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banality

I came by Oppen in 1979 via the wonderful–to my way of thinking–historically significant anthology, A Geography of Poets. I remember liking his poem, “Street” and memorizing it, then going no further. I was never one to devour poets (except Roethke, Williams, Stevens, and, weirdly, May Swenson). I preferred anthologies where, if the editor was wise, you would begin to hear the poems holding court and having a conversation with each other. I knew all the chestnuts by Frost, the major poems of Dylan Thomas, the typical schmeer of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Donne, Byron, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on and so forth, but I was never as interested in poets as in certain poems: “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” the Dickinson poem that begins “I dreaded that first robin so,” Dylan Thomas’ “The Boy’s of Summer” and so on. Roethke, Stevens, Williams, Yeats, and Swenson I devoured. Later in 1979, I would devour Robert Francis, and through him, return to Frost, but I was not, by nature or inclination, a fan. Williams pleased me because I saw in him the struggle, sometime hysterical, yet valiant struggle between being experimental and reconciling it with the banality of the local–a poet who was always in flux as he stayed put, who could not settle down and would do something striking and to my way of thinking, the one thing a great or significant poet must do: blaspheme against all good taste and the temptation to be competent at all times. He wasn’t afraid to fall on his ass. Stevens just knew how to sound definitive and to play with ideas the way others play with images: not as philosophy (you’ll find most of his ideas already in Pater and George Santayana) but as decor–an amazing feat no one has equaled.

But on to Oppen: I memorized “Street,” and would recite it to myself sometimes as I walked to my job as a night shift security guard at Elizabeth General hospital (now Trinitas). It was a rough neighborhood then and the poem settled me down, distracted me from hyepr- alert. I was never mugged or attacked, but once I stopped a man from beating his girlfriend (near the hospital), and something told me it wasn’t over. I called the cops, and they came and intercepted the guy just before he walked to my guard house station and blew my head off with a shotgun. If you don’t die you, fall half in love with the adrenaline rush of almost getting killed. At any rate, I walked two miles to work each night and saw the little girls who expected to be so good in Oppen’s poem. They were gangly, and wise-assed and in love with silent, brooding, beautiful boys who would probably either die before age 25 or live to grow fat and poor and sad on some broken down porch stoop. They would get the girls pregnant and not stick around, or come around occasionally. The economy would cut their balls off, and the girls would raise the kid or kids with their mother, and the cycle would repeat itself in all the languor and temporary rush of summer in places like Elizabeth, and Jersey City, and Paterson. So let me write out that Oppen poem before I get to the one I’m going to wrestle with:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor–
Bergen street.
Humiliation,
Hardship…
Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want
An end of poverty
As much as anyone
For the sake of intelligence,
“the conquest of existence”–
It has been said, and is true–
And this is real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,
The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good…

One night at the hospital, after the infamous Elizabeth chemical fire, a little girl was brought in with 3rd degree burns over 80 percent of her body. She was in shock. She was talking. Third degree burns do not hurt until they begin to heal and then they are a pain so unimaginable that coma must be induced, and sometimes, even in a coma, the person whimpers in pain. She looked at me and my partner, Kenny and said: “Don’t worry, misters. I’ll be alright.” We must have looked–not horrified, but stunned out of all thought, all speech. Kenny instinctively reached for her hand, and her flesh sloughed off in his. We both cried. We were supposed to be tough enforcers of security. I was 20 or 21. Kenny was 18. Both of us had grown up in tough neighborhoods, but here was this kid who was obviously not going to make it, trying to console us. She died two days later. The chemicals were the compliments of crooked dumping deals between politicians and organized crime who, as we all know, love kids and give them free turkeys and fireworks every year (in addition to dumping chemicals that cause cancer in their neighborhoods and which burned this little girl to death). That morning I walked home reciting Oppen’s poem to myself, and I could not wear out the truth of it, or stop the overwhelming sense of grief and anger I felt, but also awe–awe at the child’s calm, her soft little voice, poor Kenny’s deep animal moan when her flesh sloughed off in his hand.

Oppen is a hero to many for various reasons: his integrity as poet (poetry defined by Oppen as “a rigorous test of sincerity”), his use of fragmentation, of the object and word as counterpoint, his stripped down line, his pre-minimalist economy, his politics, his courage, mostly–his freeing up of the line from the tyranny of the sentence–words as singular being, words allowed both to relate and to isolate, to be both a schema of meaning and a schema of thingness.

