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Becoming a patient of history: George Oppen's domesticity and the relocation of politics.


Many of George Oppen's poems that Tin most compelled by now, I first found to be dull or sentimental, doctrinaire or mystifying. Moreover, I found them to be opaque. How is it, I can recall myself thinking, that a poetry committed to the idea of clarity could yield so much interference in its struggle for common sense? But perhaps clarity becomes a privileged poetic value in Oppen's work only to the degree that it can't be separated from its opposite--opacity--much in the way that the familiar can't be cleaved from the strange. Even Oppen's earliest poems arouse this dialectic whereby the most apparent things conceal a fundamental mystification: "Nothing can equal in polish and obscured / origin that dark instrument / A car." These are things "closed in glass" that present "hardly an exterior" (Discrete Series, 1934).

"If the world is matter / It is impenetrable absolutely," Oppen writes in a daybook, suggesting a kind of epistemological finitude, only to continue, "The recognition of impenetrability houses the hope of intelligibility." And again later, "I am speaking of the streets / Tho I know that if the universe is matter / It is impenetrable--." (1) Impenetrable, as in, resistant to language and knowledge. These are formulations that will eventually migrate into the long poem "Of Being Numerous" (1968).

Delivered as the twenty-seventh annual George Oppen Memorial Lecture in Twentieth Century Poetics, sponsored by the San Francisco Poetry Center, on December 11, 2010. While I have faithfully preserved the movement of the talk, I have redacted and expanded some of its sections. I his text is part of a book-length project of the same title.

From sociopolitical concerns organized in the streets to ontological concerns organized in the poems, the dynamic tension between the intelligible and the impenetrable, clarity and opacity, is what concerns me. "The peculiar attributes of words," Oppen writes elsewhere in the daybooks, "is that they spring spontaneously in the mind, they flow continuously in the mind. They provide, it not hope, at least opacity." Words offer no guarantee that things exist, and opacity disrupts the delusion of their transparency. In "Of Being Numerous," we read what might sound like a delayed codicil to this remark: "Because the known and the unknown / Touch." Opposites not only touch in Oppen's work, they persist in and through each other: clear and opaque, intelligible and impenetrable, idea and thing.

Everything I have come to love in Oppen bears the impress of unresolved tensions between these strained values. The quality of these tensions--the way opposing concepts are at once mutually constitutive and irreconcilable--suggests a dialectical approach to lyric poetry and a hallmark of Oppen's verse. And yet, he would deny the dialectic any role in his work as a poet. "NOT A DIALECTIC / BUT VISION," Oppen writes in all caps, as if he needed to shout (SP). Not once, but on at least two occasions Oppen denies the dialectic in his daybook. Perhaps he is insisting on a distinction between ideology and ontology, or between politics and aesthetics, distinctions otherwise difficult to maintain. "I am not displaying a dialectic. I am talking of a vision." Oppen's repeated insistence on vision in opposition to dialectic would seem to ascribe to poetry a linguistic model resistant to the phrasal logic of argument and proposition. At the same time, given Oppen's involvement in the Communist Party in the 1930s, "NOT A DIALECTIC / BUT VISION" declares his distance from a leftist politics that had become contaminated by Stalinism, just as the "dialectic"--a metonym for Marxist materialism--had become haunted by Stalin's appropriation of it as a philosophical alibi for brutality. As if to say, "NOT A STALINIST / BUT A POET."

In fine dialectical fashion, Oppen's most quoted lines from "Of Being Numerous"--"There are things/We live among and to see them / is to know ourselves'"--can be read at once in identical and contradictory ways.

On the one hand, too much hangs on the copula, creating a false identity between seeing and knowing, as if the seeming immediacy of seeing things could open onto self-knowledge without further mediation. Read in this way, the tercet nourishes Oppen's disavowal of the dialectic--vision's bad conscience. The poem can (and should) be read, on the other hand, as affirming a dialectics of seeing in which knowledge of oneself is mediated--at once satisfied and displaced, enabled and blocked--by commodities, images, and events that determine and limit perception, occulting both vision and knowledge. This reading has become crucial to me, especially in the context of our current wars and occupations, as my own poems struggle to respond to the relentless instigation born of Oppen's proposition. What happens, for example, when the things I need to see in order to know myself are bodies reduced to the status of things--ravaged bodies, war-torn bodies, expendable bodies, bodies withdrawn from view, bodies that can't be seen, either in the light of day, or in the glare of mediatized spectacle--bodies whose representations have even been rendered taboo as a matter of state policy? In order to know a self in the place that my body occupies in contemporary geopolitical space, I would need to see these other bodies that I cannot see: bodies incarcerated and corpses withdrawn, the amputated limbs and prostheses of a social organism that is nonetheless of me, in me, for me, and whose organs of sensation have been damaged in their effort to become, in Marx's words, "directly in their practice theoreticians."


