This one may take some time to mature, my reading of the poem. The first four parts register well enough, although I question the challenge (almost an accusation) in part two:
I know that no one would live out
Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending
With his life.
Of course, Oppen would probably want us to object, so I will be a resistant reader and not bear too long in this direction. Still, I think it is an optimistic statement. One that views the human as not-so-selfish, the human as essentially co-dependent … living for others and not merely for the self. Or, even, finding the reason for living in the assurance that others will benefit from the life lived.
But let me re-begin with the hooks, those parts of the poem that won me over and have me returning for future readings. The accusation (above) is one, to be sure, but also the first and fourth sections. Except for the ship imagery and the eyes (and perhaps the compression of the form, closing in on itself, as do the wings of the bird), the fourth section seems somehow out of place. It’s not a machine sputtering to a stop, nor is it the human heart, nor is it an ending relationship, but rather a bird watching a ship sink:
On that water
Grey with morning
The gull will fold its wings
And sit. And with its two eyes
There as much as anything
Can watch a ship and all its hallways
And all companions sink.
The hook here, the thing that brings me back, is the truth of it (I suppose). The idea that the gull very well would do this and what else would we have it do? This cold separation between the human world of companions and the gull bobbing on the sea. There’s even a bit a beauty to it (for us humans, wracked by love), a reassurance that something will go on without concern, will persist in its helpless (to us) normalcy. Bobbing on the sea.
I was also snared by the opening section, from which the poem builds the primary metaphor and most accurately reflects its title. A little steam cloud, a soul, is imagined to rise above the engine when it finally clanks and rattles to a stop:
There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,
A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension.
After the preceding fourteen lines, this visionary and metaphysical conclusion is well earned. It is paid for, in part, by repetition, a skill I have not mastered and have for the most-part avoided or else adopted by error. (Oppen uses repetition in the fifth section as well—on the word “stores”, ending three consecutive lines, but I will address that section in a later post.) The repeating use of “compression” builds a rhyme for the ending “comprehension”. Likewise, the quadrupled-up “stopped/stopping/stopped” and the doubled-up “imagine” slows the reader down enough for the grand concluding lines (above)—all giving a sense that the poem itself might have been “squeezed from the cooling steel”.
This is, the second section tells us, our definition of mortality, when the:
Hot lump of a machine
Geared in the loose mechanics of the world with the valves jumping
And the heavy frenzy of the pistons. When the thing stops,
Is stopped, with the last slow cough ….
In short, we know mortality, or understand it as:
The image of the engine
Oppen informs us that we cannot live on this definition, this image, but (of course) we do. We live and die on this engine, on this machine, in this world … with or without our loved ones walking (beyond the glass) in the misty gardens. And the gull folds its wings and watches with two uncaring eyes, our companionships, our desires, our “embarkations” (think Donne and Shakespeare) come to an end. A gull bobbing in the gray sea.
But I’ll stop here, one section short. The fifth section begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “Also he has set the world in their hearts.” This one will take some time. I am saving it for when I am better armed. Ah, vanity! (May 24, 2009)