Listen to Mary

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.

Just a name

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?