The work of Oppen's middle period (1958-1968) registers an intensified postwar biopolitics. A certain gender trouble haunts this work, and it may be inseparable from the deepest concerns moving through the poems themselves--concerns about nature and history, time and politics, what it means to act in the world, and what it means to be acted upon. This dysphoria reveals a crisis of masculinity, and a catastrophe in the very idea of historical agency. Oppen's particular crisis--failure of labor organizing in the thirties, trauma in a foxhole during World War II, political exile in Mexico--gets refracted through a domestication of "manliness" that belongs to a larger rhetoric of containment: nuclear, communist, queer.

These biopolitical struggles underscore what Hannah Arendt refers to as the confounding of the household and polis in The Human Condition--a work published in 1958, the same year that Oppen returned to poetry in earnest after a notorious twenty-five-year hiatus, during which time he sought exile in Mexico to avoid the House Un-American Activities Committee and to raise a family. Arendt's work complements Oppen's concerns, sometimes with uncanny precision. For her, the erosion of the public world has everything to do with the absorption of "the household and housekeeping activities" into the political arena. Arendt identifies the unstable border between the political (public appearance, organization of the common) and the domestic (private survival, care of the self), which allows for the corporate management of private interest as it begins to emerge as the most public of all concerns. One might feel this instability in what Oppen refers to as "a new syntax," with its hesitations and uncertainties, its ellipses and caesurae, and with all its suspended affects and emotions. "If one is to move to experience further one needs a syntax, a new syntax ... a new cadence of disclosure, a new cadence of logic, a new musical cadence A new structure of space.'" (2)

As Oppen pressures and amplifies what he refers to as his political nonavailability, the poetry registers the breakdown of politics itself. His writing often hews to "house" and "home" at a historical moment when the household--oikos, location of economy--becomes indistinguishable from the polis: privatization of the common. To withdraw into the household as a retreat from politics thus returns the domestic subject paradoxically to the embodied site of civic belonging. But "home" is a shape-changer in Oppen's writing marking discrepant sites, from the household to the nation; from domestic enclosure to ontological exposure; from a literal house, where one might be metaphysically homeless, to a metaphorical homeland, whose metaphysics are at odds with material wellbeing.

Relations are estranged at the hearth: "The bonds between things that are--. / Therefore stood in my dark house" (SP).
 I would go home o go home to the rough
 stone become
the turn the cadence the verse and the music the essential
clarity, plain glass, strangest of all places
strange as all places strange as chance ("The Powers") (3) 

Contraries collide. The speaker would go home, if one could only find a way. But where would one go? As if to say "back home," to a place We never seen: what Oppen refers to here as "the stone" "fatal rock," "the nothing place"--is what will have been here after everything is gone, at once ontological anchor and grave (SL). The stone's impenetrability becomes intelligible song as Oppen's most familiar figure of clarity--plain glass--appears inseparable from what is most opaque: "the strangest of all places." Home and stone, liminal beacons of return from multiple exiles: exile as a man of the thirties and exile as a Jew, exile from politics and exile from history.

Despite Oppen's ambivalence to the household and its gendered connotations, the domestic may have been inescapable. This is distilled in a letter to John Crawford (1966):
 I'd talked about the problem of the "T" in
feminine poetry. EVER solved? That we know of, ever?
   Well, to reach outward far enough to produce the pure beauty of
  The moon is down, and the Pleiades
  And I am alone [Sappho]
or that realler distance a New England distance perhaps, and surely a
feminine distance; [feminine] meaning here something like
"domestic": which gives it such impact
... and then
I could not see to see. (Dickinson
But except Emily Dickinson: anyone, really? But if it is to be solved,
it will he solved maybe by distance, by some sense of the distances and
the realities around the "I" -- 

For Oppen, another genre of distance, masculine and undomesticated, would seemingly entitle certain I's to a primary encounter with the world. And yet, Oppen's poetry will converge with household and home where it contracts qualities typically gendered feminine, if only according to default binarisms--receptivity, vulnerability, penetrability--enacting a general condition I call patiency. So what subject would be entitled to occupy the position of such an "I"?

Already in 1959, writing to his friend Julian Zimet, Oppen addresses a gendered aspect of his first new batch of poems: "You think it unmanly to admit?" he asks, referring specifically to his fear of a disaster that may have seemed imminent--nuclear annihilation--as well as to the manner whereby poems like "Time of the Missile" express this emasculation. But while the poems themselves generate weak affects that precipitate "unmanliness"--fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, penetrability--the discursive register of Oppen's ars poetica in the letters overcompensates for this threat posed to more traditional notions of masculinity. By making a "problem" of "the 'I' in feminine poetry," Oppen's work activates a kind of autoimmune response from within--like a prophylactic against his own feminization--and creates a rich tension whereby the writing performs its historical patiency while recrudescing around a newly domesticated normative masculinity. My claim may be cavalier, but as a heuristic, it's useful.

