Penguin, $16 (paper)
Green and Gray
Geoffrey G. O'Brien
University of California Press, $19.95 (paper)
In “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” a poem central to his body of work, Wallace Stevens wrote of poetry, in its broadest sense, that “It Must Be Abstract.” He later regretted not having added that “It Must Be Human.” Joanna Klink’s Circadian and Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Green and Gray operate in the tension between these two dicta, representing two modes of handling abstraction and two lines of descent from modernism.
Klink may be placed in a line of romantic modernism descending from Wallace Stevens, a mode that makes the world an object of contemplation and reconstruction, while maintaining the meditative mind’s integrity and blessed rage for order. Her book emphasizes the humanity of Stevens’s abstract fiction. O’Brien can be placed closer to a line of analytic modernism traceable through the Objectivists, for whom the self as organizing principle often becomes an object not just of examination but of de-creation. His book emphasizes the abstraction of Stevens’s human fiction. John Ashbery, for whom Stevens was a formative figure, may be seen as the meeting point of these two poets’ modes and lineages, each taking off in a different direction from his dispersal of the voice out into the objects of which it speaks.
Both books exhibit what poet Jasper Bernes, writing on his blog about Green and Gray, calls “a relentless refusal of particulars, of the soft law of detail and concretion,” though O’Brien’s book is much more resolute in this regard than Klink’s: “First not to live in empty reference, no and then,” writes O’Brien in “A Difficult Summary.” Finally, in their verbal, intellectual, and psychic restlessness, and in their unwillingness or inability to settle on a fixed subject position or place of utterance, both books also respond to another of Stevens’s dicta regarding the supreme fiction: “It Must Change.”
Klink and O’Brien’s poems take place in landscapes of the mind, of which the phenomenal landscape is only an instantiation or embodiment. For both poets, dissimilar in many ways as they are, the world is meditation (to adapt the title of another Stevens poem). As O’Brien writes in “A Difficult Summary,” whose title might be taken as a definition of the task his poems set themselves: “First the accident of thought then its music / and then its potential to serve the stores and crowds.” O’Brien’s “To Be Out of Sweden” can be read as a revision of Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” in which a place never visited is constructed from the building materials of the mind: “To be out of Sweden and / to know how Sweden is.” But this is a Sweden abstracted of description (there are no women selling ices and no band playing Rimsky-Korsakov, as in Ashbery’s poem), a Sweden analyzed into its component parts by a mind wary of the illusion of perception, not taken in by the promise of immediate presence: “to say of leaves they represent everything / except themselves.” Things, or the possibility of things, are held at the arm’s length of doubt. To quote from “A Calendar”:
Often I think this for hours at a time
without knowing or wanting to
yet so in search of it all the same
the slack time of a snowfall
means nothing to me, nor a short
Indian summer, alike as meeting
a stranger’s brother in the street;
nor will an interview detain or move
more than a weather report,
a person more than an animal;
when the immense thing happens it
through a vivid distance first.
The voice in these poems, largely drained of tone, seems distrustful of description, suspicious of what is given to the senses, which might still be secondhand. “I hear I hear the world is there,” begins his “Paraphrase of Aragon,” but that could just be hearsay.
There is a recurrent “I” in O’Brien’s poems, but it is for the most part a point of (literal) view, a grammatical place marker like a sign that says “You are here,” orienting sight to its surroundings (“as if I were the place around which they exist,” in French poet Francis Ponge’s phrase) but never specifying exactly who is being oriented. Sometimes the “I” is included in what is seen, as in this line from “Ur”: “and here where myself in the distance.” The distance from the world is also a distance from self. While Klink’s speaker is often accompanied by a “you,” the shifting “I” in O’Brien’s poems is alone: “it would be good have someone / to talk to, if I’m to do this thing / that goes on without me” (“Prior to Assent”). The production of selfhood or even a persona in and by means of the poem is eschewed: “In the uncertain light of the first person / anything made is embarrassing” (“Objects in Portraits”). Among those made things would be, presumably, the self. A skepticism toward selfhood and personhood pervades Green and Gray, as in the play of the grammatical, temporal, and spatial senses of the words “first,” “one,” and “end” in these lines from “At the Changing Villa” (where we perhaps change faces and identities as much as we change clothes, if sometimes accidentally): “It seemed certain a person, / the first, would be at the end of one, however / no way to tell if this is true.” There are no first things and no last things in this world, no confident beginnings or conclusive endings, and we too are included in the “series that comes from having been / many things, other things, others—”
• • •
The title Circadian suggests Klink’s concern with natural processes and rhythms. The imagery of these poems draws heavily on the natural world, and natural settings are predominant throughout, as demonstrated by such titles as “River in Dusk,” “Grassfield,” “Sea by Dusk,” “Mariana Trench,” “Winter Field,” “Sea by Flowers,” and “Studies for an Estuary.” But, as these expansive titles also imply, the places invoked are seen from a certain distance; they are viewed, slightly askew, from their peripheries. The vistas tend to be panoramic, the speaker having stepped back from what she observes (in both the perceptual and propositional senses of the word). The world is simplified in these poems, pared down to essentials. In contrast with the crowded surfaces of many contemporary poems, one feels that Klink would agree with Samuel Johnson’s decree that “the business of the poet is to examine not the individual, but the species…[she] does not number the streaks of the tulip.” As Klink writes in the third poem of the sequence “Peripheries,” “Wishbone of / perceptible existence I am / lost to you through desire / of the unspecific.”
