On Late Oppen

by Jack Marshall


The opening poem in Seascape: Needle's Eye is "From a Phrase of Simone Weil's and Some Words of Hegel's." If  Oppen was having a bit of fun telling us with this unadorned title that earlier writers' fragments would be elements in a radically new poem, surely the humor   was on a level other than laughter. A poet's dialogues and differences with his predecessors are most present when starting a new work. And if we don't know the phrase and words he is alluding to (I don't), it doesn't matter; he will weave them musically with his own, and together they will resonate with the authenticity of the anonymous (Ecclesiastes comes to mind), with sound and sense made one kindling, affirming a life near its end.  An intensity of intention for coherence through accurate perception is attempted, if tentatively, against dissolution. The poem begins, step by wide-spaced step, hesitant with indeterminate gaps, breaking the barrier of sequence and order, all connectives unhinged:


In               back       deep the jewel                        

The treasure  

Four stressed beats sculpted into three successively longer blocks are separated by a pair of white spaces which frame and emphasize each word-block introducing "The treasure," undefined but felt, that glows in darkness.  Are these directions, a statement of fact, or a staggered picture-plane? Is the deep jewel (the life force, poetry) a treasure that is hidden? or has it come back, as it did late for Oppen? Is it shared, or singular? What follows is headlong syntactic velocity, a precarious buffeting of push-and-pull tensions:

Pride of the living life's liquid
Pride of the sandspit wind this ether this other this element all
It is I or I believe
We are the beaks of the ragged birds
Tune of the ragged bird's beaks
In the tune of the wind  

No, the treasure is neither hidden nor enclosed, but liquid…and on us at once, the many rapid i's  in the first four lines here stitch their long and short vowels into a propulsive dance under pressure, that pauses (after the asserted "No") for a qualifying breath at  "or I believe". From "Pride of the sandspit wind" to "this ether this other this element all" - the flight of the line is like an arrow into the "all," followed by a morphing into an assertion, "all/It is I," and, as in late Oppen's forth-and-back tidal line readings, the enjambed line-break poses another possibility: "or I believe (it is)", which opens the poem to uncertainty in freedom.  Also, "or I believe/We are the beaks of the ragged birds" (image both impoverished and liberated)/ "Tune of the ragged bird's beaks/in the tune of the wind" - we, birds, tune, wind – are telescoped now through one lens, now another, now overlapping. One may wonder what alternate word choices must have been exhilarating or excruciating to cut, to shape these verbally stripped, resonant passages.  

Lines in flight, excited and frightened, that feel experientially true. And truer of a man in his seventies, physically as well as psychically in extremis. Some might call them "oracular," but he tells us he is saying the obvious, out in the open, where the commonplace is consumed:

Ob via          the obvious
Like a fire of straws
Aflame in the world or else poor people hide
                                               Yourselves together               Place
Place where           desire
Lust of the eyes the pride of life and foremost of the storm's
Multitude moves the wave belly-lovely  

The cautionary "or else poor people hide/Yourselves together" knows whereof it speaks by way of a dedicated Communist labor organizer during the Depression years and after, harassed by the FBI during his and Mary's exile in Mexico. Subversive to the end, he urges "poor people hide/Yourselves together Place/Place where        desire" (where is desire's place?) (place where desire lusts?). The line, "Multitude moves the wave belly-lovely," rich in velvety aural and lingual v's and buoyed by open vowels moving them along, is an image erotic, generative, and precise. Indeed, "Lust of the eyes…moves the wave belly-lovely" could well describe a sailor's dream-vision of a benign ocean. The Oppens often sailed alone for long periods in their small sailboat. And not only poets are "the beaks of the ragged birds," but "all." The  admonition for the future has the force of conviction from lived experience, a summary politics in a few words. A Sibyl's warning.

Instability, shifting ground, repetition, open varied emphasis and readings from line to line, flights of awe, dread, oncoming dissolution:

Glass of the glass sea shadow of water
On the open water no other way
To come here the outer
Limit of the ego  

Twice repeated sibilant "glass" glistens on the calm surface, countered by "shadow of water" (reflections of arching waves, or the dark depths beneath the surface?) "on the open water" - again, imagery which  dazzles and deepens, though "no other way/To come here" where he does not stop, but goes on to "the outer/Limit of the ego." A stark mapping of the aging self's future, which, while acknowledging the inevitable, also manages to enlarge that outer limit with the open-air vowels breathed. This variousness of meanings (which poetry shares with comedy), when surprising, oxygenates the imagination and revives it to attention. One can't know or see these connections before the act of writing; they are discovered, only in and through the writing process.

Awe was what Oppen was after in poetry; he made it out of himself. As he aged, and all other so-called ethical and political systems earlier adhered to had come - at great human cost - to fail, it is this pressurized language charged with uncertainty and conviction, cut loose from traditional grammar and linear order for the sake of alternate possibilities of seeing and being, this plasticity of syntax and density of image, that give a potency to words not so much written down as launched, streaming into the open unknown.


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