 One must be passive to conceive the truth: The bright and
brutal surfaces of things Awaited the decision of his eyes --W.H. Auden,
"Kairos and Logos" 

Patiency is agency's inverse and complement: to actively become a patient of history is, paradoxically, to will a suspension of an agency that has been already historically suspended. Patiency's mood is one of openness: open to touch, open to penetration. Its grammatical mode is subjunctive, expressing contingency and desire, anticipation and uncertainty. There is also a linguistic patiency in which the grammatical patient denotes the subject of an intransitive verb. Moreover, patiency connotes an affective state of expectancy, whose object itself is suspended within a pathos of distance, whereby the patient fails to grasp her object within hardened structures of command that determine feeling prior to apprehension. "There is the one gap in the mind, the space of the mind, in which everything may be held at arm's length, everything may be seen from outside, and in which the will moves" (SP). Becoming-patient renders one receptive to things unavailable to the false immediacies of common sense.

Patiency implies a form of eros. "Eros--the will--drifts in the oncological" (SP).

The patient can be seized, pierced, touched, leapt upon: "Those who will not look / Tho they feel on their skins / Are not pierced," Oppen writes in the poem "World, World--" (This hi Which, 1965). "'Thought leaps on us' because we are here. That is the fact / of the matter." And in "Alpine," from the same collection, Oppen records a dream of patiency: "The distinctions of what one does / And what is done to him blurrs [sic]." The patient is exposed, vulnerable--perhaps more seen than seeing--as in "The Little Hole," also from This In Which: "Blankly the world / Looks in // And we compose / Colors // And the sense // Of home."

After his participation in the Communist Party and the failure of the Popular Front, after being critically wounded in a foxhole during World War II where he watched his two comrades die, after a period of exile during which time public words had become the lubricant for politics at its worst--a politics that had insinuated itself into the most intimate recess of domestic life in the form of HUAC accusation, testimony, betrayal--after all this, George Oppen becomes a patient of history. His patiency is in part a function of world-historical failure to which he feels accountable--"I suspect I identify myself ... as the enemy the moment I accept some responsibility for the way things are--" (SL). Oppen's patiency persists in an affective state that risks being coded feminine in opposition to a masculine agency that Oppen disavows. "Not some toughness of 'realism,' some manly toughness. ... I am talking of emotion," he writes in "Statement on Poetics" (SP). And yet, that manly toughness--a world-historical masculine agency--had been suspended by a history contemporaneous with Oppen's own, and the risk of his prosody--"a new syntax"--is that it might register this suspension. Henceforth, the hyper-masculine hero (of, say, Olson's or Creeley's poems) contracts the specter of a terminally melancholic gender, where the male subject internalizes and amplifies an identification with something lost. By contrast, Oppen fails to maintain that identification without profound ambivalence, and in dispelling the delusion of manly toughness, his gender performs its own mourning.

 The "Marxism" of Discrete Series is, was fell as,
the struggle against the loss of the commonplace. (SL)
 The materials: the commonplace, which seems to me so far the most
important. Life depends on the meaning of the commonplace. (4) 

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Oppen's struggle against the erosion of the commonplace migrates from the street to the foxhole, from "a girder, still itself among the rubble" (5) to "the rough / stone," from common sense to poem, from history to home. "'The common place,' 'that which we cannot NOT see,' etc, I don't think I've proposed anything but that we commit ourselves to that mystery" (SL). But how can the common place be a mystery, unless it has been somehow mystified? The mystery would therefore be nothing more than a demystified encounter with the world. Oppen's poem "From Disaster" (The Materials, 1962) addresses this question as it traces a path from one kind of catastrophe to another, from "shipwreck" to a "home" that fails to fulfill the promise of its hope:
 Ultimately the air Is bare sunlight where must be found The
lyric valuables. From disaster
 Shipwreck, whole families crawled To the tenements, and there
Survived by what morality Of hope
Which for the sons Ends its metaphysic In small lawns of home. 

The poem moves from common place ("hare sunlight") to a commonplace ("small lawns of home"). The word "disaster" in the third line offers a weak link between divergent possibilities. At first, it would appear to sum up the tercet with its strangely inverted syntax: "Ultimately the air / Is bare sunlight where must be found / The lyric valuables." The lines hang on the simple rhyme air / bare so that the ear tarries for a moment with this open bareness, the emptiness of air, before sunlight displaces it, claiming the bareness as its own. The implausible predication of irreconcilable elements--air and sunlight--exhibits a common bareness, which could be taken as a figure for prelinguistic being, or nothingness. It's as if to say, from this disaster--the bareness of air and sunlight, an elemental blank--we must wrest away lyric's condition of possibility. If one reads "ultimately" as "finally," or "in the end," Oppen arouses the future perfect tense, folding time on itself so that what will have been here after the human history of meaning ends--another disaster echoing the first--will be nothing but air and light. Oppen himself nominates this tense when reflecting on his poem from the same period, "Time of the Missile," again in his letter to Zimet in 1959: "Destruction by the missile would indeed be total defeat and meaninglessness in the future perfect." But the bareness that will have been here cohabitates with what is already with us, here, now, however imperceptible that bareness has become. Its temporality haunts the present tense like a specter from a future separated from us by some unfathomable discontinuity, or crisis, that we must learn how to think--like the logic of capital--it only in order to save ourselves. "Small lawns of home," where "the morality of hope" converges with democracy's midcentury promise of wealth, have come not only to occupy the bare place of air and light but to foreclose even the possibility of perceiving it.

