Oppen’s “Return”

As I promised many months ago, I am remembering the poetry of George Oppen again. This week I am returning to his poem “Return“. I marked the poem as one I would want to read (now and then) for many years. I was pleased to discover, therefore, a comment by George’s wife (an artist and writer) in which she speaks for a poetry that will sustain re-readings:

So you see that if there’s a lot in it of course it’s hard to understand on first reading. But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that’s most important to me is poetry that’s been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it. So it’s kind of inconsequential, the criticism that it’s difficult. (Oppen, Mary, and Dennis Young. 1988. Conversation with Mary Oppen. The Iowa Review 18, no. 3 (Fall): 18-47. http://www.jstor.org/pss/20152767)

So, with Mary’s implicit support (she died in 1990), I’ll confess I do not understand (as is often the case) this poem. In fact, writing about poetry is a constant reminder of how little I understand of the poems I read. With this poem, I struggle to identify the pronouns (Who cannot be “reconciled” to whom? What is the “it” of “how imagine it”?), to piece together the syntax, to locate the particulars (Who is Petra? And in what place and time? In what context does she beat the sound of relief on her washpan?)

All the same, I marked “Return” for future readings. What was it, in the face of such limited knowledge of what I was reading, that earned my attention?

The familiar.

For the poetry reader (if not always for the poet too) the familiar leads, gives the reader an entry or a safe place, a seeming firm cognition on which to build a reading. In this poem, I found my own familiars, those simple moments of recognition that are in themselves worth remembering, worth returning.

First, the opening scene. In opposition to “the earth” (an allusion to Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, but also the clay of all creation), the poem opens with the image of asphalt from a moving vehicle, the landscape blurred, the drone of commerce. Although this might have been the return trip from the Oppens’ exile in Mexico (communists in the McCarthy era, the Oppens had left town), my own mental stock of particulars recalls long childhood car trips to Arkansas, the hypnotic and absolute boredom of the passing rows and rows of soybeans and rice.

And next, the sequoia. What child or adult has not looked on the trunk of a great tree in wonder? How is it that the massive, rooted wood rises? And when a great tree descends, does the compost equal the soil it borrowed to ascend so wide and high?

Also, the poet’s daughter’s encounter with the horse. Although Linda’s “welcome” is central to the poem, perhaps the center focus of the poem, I am more drawn to the contrast, the empty blocks, remote mechanics, razed buildings, the “city gone”. The concluding heaviness of human architecture devoid of the living haunts the page:

Of streets boarded and vacant where no time will hatch
Now chairs and walls,
Floors, roofs, the joists and beams,
The woodwork, window sills
In sun in a great weight of brick.

Here the familiar is one of opposites (mostly), the stark sadness of vacancy. Empty buildings memorialize failed expectations, mark lost life. Although not everyone knows whole blocks of a ghost town, we all live with (or walk into and out of) vacancies.

After the familiar, which is to say: after four days in which I read nothing else other than “Return”, I have begun to appreciate (not “comprehend”) the pacing, the transitions. The second sentence, the blurred Sunday drive, is itself a remarkable transition. As the landscape passing by the car window blurs, so do subject and predicate. I have never written a sentence that is at once so awkward and so skillfully exact:

But we drive
A Sunday paradise
Of parkway, trees flow into trees and the grass
Like water by the very asphalt crown
And summit of things
In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess.

Where do we focus our attention in this sentence? “[W]e drive”? “[O]we”? “”[F]low”? The asphalt crown? “[W]e possess”? I have read this sentence so many times and each time I think I have it under my thumb, but it slips away … like “the dim / Sound of the living”.

Finally, I also admire Oppen’s interruptions and overlapping parenthetical phrases, marked in the poem by dashes. “Return” includes these with seeming abandon, but they do not (as they would in a lesser poet’s work) indicate mere sudden changes, or a lost train of thought. Rather, what Oppen drops, he picks up again and drops and picks up again. In fact, at times, the “pick ups” are interwoven. Similar to a book with alternate beginnings and alternate endings, interchangeable and inseparable.

The first parenthetical begins after the line “From the ground together—” with “And we saw the seed,” but where does the initial thought complete itself? I think it resumes with the first line of the last stanza: “Whatever—whatever—remote”. If so, this is the only true interruption, the only true abrupt shift of the mind in the poem. The other, nested and overlapping, parenthetical phrases are shorter. The second phrase, ending with “Stood in the room without soil—” is interrupted by sixteen lines; lines which are in turn interrupted by (beginning with “A sap in the limbs”) the five concluding lines of the first parenthetical. This resumed expression is likewise severed by the second parenthetical rekindled. Therefore, one might read (coherently): “Beyond the streets of the living— …  / … —we had camped in scrub”. Similarly, “A sap in the limbs” resumes from “Stood in the room without soil—” and (now that I write about it) also the first thought. One might read, therefore: “No one is reconciled, tho we spring / From the ground together— / … / A sap in the limbs”.

“Return” is a very slippery and, yet, elegant poem. Although I may never hold it in one coherent piece in the mind, I will be reading it.


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