The romantic glamor

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.”

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.