Tag Archives: Oppen

The Narrative of Oppen’s “A Narrative”

Of the many kinds of poetry, there should be a name for those that resist paraphrase, gloss and interpretation. These poems are born of a Modern aesthetic, perhaps … or at least to an anxious aesthetic, one in which the poets or their readers worry about distinctions, about what separates poetry from prose or the poetic from the prosaic. Plenty of poems were written by design to resist; others are just too damn good to be subjected to exposition. Of these, I would include George Oppen’s “A Narrative”. I am tempted to re-type the entire poem here, all eleven sections, and end this note with the poem’s last lines. But that will not work. I write here to remember, not to conquer, the poems I admire … or, in other words, and (conveniently) to quote from the poem: “we / Dwindle, but that I have forgotten / Tortures me.”

Here I will attempt to answer a simple question: What is the narrative of “A Narrative”?

The poem is not, I believe, itself a narrative. Nor is it truly about any particular “narrative”; that is, the poem does not expound on (for example) a creation narrative. Instead, the poem addresses the search for and the makings of narratives. We need them, or we feel that we do, but they are unreliable. At worst, our narratives are lies, at best (and not much better) they are built on “the fallacy / Of words”. A narrative self-told detaches us from the substantial, from a place, and launches the person into a self-referential hell. We may not like our place, our substantial existence, but to reject it (even for something apparently more permanent), is to reject Love and life itself.

What breath there is
In the rib cage we must draw
From the dimensions

Surrounding, whether or not we are lost
And choke on words.

Finding a place or reconciling oneself to a life lived in a river of substance, a river in which we are but as silt “flowing / To no imaginable sea”, allows us to reclaim our language. It gives us a foundation on which to be honest. It is from “the open / Miracle / … / Of place” that we can speak and live with “clarity” and “respect”.

And so, this is the narrative of “A Narrative”: the poet wishes to tell the truth, but while the truth is hard, the telling is harder; where does one begin, if not with this river, this body of dust passing us by?

George Oppen’s “A Narrative” (from his book This in Which) can be found in:

George Oppen. The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New York: New Directions, 1976. 132-140. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/123096380

A recording of Oppen reading “A Narrative” followed by other poems is available from PennSound at:  PennSound: George Oppen | MP3

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.

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.

Remembering Oppen: Image of the Engine

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

That stops.

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)

Remembering Oppen

No. I don’t really remember him, but I’m old enough to forget the good (if not great) poems that I have read. This is a feeble effort, therefore, to ensure that I remember a few more in these (middle?) years. I recently gave six months to limping through The Collected Poems of George Oppen (New Directions, 1976) and I do not want to forget what I found there. I made a few passes and marked the poems … as if guessing which might be most memorable. Gradually, I narrowed a list of 20-or-more poems down to three, or maybe five. It wasn’t easy going, as many were good. On the other hand, many left me flat. Oppen’s later poems were not enjoyable–they’re exercises, precise and beautiful (in a way), but exercises nonetheless. Careful studies in pacing the fragment and testing breaks in syntax. But then, that is what Oppen excels at even in his earlier, more coherent poems. It’s as if he took his gift and honed all the approachable, humble edges off to leave his readers with shining plates of steel. Not-so-curiously, much of the imagery, theme, and content of the early poems remains in the later, nearly impenetrable shields. Don’t get me wrong, the later poems are good (perhaps even “masterful” — whatever that is; see: “Myth of the Blaze” or “The Little Pin: Fragment” or any of the numerous sections of “Of Being Numerous”), but they’re just not the kind of thing you want to spend time trying to recall.

Or so, the above makes the excuse for why I have gravitated toward a few poems from the earlier books: “Image of the Engine” and “Return” from The Materials (1962), and “A Narrative” from This in Which (1965). However, to be honest with myself –no one else reads this blog, right?– there are others that I am likely to remember too. I worry that I have let the brain and the ego interfere and I have chosen these because they are just beyond comprehension, and thus, trying to read and re-read them makes me feel smarter. I should probably shoot for something easier as I’m likely to get dumber as the years go by. The following poems were all arresting, surprising little jewels of imagery. I recall them now (at the sight of their titles) like clever tricks on the eye, visual fables built with words: “Workman”, “From a Photograph”, “The Tugs of Hull”, and maybe “Sunnyside Child”–all, not-so-incidentally, from The Materials (1962). Of these, “Workman” is the strangest–and somehow flawed, maybe a mixed metaphor–but it makes me want to go outside and stare at the roof lines in the neighborhood and re-looking at the world is always a good thing, a hopeful act of living.


Leaving the house each dawn I see the hawk
Flagrant over the driveway. In his claws
That dot, that comma
Is the broken animal: the dangling small beast knows
The burden he is: he has touched
The hawk’s drab feathers. But the carpenter’s is a culture
Of fitting, of firm dimensions,
Of post and lintel. Quietly the roof lies
That the carpenter has finished. The sea birds circle
The beaches and cry in their own way,
The innumerable sea birds, their beaks and their wings
Over the beaches and the sea’s glitter.

(George Oppen, The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New Directions, 1975. p. 41)

If I am diligent (and I am not) I will share my thoughts on my-three-Oppen poems to remember in one blog post per poem. Let’s agree that I’ll finish this self-imposed task by August–you pick the year. (April 1, 2009)