Geoffrey G. O’Brien,
University of California Press, $21.95 (paper)
The most remarkable feature of Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s third collection, Metropole, is the 40-page eponymous poem at its end. Written in blocks of prose but also in strict iambic meter, the poem deploys a patently disjunctive syntax comparable to what Ron Silliman has called the “new sentence.” This unlikely combination of formal characteristics alone says something about O’Brien’s attachments: he is committed to the estrangements and critical ethos available in the work of late twentieth–century avant-garde writers, but insists on rehabilitating traditional formal resources that many of his peers and elders have dismissed as freighted with bad politics or otherwise inadequate to a world too complex and unbounded to be accounted for by pattern-intensive song.
O’Brien is especially concerned with decoupling the old resources he uses from the strong bindings they might otherwise produce. Consider, for instance, his prose poem’s epic invocation:
Fatigue and anger, vitamins, of being born at some remove from Sunday, leaving any world untouched, I guess I sing. But many other things show up. The safety of the ports, large gulls improperly inland, that rip within a point of sale; and lunch beforehand where we wondered whether forms detach from prior eras reappear as Morris Louis veils or if an accident is king of how museum shadows thicken into middle distances. Wrong to think of day as falling up and out of bed
A version of Achilles’ “rage” returns, though the muse has disappeared into the immanent self-celebration of Walt Whitman’s “I,” sung here in a key of 21st-century uncertainty and ambivalence: “I guess I sing.” Notably, this passage doesn’t occur at the poem’s start but is its fourteenth section. To delay so long implies commitment to an aesthetics of the middle, in which beginnings happen in medias res, and endings—say, the closing down on a finite set of themes, the disappearance of certain forms, or the conclusions drawn about the day—tend to be provisional. “But many other things show up” is one dominant theme of the poem and its volume, speaking of both digression and return, at once quotidian and musical.
In a recent interview, O’Brien described “Metropole” as a record of “the falling of verse into prose,” and to some extent the book is structured like a fall. Its first half gives us verses tending toward pastoral and diurnal themes—a Miltonic flower catalogue, several meditations on the qualities of various months and seasons, an autumnal idyll about boys at play in the leaves—before the prose poem plunges us into the abyssal complexity of life lived in transit between urban centers with their “prose of errands.” The paragraphs, each broken mid-sentence in the seventh “line,” shift us away from those natural cycles so strongly associated with verse by modeling the culture-dependent cycle of the workweek.
But where fall narratives usually bespeak nostalgia for a horticultural existence free from the unreal city’s horns and motors, O’Brien’s pastorals hardly yearn for an idyllic past. For instance, his idyll shows us Bohemian Grove, a woodsy retreat near San Francisco where male captains of industry and heads of state relieve themselves of worldly pressures by dressing up as women, performing plays, and singing as choppers dump “the leaves of love” on everyone . . . running around excited to be
playing a part in the hush of the woods
Donald called me ‘songbird’ and to be fit
for the world one must periodically leave it, . . .
in the 40s, at the tree line, theatricals, excited
to be putting on a helmet and running around
in the dark, on my knees in the sun
being told as a group what to do about
how soft I was, the pillows in my chamber
with choppers landing and a glow through the trees
spread uncomfortably around the clearing
till there’s nothing like it, going missing
It’s hard to separate this ludic activity in the woods from the ludicrousness of war, the “going missing” of summer-camp retreats from military deployment or death. The poem never explicitly transitions from the grove to the battlefield, but as its terms recombine we hear them participate in multiple registers at once, inflected by the martial valance of “helmet,” “choppers,” and the first name of a recent Secretary of Defense (who is reportedly a Grove member). Such refrains structure nearly every poem in the volume, some so intensely that they feel like sestinas gone wild, or egalitarian: the rule of end-words migrates to the middle, allowing any word to re-couple with those once distant from it.
O’Brien’s sentences rush off toward somewhere they forget about along the way.
“Bohemian Grove” is an unusually scenic poem for O’Brien, who tends to prefer a drama of repeatedly deferred disclosure, a play on the outlines of a promised content that never quite shows up to be had, as in “Folie à Deux”:
For me it’s a combination of things,
feeling a bit late, unproductive,
you see a lot of that, running
then following, whatever it is
they do when put in situations
and given the one thing that sprouts
the horns of a general wound.
I don’t have it, but there it is,
we’re supposed to and I don’t,
or even know what it means
given the fluid event, so I feel
it’s a combination of things,
essentially all of them, gone.
Each instance of this absent but present “it” refers as much to the pronoun itself as to its many possible antecedents—some of which are prior iterations of “it.” That demonstrative pronoun is, grammatically, “a combination of things,” able to refer to multiple antecedents at once. O’Brien’s under-specified pronouns authorize the play of optional substitutions
(x = y = z = it) without the definitive click of metaphor (x = y). Similarly, he loves to sing of months, days, and seasons, units of measurement meant to organize the “fluid event” of time, which is never as stable in experience as such standardization might suggest: “The rest of the day / is like May, the May of winter, being for / the first time in a while with extended family.”