Klink’s poems are almost devoid of people, and those few who do appear are solitary and distant (even the watermen of “Studies for an Estuary” seem a single entity, moving across the water, their bodies “a great space on which an ocean is growing”). But there is the constant presence of a “you,” an addressee who is at once beloved—a friend, a companion—and something more remote, an idea or ideal, a traveler (as the other is referred to in “Sea by Flowers”) who is also a spiritual guide, though one who sometimes goes astray and needs guidance. This “you” shifts and wavers, like light or fog or falling snow.
“Porch in Snow,” appearing early in Circadian, exemplifies many of Klink’s concerns and methods:
There you are, snow filling the air,
in the midst of silence. The porch still
and the distances shifting in us,
snow falling in clouds to the streets.
Winter, there is no prayer but this,
to hold fast in the time of few choices.
An animal moves through the
backyards, its eyes
precise and lit, the premise of
everything I believe,
a whiteness that measures the sadness
of the creature unsure where it will
And every conviction you held of what
gone, the evening long gone. And it
a shining in your eyes as other sleepers
Restless with ice, an animal crosses the
in you, a darkness that asks
everything for measure, spacious
the animal moves against all winter,
a grace of feeling we had not imagined.
This also comes into the winter garden
while a car starts, snowlight falling
across the alley
in radiant extension of everything I
see. As if the night were utterly
as if you would turn to enter the rooms
lit against cold, and there were no
possible for you, in any form.
A porch is a threshold, the place where indoors and outdoors meet, the liminal space between the interior and the exterior worlds. Snow blurs out detail, leaving only shapes and forms; it is indeed “a whiteness that measures.” In this poem the distances of the landscape enact “the distances shifting within us.” The slippery grammar of the poem’s opening sentence allows the “you” to be read as the “snow filling the air,” as if landscape and person were one. Such a possibility is extended in the third sentence, in which “Winter” can be read as either a simple noun or an apostrophe, as if the speaker were addressing winter in the person of the other, who embodies that season, “the time of few choices.”
Also included in the poem is an animal, unspecified except as the incarnation of the life force moving through the cold and sterile weather. Like the mother skunk with her kittens in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” this animal is an emblem of the will to live, indomitable even amid scarcity and deprivation and so primal it doesn’t even have a name: it’s just “an animal,” not vegetable or mineral but animate and moving. Unlike Lowell’s skunks, whose vitality is utterly other to the alienated, “not right” speaker, here the animal is the object of the speaker’s identification: she too is searching for a place of repose. It is a reminder that we also are animal, driven by the same basic needs and urges. The animal’s eyes are “precise and lit,” and it is a light to which the speaker clings, “the premise of everything I believe.” The other’s eyes are also shining, opening the possibility that the addressee is both the snowy winter night and the life that moves through the night, restless, “unsure where it will sleep.” But these lines also offer hope that the animal, in the yards and inside the speaker, will find a place to rest: “it may be / a shining in your eyes as other sleepers enter homes.” The creature’s sheer endurance and will to survive are a comfort and an inspiration.
This animal doesn’t just travel through an external landscape of cold backyards, but “crosses the wide field / in you” with “a grace of feeling we had not imagined.” This interior “spacious world” is as real as or even more real than the material world all the lives in this poem wander through, and its darkness “asks / everything for measure,” that is, for meaning. At first “every conviction you held of what it means” is gone, but by the poem’s close we come upon grace. The seen, this scene of falling snow in an alley illuminated in both senses of the word by a starting car’s headlights, is an aspect of the unseen, a “radiant extension of everything I cannot / see.” The invisible transcendent is manifest in these momentary and shifting epiphanies. The night remains itself, but it is “as if the night were utterly changed, / . . . / lit against cold, and there were no further sorrow / possible.”
O’Brien’s assiduously elusive poems lend themselves less to such explication, but they have an opaque lucidity akin to the work of Ashbery. O’Brien’s work also shows Ashbery’s stylistic influence, though he has forged a distinctive idiom of his own. Klink is less stylistically indebted to Ashbery, but both poets share in his depersonalization of the speaking voice. This makes the voice a thing among other things, and animates those objects into which it disperses, transforming them into subjects in both senses of the word.
The last thing Stevens demanded of his supreme fiction was that “It Must Give Pleasure.” Both of these books fulfill that condition abundantly.