heightened emotions, the almost hallucinatory intensity, wounded feelings and grand, hieratic gesture. The poetry responds to, and of course participates in, this opera, this field of ritualism. And the fourth phase, the Alzheimer's disease, the slippage of memory, the anger, the expulsion of state, the slow leak, the descent into the unspeakable. In “The Book of Job,” Oppen writes:
over the shoulder
now the wave
of the improbable
drains from the beaches the heart of the hollow
tree singing bird note bird rustle we live now
in dreams all
How often in this poetry the names protrude, “Russel,” “Wright,” “Mary,” “Small,” persistent bumps of desire and local sensation. Although the narrative of Job tells us that Oppen stopped writing between 1934 and 1958, one recalls that Mary Oppen stopped writing upon her marriage to George and did not take it up again until 1971 (or 1972).9 “We,” the rootless subjects of this discourse, are constantly being consumed or subsumed by an outside force, to become its objects, in part precisely because we are so delectable, tempting. When I read Meaning A Life I am always struck by the passage where Mary tells us that, in years of hitchhiking across Depression America, she never met another girl doing likewise. It's hard to gauge the exact degree of ingenuousness here, but if you were the only girl in the world, you'd certainly feel feckless, brave, a queen, the sexual core of your person free from annoyances. And your boyfriend or whatever would certainly seem like a true chevalier. No wonder that, as one critic notes, the automobile “appears in [Oppen's] work with the frequency, and is treated with the virulency, of wicked step-mothers in Grimm's fairy tales.”10 That's because if you're a hitchhiker you have a peculiar love/hate relationship with the car that delivers and abandons you. As Williams pointed out (and Oppen echoes), the “pure products of America go crazy,” and this progress, colored by slippage, moves into sexuality in any number of different ways; when you're a man you eat slime not only because you eat everything, but because your oral and anal nerves are so developed; you have a center, your mouth, another center, your anus, with none of the reassurance that word usually denotes, a centre of the unbearable. In 1950 federal agents start snooping around the trailer park, the Chinese enter the Korean War—these are the final, terrifying peristaltic convulsions by which the USA at last expels, excretes, George and Mary, and Linda, with jet propulsion, out of the States and into Mexico City. Kristeva: “Writing causes the subject who ventures in it to confront an archaic authority, on the nether side of the proper Name.”
To be talented in America is to be vulnerable, then despised; to be admired is to be humiliated; to give off sexual confidence is to provide spoor for one's enemies. To have a body is to watch it decay, leak. Your poetry is young and old at the same time, so is your hand. From the shadows of the witch hunt a victim steps forth proudly, goes back to writing. Think of the narrative of the French partisan who, knowing he'll be taken by the Nazis, drives his bike deliberately into a tree to crush himself, to turn his body into its parts. The machine and the flesh, a kind of cold sundae. We know who we are by knowing we are not the other, as Mary Oppen identifies herself and George by contrasting them to Russel and Mary Wright; later, to Louis and Celia Zukofsky. In Meaning A Life, Zukofsky's an enigmatic figure from the beginning, an “extreme elegante,” rather effete, a man who has abandoned his own accent to speak in the cultivated strains of John Dewey, of all people. In fact he speaks, like, twelve languages, a fact suspicious of itself. Later he compounds his foreignness, his Otherness, by marrying the abhorred Celia Thaew. Sooner he should have married Lorine Niedecker, who appears in Mary Oppen's memoirs as this dumb cute country girl who doesn't know how to get out of the subway. But Louis and Celia compound the nightmarish qualities of each other: one is more snobbish than the other, as when Celia meets a Jewish man in the courtyard of a California motel and introduces her traveling party: “My husband, my son Paul, George Oppen a friend, and Mary who is not one of us.”—i.e., not Jewish. Mary says briefly: “My expectation of having Celia as a friend disappeared.”11 This traumatic snap—the rush into traffic—as an analogue of the Oppens' expulsion from Paradise—a Paradise closer to a surrealist Hell. Cruel, powerful, Iago-like, Celia replicates a figure familiar to readers of Meaning A Life —she is one of a Legion who try to make Mary feel she is “not one of us,” who try to separate her from George in a test of identity. Ezra Pound insists on seeing George by himself, but the young lovers resist valiantly, as in one of the 30's homosexual melodramas, inspired by Proust and James, in which a sinister older man tries to lure the straight boy to himself by promising powers and pleasures if he'll leave the female love interest (think of “The Green Bay Tree,” or of Cukor's “Camille.”). “There were two of us,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis reports the Oppens telling her, “and in Pound there was no feminine.”12 Language tears the body to pieces, as you or I might tear a dinner roll, to recompose the anagogical significance of Christ's wounds.
All of these tropes—the fantasia of exclusion, the “bird's world” of the dead clown, the thwarted sympathy and attraction to the object, and the permeable walls—are conflated in a late poem—and why not? Do they not duplicate terms, at least different stages in one ritual movement?
The man is old and—
Out of scale
Sitting in the rank grass. The fact is
It is not his world. Tho it holds
The machine which has so long sustained him,
The plumbing, sidewalks, the roads
And the objects
He has owned and remembers.
He thinks of murders and torture
In the German cellars
And the resistance of heroes
Picturing the concrete walls.
(“Seated Man,” This In Which)
Okay, there is the suffering (“murders and torture”) in the cellar, the man sitting in the grass, the departure from scale which frightens, as it does in Alice and as it does in science fiction. Here is the body as machine, as plumbing, as receptor and conveyor. Here is the collector (“the objects/ He has owned and remembers”). I go back to the scene in Mary Oppen's memoirs: the Wrights and the Oppens in the hall of mirrors—laughing at their images—You all know enough about Jacques Lacan to realize that this development, the successful completion of the “mirror stage” is a critical one for the child, yet it's a woebegone triumph, since at the first anxiety, the first aggression, one's body explodes as though it had never cohered. “The subject disintegrates” if looked at in the mirror a minute too long.
The knowledge not of sorrow, you were
saying, but of boredom
Is—aside from reading speaking
Of what, Maude Blessingbourne it was,
wished to know when, having risen,
“approached the window as if to see
what really was going on:”
And saw rain falling, in the distance
The road clear from her past the window-
Of the world, weather-swept, with which
one shares the century.
(“Prologue,” Discrete Series)
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!”
back to issue three
1 “A Narrative,” George Oppen, “This In Which” , Collected Poems (New York: New Directions), 1975, p. 137
2 Jacques Lacan, ““La Psychanalyse et son enseignement,” Les Ecrits, p. 458.
3 Catherine Clement, The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press), 1983, p. 91.
4 Clement, p. 142.
5 Eric Mottram, “The Political Responsibilities of the Poet: George Oppen,” George Oppen Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, Inc), 1981, p. 164
6 “She lies, hip high, . . .” George Oppen, “Discrete Series” , Collected Poems (New York: New Directions), 1975, p. 9
7 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press), 1982, pg. 191
8 Jack Spicer, “Radar: A Postscript for Marianne Moore” (After Lorca, 1957), The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, ed. Robin Blaser (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press), 1975, pg. 52.
9 Mary Oppen, Meaning A Life (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press), 1978, p. 71.
10 Vann Lovelock, “In the Interstices of Indra's Net: A Setting for the Poetry of George Oppen,” Not Comforts//But Vision: Essays on the Poetry of George Oppen (Budleigh Salterton [Devon], UK: Interim Press), 1985, pg. 72.
11 Mary Oppen, Meaning A Life (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press), 1978, p. 207.
12 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision,” George Oppen Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, Inc), 1981, p. 164
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