The recuperative poetry

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.”

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.

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.