No one gives Oppen enough credit as a rhetorician for they believe he is the opposite of that, but being at the extreme other end, one might make a case for his poems being caught in the intimacy of opposing realms (what Holderlin spoke of). Many apply Heidegger to Oppen, especially insofar as one takes the statement “Poetry drinks at the waters of silence” seriously. I next encountered Oppen while monitoring a class by Mark Rudman called “Modern Poetry and How it Got there.” Rudman could be a bit of a snot ass, but he picked some interesting poets: Williams, Oppen, Lowell, Berryman, and Jabez. We spent the most time on the book of questions and “Of Mere Being.” Oppen was hot in 1992. Just 25 years before, although he had come back after a long exile and silence, he was excluded from such an otherwise general yet comprehensive primer on modern American poetry as Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us. But I am stalling. Let’s speak of Oppen as master of fractal rhetoric:

The People the People

For love we all go
To that mountain
of human flesh
which exists
And is incapable
of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–we said once
She was beautiful for she was
Suffering
and beautiful. She was more ambitious
Than we knew
Of wealth
and more ruthless–speaking
Still in that image–we will never be free
Again from the knowledge
of that hatred
And that huge contempt. Will she not rot
Without us and die
In childbed leaving
Monstrous issue–

Oppen’s standard rhetorical operating procedure is fully at work in this poem: the use of amphiboly, the interruption of sentence flow, the haltingly and the not quite uttered statement, the fragment, modified variants of anacoluthean in which the dash works as if one began to say something then abruptly abandoned it to say something else (but it is more along the musical lines of a false cadence, which then “resolves” oddly enough, through its digressions). Like Creeley, Oppen is a master rhetorician of the nearly articulated–the “shifting said.” The best effects achieved by this technique is that the prison of the just so, the “that’s it” is avoided, yet one is left to wander about the provisional landscape of fragments, interruptions, odds and ends that may or may not be “it” at all. Such deliberate and rigorous refusal to adopt the traditional clarity of sentence and line integrity is something the Objectivists bequeathed to language poets. The authority of such a shifting articulation derives from the integrity with which it resists the florid, uses minimal forces to maximize ambiguity and suggestion. All poets that resist utterance in terms of definitive statement are “pure” rhetoricians. They are engaging utterance for its own sake, as if the speech had wandered off from the speaker and had begun living its own life. All the halts and stops and starts, the dash marks, the grammatical incongruity are the performed texts of a ghost rhetoric–a speechifying whose purpose is not persuasion so much as process. It is the process of utterance that provides the “rigorous” test of sincerity for Oppens poetics. Let’s look closer:

For love we all go
to that mountain
Of human flesh
Which is incapable
Of love and which we saw
In the image
Of a woman–

Note the reversal at the opening: not, “We all go for love”, but, ” For love, we all go. The only image is actually a rather hackneyed figure of speech: “mountain of human flesh.” Take it out and the poem would read: For love we all go to that which is incapable of love.” An aphorism, and more so, an opening rhetorical gambit, but I insist it is more “pure rhetoric” than functional rhetoric insofar as it borrows an opening gambit and then does not follow through (at least not directly). Oppens’ mission is not to persuade, but to perform the process of someone attempting to enter speech, the difficulty of entering fully into declaration, the constant re-entering, the false start, the The statement, and it is statement is cut off, and either the people or love is then personified as a woman who was beautiful and beautiful because she was “Sad and beautiful” This is a strange statement. Take out the word sad and it would read “she was beautiful because she was beautiful. Sad has a power of earnestness, I suppose, it allows beauty to pass the rigorous test of sincerity, but, lo and behold, this “Woman” turned out to like things and money much more than she let in–she was, in a sense lacking all sincerity. If she is the people, then Oppen is suggesting this abstraction is distorted and must be corrected, and seen for what it is: a lie, a thing which one turns to for love and which is incapable of love. Oppen is completely rhetorical, for all his tricks of fragmentation. He has embraced and mastered the rhetoric of process–the poem as a thing, a well made thing put together with fragments, with sometimes defective parts. If you look at these parts: mountain of flesh, the people as a deceiving woman…they ain’t exactly profound, but what gives the poem power and validity is the rhetorical performance of process–Oppen’s willingness to join, and attach, and hammer and nail, and, taking shards of shattered sense, make windows of high seriousness. Look at the ending, its grammatical ambiguity:

will she not rot
without us and die
in childbed leaving
monstrous issue–

And the silence of ending interrupts the verbal end, and where’s the question mark? Without, there’s far more possible meanings: it could be an imperative urging the reader to “Will she not rot without us.” Oppen calls for the reader to create the house for which he builds the scaffold. Into that scaffold, much can be made (and lost).