"From Disaster" demystifies a rupture--crisis--in which the present's buying power gets contracted to future labor, which then hardens in the form of a mortgage. And this withdrawal, not only of the air and the light, but of the perceptibility of their common bareness, conditions Oppen's "ultimate" encounter with lyric's material. This is where "lyric valuables" must emerge, wrested away from this always-anterior disaster: erosion of the common place.

But "disaster"--understood first as an ontological crisis--will ultimately be displaced by "shipwreck." Traversing the gulf between stanzas, "shipwreck" transfigures "disaster," both as its spatial substitution and as its temporal effect. In other words, "shipwreck" emerges "from disaster," and with it, the poem finds itself on entirely new ground, that of history itself. As if from some site of prior "disaster," then, whole families found themselves shipwrecked on the shores of America. The metaphysical tenor with which the poem begins thus gives way to social crises of the late nineteenth century, crises that brought the likes of Oppen's family to New York. This historically specific figuration is repeated in Oppen's essay, "The Mind's Own Place" (1963): "The American family histories of the descendents of later immigrants begin typically with men and women who found refuge in the tenements of these shores from political and financial shipwreck" (SP). "Shipwreck" will, of course, more famously emerge again later as the central figure in "Of Being Numerous," where, among other things, it connotes severed relation itself, or total alienation, capturing the failure of precisely the metaphysics that meets its end "in small lawns of home."


For a while, I couldn't imagine writing about George Oppen except by way of poems, so I wrote this:
 Like boys birds leave no hope For anyone to sing or say all
this Isn't real it can't he happening
 Such certainties of doubt we have Fashioned ourselves out of things
Penetrate me like the nail does
Wood the skin secures its rupt Raptures verities time being full
--of what we've failed to make. ("Speculations on George
Oppen's Parousia") (6) 

Oppen's whole body of work may hang on too much recognition of world historical failure, and one's shared responsibility for it. To write about this world, for Oppen, is always also to write about a world he failed to make, the other world that haunts this one.
 But who escapes
Among these riders Of the subway,
They know By now as I know
Failure and the guilt Of failure. ("Of Being Numerous") 

How is one to separate historical failure from personal failure? Oppen can't. But failure, like disaster, is what allows him to write again.

For Oppen, poetry becomes a form of activity where he can continue to assume responsibility for the risk of failure. His is a poetics whose metaphysical inflections are marshaled to compensate or transfigure an incomprehensible loss--the loss of a world--as failure gets metaphorized, mystified, ontologized: "the idea of being," he writes, "hovers over the face of failure" (SP).

"In failing, the words reveal important truths," he writes in a daybook. (7) Indeed, truth itself is an effect of failure, the nonidentity of word and world. Being the active nonexistence of the world we failed to make.

"I cannot cannot write," he writes emphatically in his letters, "about 'a world I never made.'" Oppen believed in a poetry that could register an encounter with "the real"--"something we didn't make" and couldn't make up, something that won't go away when you stop believing in it, something "OUT THERE WHERE I HAVE NEVER BEEN AND CAN NEVER BE," perhaps so far out there as to be outside history at a lime when what the world had inherited as "history" was nothing but history's failure to make a humane world. "Surely language has not created the real, but has made it visible" (SP). And in a letter to Serge Fauchereau in 1966, Oppen tweaks the statement on his realism like this: "realist in that [poetry] is concerned with a fact which it did not create."

At the same time that he refuses to write about a world he never made, Oppen commits himself to an encounter with something that language can't make up. Oppen's realism is thus strung between two irreconcilable poles as it moves from what I failed to make to what I could never have created: "the mineral fact," "the stone universe," "the fatal rock," "what will have been here." This is a realism at once emotional and onto logical: "not some manly toughness," but a kind of speculative realism whose need to encounter something outside of history (failure) converges dialectically with what Oppen refers to in the same letter to Zimet as "the real metaphysics in the Missile": "We didn't make the atom we are made of, but all the rest is subjective."

For Oppen, "the mineral fact"--"something we didn't make"--penetrates the mind while resisting "the figures of elocution, or even of mere assertion" (SL). "The absolutely incomprehensible, which pierces any possible structure of the mind: will not be confined in language," he writes in another daybook. (8) Whatever it is, it is categori cally nonidentical: "The eye looks and we SEE, it floods in on us across the broad grey water to Jersey tangled in the grey air. Penetrating, twisted, hard" (Oppen's italics, SP). This patient encounter with the thing that "floods in" but can't be properly named becomes, for Oppen, constitutive of the poem.

