Monday, July 28, 2008

 

There are two books tucked into Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Green and Gray, which came out last year from the University of California Press. Not in the sense of there being two poetic sequences within its pages (one Green, the other Gray), the way I published Non and Oz together as a single volume N/O, but rather an outer volume, one that’s often visible at the surface, and an inner book, which is the one I’m really interested in.

The outer volume might be characterized as a Zukofskian register: upper limit John Ashbery, lower limit Michael Palmer, two influences who never are very far from things here. Palmer goes so far as to contribute a blurb to the UC Press website for the book, and O’Brien, no surprise, has written critically on both. I don’t think of Palmer & Ashbery being that compatible within the same poetics – both are masters of indirection, but they use it to such different purposes. Palmer seems always to be seeking the chiseled edge of beauty, or a certain kind of beauty, where Ashbery on the other hand often feels far more content to be in the process, really in the process, which can sometimes feel like swimming beneath the surface of a sea composed of oatmeal, only prettier. Very few hard edges there.

But the Geoffrey G. O’Brien that fascinates me isn’t either of those gents, but this third one who comes through, as in the poem “Ur”:

I saw the only man there is
walking home across a stage
Pushed to do so
Coming home from someplace else
as though inheriting
lights coming on over doors
Looking with the sense of having been
put there on purpose to survive
to be equal to a turning point
where something else was
where it was thick and now
the sense of no one following
Future perfect purple-brown
of twilight both ahead and behind
I saw the obvious houses
neither following nor stopping dead
the yield of a place in departure
curves of trees across the stage
The nature we were taught of
shadow of a magnet on the grass
some thing will soon disappear
the grass in the middle of its flight
from thought to neglect
returning again when needed
Doubtless to return again
I walked home across a stage
like weather beginning to
and here where myself in the distance
where apparitions and obligations
and a sense of being extended as
and in the depths of exchanges like changes
stories of the marketplace
audible worlds and their urns
I see a woman who’ll soon disappear
after having her part
in a rhythm like grasses

These longer works of a single stanza – just a hint there of the craft of Ted Greenwald &/or Tom Raworth – evolve & complete themselves in ways quite unlike anyone else. The poem maintains the same conceit – a person walking as tho on a stage, coming home toward sunset – throughout, although the narrative unity here seems not to be the point at all. Nor is it what is seen, exactly, “the only man,” “a woman who’ll soon disappear,” so much as it is how one sees, that internal framing that transforms the phenomenological into a kind of interior art, Future perfect purple-brown. Ashbery shows up here solely as a single twitch, that lapse into the first person plural. The poem is nearly as still as the wind, and what I come away with is an experience of reverie as complete as any I can think of in poetry.

O’Brien’s poems are, at their best, very quiet, even at times bleak. When they sometimes come across more chipper, the tone often feels borrowed, as in “A Word With a Poem Around It:”

Rhythm opposes any instant of itself
so too the tree that dumps itself
over a hedge lives in general time
beyond the concerns implied by sounds,
doesn’t resemble any instant of itself,
can no longer be recognized as
a set of interdependences there run together
to form a forward-facing bust of age.
So too nights induced to be serene
curve around the features, preparing them
to be once more deliberately overheard.
Once again work has been done while you sleep.

That last line slams the door shut as loudly as the signature theme on any segment of Law and Order. Yes, it’s Ashbery, and it doesn’t really contribute anything to the marvelous play between terminal -t and -cies that O’Brien deploys in the first sentence. This is a poem that could be read as tho each sentence were a separate work of art, the first of which is simply fabulous, the latter two almost character portraits, as if to see how compactly one might render such a silhouette of the New York School don. What’s the fewest number of words needed to give an impression of Ashbery that everyone would “get”?

But I don’t care if O’Brien can get it down to a single gesture, the way comics used to “do Groucho” just by flexing their eyebrows while pretending to tap ashes from an invisible cigar. That seems far less interesting than this brooding phenomenologist who’s a master already of the subdued tonal shift. O’Brien is the kind of writer, at his best, who makes you think that a booklength poem that did nothing other than describe the ocean surface off a winter coast could be the greatest thing in the world. And in his hands, it just might be.

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