The finding of an extended family—and the fear that it might not be found or felt by all its members—is the crisis vibrating through every section of “Metropole.” The poem enacts this crisis of relation in its disjunctive form, faltering even as it flows:
Inaudibly, technologies lament their falling into parts have scattered anywhere a world extends. I’m thinking of the loneliness of wheels, word processors conserving single lines in short-term memory. They have a second life in prison time moves slowly in the middle of their sentences. Both coasts remain themselves in crumbling but the phone just lies there, grounded planes. You’d need a failing light to understand this sense a form preceded me by several seconds passed without my noticing. Everything to date has been
This section, the first in the sequence, is paradigmatic of its neighbors: distracted in texture, ruthlessly iambic, broken in its seventh line, and riddled with terms that reoccur both locally and elsewhere (nearly every word above returns at least once). Its sentences rush off toward somewhere they forget about along the way, remembering something else they need to do. Most look as if two discrete sentences had been hinged together by a middle term (“falling into / parts / have scattered”) that participates in both without subordinating one to the other.
One effect of this disjunctive conjunction is to delay and multiply our sense-making within the sentence: we read across the hinge before we know where or how long it is, then stumble on a rebel verb that prompts us to parse again what we thought we knew. When we try, it’s often hard to say for sure where the hinge begins and ends, or if it’s there at all. The sentence can evolve through several second lives, depending on where we let divisions fall:
They have a second life / in prison / time moves slowly in the middle of their sentences.
They have a second life in prison / time / moves slowly in the middle of their sentences.
They have a second life in prison / time moves slowly in the middle of their sentences.
They have a second life / (in prison time moves slowly) / in the middle of their sentences.
Another effect is that it’s hard to tell if the second part of the sentence should be read as a slurred continuation of the first or an interrupting fragment from some other discourse whose greater part falls elsewhere. We feel this difficulty especially when chasing down antecedents for the poem’s pronouns. Does the pronoun in “their sentences” refer to the incarcerated persons implied by “prison time” or to the “word processors” from the previous sentence, or to the “parts” technologies fall into? Are those technologies falling into parts, or does “their falling” point outward to some unnamed “them”—perhaps some much lamented human couple, sentenced to fall from a timeless state of union into a prison time, taking their slow and solitary way through “anywhere a world extends?”
The answer is all of the above: O’Brien’s over-determined pronouns and hyper-predicated sentences ask us to hold multiple competing frames in mind, then give us language that participates in more than one. The prose trips us on an outlying verb, forcing us to fall through the abyss of sense in the middle of the sentence, but this tripping doesn’t let us hit the ground: the iambic rhythm ferries us across the sense-abyss, helping us continue to read towards integration with intimations of an order we can hear.
‘Metropole’ models the openness it asks in our relations to each other.
“Falling” occurs more than any other noun or verb in “Metropole”—fourteen times in 40 pages, and more if its variants are included. Follow it, or any other refrain, and we find distant strands yearning to relate. Falling: snow in Manhattan, people being trampled at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, prices in an economic crash, paint on the canvas of a Morris Louis veil, a reference to Joyce’s “The Dead,” a story about a marriage. Follow “marriage,” and we find California’s Proposition 8, and one (or more) of many possible reasons why the “I” (or any other) is “passing back and forth between two houses”: “Then the blood fell and the marriage ended suddenly I felt the honeycomb explode in secret rites I will survive.” Everywhere, we find technologies of transport and communication: airplanes, train platforms full of people, cell phones, PDAs, laptops, public squares, shipping containers, “a motor’s blended sounds,” a subway crossing the Hudson river like Whitman’s ferry, where “a swinging motion justifies brief introductions.”
“Metropole” is, in effect, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” for the post-9/11 information age. It shares Whitman’s concern for human connections at a distance, but suffers and enjoys the complications of an increasingly abyssal scale. Where Whitman had a singular (though mobile) vantage point from which he saw the “tall masts of Mannahatta,” the “swinging motion of the hulls,” and the “countless crowds of passengers” crossing “from shore to shore,” O’Brien’s poem divides its attention between “both coasts” and elsewhere, shifting constantly between “terrainless vantage points” that blend into each other:
For dizzily above the world the blinking lights, collective life in flight, abstractedly survive commemoration. Then the season turns and current flows into the picture. A muddy coat of brown gives way, revealing brilliant greens and blues about the earth there’s little more to say unless you stop and listen to its roaring unawares.
A glance upward at an airplane safely avoiding the towers of Mannahatta—or are we up there, looking down on the collective “flight” of urban traffic?—phases into a view of the world itself, courtesy of a computer screen, an aforementioned Morris Louis veil, or a look outside at spring. We can’t say for sure which one, and not being able to tell the difference, but feeling that all might work, models the openness this poem asks of us in our relations to each other.
“Just as any of you is one of a living crowd,” Whitman wrote, “I was one of a crowd.” And O’Brien: “I guess it’s possible a people glides along from house to house as though a language made of equal signs, but haven’t seen them.” We can hear in that “language” a play on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E journal of the late 1970s and early ’80s and a description of Whitman’s transitive logic: any of you = one of a crowd = I. Those pronouns connected by a line of Whitman’s verse are scattered into parts when the line is lost inside the workweek’s prose, but connections return by other means. By the time we see the phrase “he loves them both” in the poem’s final section, that “them” broadens to a whole extended and terrainless family of “boths,” bonded not by Whitmanian parataxis but by the transitive property of equal candidacy: Adam and Eve, workweek and weekend, public and private, verse and prose, both coasts, both houses, both parents, both sides of the hinge. O’Brien’s struggle to make verse resources re-emerge in prose, to have it both ways and more than both, mimes a dream he shares with Whitman and with us: that non-instrumental relations can survive their falling in a world ruled not by equality (substitution), generosity (polyvalence), and friendship (meter and rhyme), but by the prosaic zero-sum economies of money, space, and time.