Oppen's patiency--his ambivalence toward autonomy and submission, politics and domesticity--continues to inform a critical tension. On the one hand, there is an encounter with the stone--"the great mineral silence"--an event that the mind will never be prepared for, the desired penetration whereby "the known and the unknown / Touch." On the other hand, there is a very different species of event about which Oppen would remain profoundly troubled throughout the 1960s: the "public event," the spectacular event, be it political, like the HUAC, or cultural, like a "happening": "New arts! Dithyrambic, audience-as-artists!" ("Of Being Numerous").

Oppen's suspicion of the spectacular event has to do with the way one might lose oneself publicly in the interest of status or identity, which is, he writes in a 1967 letter, "ultimately inescapable insofar as status is freedom ... adequate status being obtainable also by attaching oneself to a public event: as, the Beats, the Hippies, or even being young, which is rather public these days."

The public event, whose linguistic modality is inseparable from the language of the HUAC, and whose implications for genuine perception and expression underscore a grave threat by hardened channels of popular transmission--"The constant singing / Of the radios, and the art // Of colored lights"--finds its alternative in Oppen's privileged event of ontological encounter, which turns on figures of penetration and a potentially masochistic trope whose limit would be a kind of self-punishment, or self-mutilation:
 'Without self-mutilation there can be no withdrawing from
our fellows'
 Reading, I mis-read that. I thought: therefore we must accept
I will not answer.
("Untitled," NCP) 

Oppen's punishment for having failed to make a habitable world: to be penetrated by a world he will never have made. One aim of Oppen's poetics is thus to turn penetration into joy, "pure joy / Of the mineral fact" ("Of Being Numerous"). But Oppen is ambivalent about penetration and self-mutilation: unspeakable eros. Becoming-patient, one is never far from this eros, never far from history. Penetration--it could happen in a street, in a foxhole, in a house: any common place where one might suffer the pathos of nonmastery. "To a body anything can happen / Like a brick." ("Blood from the Stone," The Materials).

 as if we'd been pierced by a glance! --Frank O'Hara,

The violence of penetration can't be contained by one's will. "Eros--the will--drifts in the ontological." Oppen's poetics: an erotics of failure, wherein the idea of being drifts, or hovers. Never far from failure's scene, one becomes vulnerable to being touched, pierced: first the skin, then the mind. "Herein somehow is our purpose our purposes // Pierced and Touched" (Oppen's italics, Conjunctions).

Whether by stone or light, one is pierced by what matters in the world, or by the world's matter. First pierced, then touched. History, then metaphysics. Shrapnel, then light. But "the world, if it is matter / Is impenetrable." What, then, might it mean to be penetrated by the impenetrable, by "the naked rock"? What might this feel like? The question may rest on the horizon of Oppen's work, a question and a problem inseparable from the risks of feminization and patiency.

"The search for truth is a passion, not a necessity" (SP). Oppen's passion--inseparable from patiency--begins with a pathos of distance, an attitude toward knowledge that hangs on the ability to distance oneself from the object of encounter--differentiation--so as not to turn it into oneself.

Seeing anything depends on assuming a location--inside a house, before a window--underscoring the vulnerability of perspective and the potential for doubt. But while distance may be necessary in order to point and see--and indeed, such distance is the condition underlying crucial lines like, "There are things / We live among 'and to see them / Is to know ourselves'"--Oppen also seeks to breach this distance, courting its collapse in the veracity of encounter so that one can doubt no longer.

One can feel the high stakes of touch and doubt in the poem "That Land," the third of "Five Poems About Poetry" in This in Which, which foregrounds an idealized figure of masochism and mutilation--Jesus being nailed to the cross--while performing a secularized identification between the lyric subject and the penetrated body.
 Sing like a bird at the open Sky, but no bird Is a man--
 Like the grip Of the Roman hand On his shoulder, the certainties
Of place And of time
Held him, I think With the pain and the casual horror Of the iron and
may have left No hope of doubt
Whereas we have won doubt From the iron itself
And hope in death. So that If a man lived forever he would outlive Hope.
I imagine open sky
Over Gethsemene, Surely it was this sky. 

What does it mean to sing like a bird at the open? It's as if the bird were somehow separate from that expanse and bewildered for having to confront it. But a bird is not a poet, and that alienation from "the open" is more adequate to a description of the human predicament and not the bird's, whose anthropomorphization Oppen immediately corrects, curiously echoing Heidegger in his reading of Parmenides: "Never would it be possible for a stone, no more than for an airplane, to elevate itself toward the sun in jubilation and to move like a lark, which nevertheless does not see the open." (9)

But Oppen's line is enjambed, and "sky" paradoxically doses the open, as if the concrete "sky" had come to rescue the poet-bird from an otherwise terrifying flight into the nothingness at line's end, a flight perhaps inspiring what Oppen would refer to as "metaphysical vertigo." "Sky," as a noun, a finite thing, marks an encounter with matter, a material refuge from the groundlessness of being--"the open"--that otherwise eludes ordinary representations: "the absolutely incomprehensible." In this way, "sky" may be strangely kin to "stone," and an equivalent for "the iron itself," which will replace "sky" in the poem's figural encounter with finitude, only to be displaced again by "the grip / Of the Roman hand."

