Oppen in Lumps and Chunks

A year ago I promised to write about the final section of George Oppen’s poem “Image of the Engine” (See: Remembering Oppen: Image of the Engine). I had put it off because I was flummoxed. I’m still flummoxed, but a year is too long to keep a promise. At its core, the “Image of the Engine” is a poem about life (or, to be more precise: dying … but, some would say that life is about dying). While the engine might be thought of as the body (or, in the first section, as the heart), the image could be understood as the “soul”. I am, although a Christian, uncomfortable with the vocabulary of the “soul”. When believers toss around the Greek verbiage of metaphysics, I’m wary that they have little certainty of what they are doing. What exactly is the soul, the spirit, the mind, the heart? Conveniently, for my notions, Oppen too dodges the issue; he describes the entity as “A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension”. But that is the end of the first section, and I have promised to write about the concluding, fifth, section.

In the fifth section, Oppen begins with the italicized portion of this quotation from Ecclesiastes: He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart[s], so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end (3:11 KJV). Although not entirely against the grain of the text it was taken from, this is an appropriation, not a commentary. Oppen snatches the verse to be used (with its connotations) for his own ends. It is an appropriate appropriation.

While acknowledging the engine, the body, the limits of life, the poem turns to desire. A kind of fuel, that foolishness which inflames the young, the desire for company (which also will end) keeps the engine running. (In the second section, Oppen suggests that we would not live without this fuel: “I know that no one would live out / Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending / With his life”.) But facing death (or ignoring it, or blind to it?), every generation goes out and seeks this companionship “like children, seeking love / At last among each other”.

Fuel, however, is spent and spending is expense and, like nothing else, desire is expensive. “Even the beautiful bony children” leave behind a grimy pile of detritus–rubble, commerce, death.

As I write this my autistic son … will he ever “go” out? what would he seek, companions? My autistic son views and reviews, cycles through a School House Rock video about the carbon foot print. The kid in the cartoon learns his lesson, in part, by eyeing the size of the actual “carbon” foot prints he tracks across the screen. They grow larger or smaller to reflect his various rates of consumption. The diddy urges: Don’t be a carbon sasquatch. Desire, sexual selection, meeting and mating, and what we leave behind: our grimy prints and at great expense.

Vanity. As the engine, as our engines, all, everyone of us, gurgle along, heading to a final stop, the poet weighs the vanity. In great lumps and chunks, vanity. And were are locked out, locked out of a more sensible way. The world is set in our hearts:

In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:
Earth, water, the tremendous
Surface, the heart thundering
Absolute desire.


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