The poem's first-person singular enters at a distance, reflecting on the fallibility of its own narration--"I think"--while intimating a speculative identification with the "man" under that "open sky" (no longer enjambed) exposed to the infinite and unknown, vulnerable to a hole in sense. In contrast to the bird's flight, the lyric voice imagines "open sky over Gethsemene," whereby the sky assumes its particularity through "the certainties / Of place / And of time." Just as the sky might serve as the ground against which a tree appears as a figure, so too does "the open" become the ground against which the figure "sky" appears in the poem. And, by a critical extension, the sky then becomes the ground against which the infinite might become perceptible.

"Surely infiniteness is the most evident thing in the world," Oppen writes in "Of Being Numerous." But what Oppen desires to encounter may be much less so, for infiniteness, too, needs a ground against which to appear. Only by virtue of its contract with the sky, then, does "the open" become open to its own irrevocability, its impenetrability and intelligibility: the fact that it appears in-finitude.

Strangely, "this sky" achieves its "this-ness" only by way of its correspondence with that sky. The certainty of place and time--the finitude of this--becomes unmoored in an atemporal collapse of distinction, lust as that sky surely was this sky, so too will this sky have been that sky, if only in the future perfect, suggesting a temporal discontinuity--the breach of encounter--lodged at the heart of the present. In other words, for Oppen, what will have been here after we stop doubting it is what is here, right now, haunting the present together with the promise of another future to be born of that breach. This is the sky as common place, the sky we might awaken to upon relinquishing the doubt we have "won."

One can only doubt the material conditions of the world in which one lives if one is removed from the material necessity of making and remaking that world. "Whereas we have won doubt / From the iron itself."

"Impossible to doubt the world," Oppen writes in "Parousia"--the poem following "That Land" and fourth in the sequence--"it can be seen / And because it is irrevocable // It cannot be understood, and I believe that fact is lethal." While the iron can be seen, pain cannot. "The pain and the casual horror / Of the iron"--it "may have left / No hope of doubt." But what is the pain of being pierced, the "casual" horror of being penetrated by a world one might otherwise doubt? Irrevocable materiality of the iron: "mineral fact" that refuses to console, negating whatever hope in transcendence that doubt might otherwise yield. Casual, from the Latin, casu, accident, as in happening by chance, random and contingent.
 To perceive...... Is to stand on the edge recognize contingency (Oppen's
ellipses, SP) 

To be left with "no hope of doubt" may be the closest Oppen comes to "the pure joy / Of the mineral fact." Pierced by the iron, touched by the irrefutable, Oppen moves from history, being that which hurts, to ontology, which can arouse joy or sicken with vertigo, an ambivalence whose inclination hangs on whether one persists in one's dream of agency or concedes one's patiency.

Iron is emblematic of a stage of history, and a metonym for both material and labor: "iron circuits," "iron locomotives," "iron work." Like all material, iron harbors the potential to transform the world. Iron has built a world of wealth, entitlements, and luxury, "A city of the corporations // Glassed / In dreams." This is the same world of iron that, under conditions of increasing entropy, gives us "a girder, still itself among the rubble." What will have been here is presently part of the architecture: the girder, like the sky, this impenetrable common place.

Insofar as we have benefited from iron, we have "won" doubt, and the "hope of doubt," a hope born of the luxury to disbelieve the obdurate matter itself--"the idiot stone," "stone nature"--transformed by the labor that enables "our" victory. This is the luxury to disavow the historical conditions from which we've harvested our yield. We have won hope from our doubt in "the iron itself"--elemental, irrevocable, irrefutable, impenetrable--and our doubt that the iron shares with the stone what will have been here after we are here no longer (like Reznikoff's girder, whose image Oppen himself recalled in a foxhole). "We really have no hope of faith, and hardly a hope of doubt. Therefore, hardly hope" (Oppen's italics, SP).

Doubt, being what moves the finger to touch the wound.

Christian hope is a "hope in death" inseparable from doubt in matter and body. But the theological fantasy of personal eternity cancels out this "hope," for were its promise fulfilled, one would survive the finite condition, historical time, "time of the missile" that conditions the very doubt without which "hope in death" would be meaningless. Put another way, "it a man lived forever he would outlive / Hope," for he would no longer have a part in the making of history.

But perhaps it's only the concept of hope that one outlives, insofar as concepts are, as Theodor Adorno would have it in Negative Dialectics, "moments of the reality that requires their formation." One would outlive hope, in other words, because one would exceed the terms of the reality that requires hope to console ones doubt in what is here--doubt in matter, doubt in history--and doubt in what will have been here after we stop believing in it: the stone. "Nature in her own fierce or solitary, unpiercable [sic] selfhood" (SP).

"I like cars and such," Oppen writes in a letter, "I like them when they re handled beautifully. I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone. The universe---it should excuse me, but I don't like it" (SL).

And so, we've "won" the hope born of doubt: we've wrested away from the iron's elemental materiality the wealth that allows us to suspect the material itself of fraud, or simply allows us the privilege to "not like it." The threshold of that doubt is nothing short of "the pain and the casual horror / Of the iron," which will leave "no hope of doubt" when it pierces the skin, and then the mind. "The pain and the casual horror" of penetration leaves one, not without hope but without the hope born of doubt. By contrast, hope won from doubt becomes synonymous with bad faith. Oppen counts himselfamong the victors who have benefited from a certain comfort by harnessing material wealth, and in doing so have won the luxury to doubt the world, a luxury of which he seeks to unburden himself. The promise of poetry then becomes a kind of hope-against-hope to rescue oneself from the bad faith of good conscience.

Oppen's secular identification with the crucifixion appears now like a strategy whereby punishment and joy converge. This is an encounter with intelligibility: the impenetrability of iron and sky, which pierces the penetrable flesh. To return the material to the body, the body to the material, "That Land" fantasizes a limit case where belief is won through submission to penetration: an encounter with history's finitude beneath the open sky where one submits absolutely to the impenetrable evidence that alone harbors the hope of intelligibility. "That Land" depicts the allegorical scene of a patient encounter. To encounter infiniteness becomes tantamount to being pierced by a figure of finitude.

Turning penetration into joy, this is a poem about poetry.

 Failure, worse failure, nothing seen From prominence, Too much
seen in the ditch.
 Those who will not look Tho they feel on their skins Are not pierced.
--"World, World--" 

In an early draft of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen rephrases the same idea: "The obvious light. // To be unable to watch / Is to be destroyed." One is destroyed if one is unable to watch. One is pierced when one looks. One is never sure what one is seeing, especially when "the bright light of shipwreck" that "discloses ------'all'" emits such glare that one is at risk of being blinded, just as the thing one sees becomes opaque, impenetrable to vision (SI.). "Tho I give no light / But imagine light" (Oppens italics, SP).

"Light is / Like night," writes Louis Zukofsky in "A"-9. It's something Oppen could never have written, but I suspect he may have been afraid that Zukofsky was right.

Oppen's work seeks a common place in which things are not "Glassed / In dreams // And images." But the logic of identity whereby things appear to be one with themselves and their names is a scandal. For Oppen, the common place itself manifests in consciousness in the form of an image: "My proofs' are all images. My proof is the image. 'The common place,' 'that which we cannot NOT see'" (SL). The ambivalent structure of the image resembles that of the event: desired and repelled, depending on whether it functions as an emblem of realism ("a test of sincerity") or as a delusion of media ("glassed / In dreams").

Desperate to avoid the distorted mirror of abstraction that things present to us--especially when those things are commodities, or seen in the bright light of commodities--desperate to avoid the internalization of that distortion in our relations to things and to one another, Oppen's poems of the period nevertheless bear the impress of the spectacle, with all its opacities and derealizations. They bear this impress like the fossil of something withdrawn from view, despite the overwhelming evidence that there are things, and that we can see them in all their dazzling self-evidence. But such evidence may be the effect of deranged sensation. "I light automatically and fiercely against derangement of the senses" (SL).

"I can see nothing at all," Oppen writes in a daybook, "except that one encounters the thing. And, it is impossible not to say, encounters oneself" (SP). Were it not for that "at all," one could take it as a positive assertion, an affirmation, as if to "see nothing"--"bare sunlight"? "the open sky"?--were in fact an achievement. What follows this statement regarding how one "encounters oneself" is more strange: "And encounters in himself the passion of logic which, like the young man's desire to sleep with the latest movie star, is unlikely to be satisfied, but can lead to crimes of violence." More than just a throwaway line, this idea is one that Oppen thought about and rewrote on another occasion, replacing the phrase "the latest movie star" with the proper name "Debbie Reynolds," only to continue: "Tho I am not altogether opposed to crimes of violence, as you must know, since I am not altogether pleased by the idea of standing still. And the logical passion may be unique in this. I mean, young men might still be wishing to sleep with the neolithic Venus, if the matter were left to the less progressive passions."

This note reads like the backstory of "Of Being Numerous." The technique of the self that Oppen promotes--"self-knowledge"--begins to appear as a masculinist fantasy that finds its bathetic resolve (symptom of failure?) in the image of the latest movie star encountered by any young man in fantasy--phanapoeically, under the glare of thrown light. While this desire might amount to a "passion of logic," that young man would encounter nothing, seeing no more than a hole in sense. And although seeing nothing in the form of "air" and "bare sunlight" might be a patient accomplishment, seeing nothing in the form of a spectacular image might lead to a passionate, logical "crime of violence." But what sort of "progressive passions" might lead to crimes of violence?

"NOTA DIALECTIC/BUT VISION." The distinction can't be maintained.

When the word "things" reappears in section 19 of "Of Being Numerous," it is standing in for other violent acts: crimes of war, in Vietnam and elsewhere:
 Now in the helicopters the casual will Is atrocious
 Insanity in high places. It it is true we must do these things We must
cut our throats
The fly in the bottle
Insane, the insane fly
Which, over the city Is the bright light of shipwreck 

"If it is true we must do these things." There is no antecedent for these particular "things" in the poem, and so our attention is rightly drawn back to the poem's incipit--"There are things"--and these things are now things done, and not necessarily things seen. Actions, not objects. And "these things" "we must do" are none other than the things we must see.

Here, again, that troubling word, "casual." "Casual horror." "Casual will."

The problem of vision deepens: if we can't see these things "we do," then we can't know ourselves, except insofar as we've internalized these "crimes of violence," perhaps having even become them. What does it mean that we do these things? And what does it mean that in doing these things "we must cut our throats"? Oppen counts the first person singular of the poem among the agents of these things, these actions. In other words, one is culpable of doing "these things," if only by way of a proxy, or a prosthetic extension of the social body, and one is blind to oneself for not being able to see them. This is anything but reportage. World-historical agency returns here, but in the form of collective participation in unacknowledged events, or events whose form of consensual acknowledgement--the spectacular image--keeps us from acknowledging anything at all, a terrible effect of seeing nothing.

According to Oppen, one mustn't confuse "figures of perception" for "figures of elocution," a distinction he makes in a 1963 letter to Denise Levertov. Whereas Levertov will go on to write in "Life at War" of "the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk / runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies, / transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments, / implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys" (The Sorrow Dance, 1967), Oppen will insist that it's not the poet's wartime vocation to create images to rival photo stills of war crimes. Instead, Oppen wants to encounter the impenetrable opacities in the things he sees--"the images the images / overwhelming earth," as he writes in the poem "Semite"--and to meet those things with the equal and opposite opacity of words. Even the impenetrable thing with all its inscrutable relations houses the hope of intelligibility, and this is what one must see--"an iron mesh, links // Of consequence"--if one is to know oneself ("Of Being Numerous"). And in knowing oneself, one must see these crimes of violence, these holes in sense.

One can't see them with clarity because they cohabitate with every thing we see. "Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series, // The sad marvels," and it may be that these sad marvels create the light by which we see anything at all ("Of Being Numerous"). Oppen is on guard not to be among those of Rimbaud's "Cities," "where savage gentlemen seek distraction beneath the light they make."

The worldly light Oppen needs to see by is so easily confounded with the light emitted by the things he's trying to see, hence the "great bronze figure" set upon the Capitol, "the Genius of Liberty" about which Walt Whitman reports to his mother in a letter dated April 1864, and with which Oppen closes "Of Being Numerous": "The sun when it is nearly down shines on the headpiece and it dazzles and glistens like a big star."

One might seek simple things to see, things that are uncontaminated by the "sad marvels." One might seek to encounter things like sea, sky, hill, house, girder, street. One might seek these things while avowing the risk that one might fail, that one might not see them, or that one might succeed in seeing them, and in doing so, see nothing. One might seek these things modestly in order to reassure oneself that one is here, among them. But one can't always see the thing for the reflection, and everything reflects, "dazzles and glistens." So then one seeks the stone, the mineral fact, the "nothing place," but even these reflect the glare. Nothing can reassure one in the way one needs to be reassured. "The purity of the materials, not theology, but to present / the circumstances," Oppen writes in "Route" (Of Being Numerous), though neither the purity nor the circumstances may be credible.

Still, one might be pierced by the things one can see, and touched by the things one can't.

(1.) / Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Henceforth, SP.

(2.) / Selected Letters, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990). Henceforth, SL.

(3.) / New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2002). Henceforth, NCP.

(4.) / "The Philosophy of the Astonished (Selections from the Working Papers)," ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Sulfur 27 (Fall 1990).

(5.) / Oppen would often misquote Charles Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Gulden (1934): "Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies / a girder, still itself among the rubbish."

(6.) / Music for Pom (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2012).

(7.) / "Meaning Is to Re Here: A Selection from the Daybooks of George Oppen," ed. Cynthia Anderson, Conjunct ion's 10 (1988). Henceforth, Conjunctions.

(8.) / "Selections from George Oppen's Daybooks," ed. Dennis Young, Iowa Review 18, no.3 (Fall 1988).

(9.) / Parmenides, trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
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Author:Halpern, Rob
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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