Friday, July 20, 2012

George Oppen: Escape from ants, water meters, and the revival of the Melita coffee filter cone

We had quite a start to the day:  The café-presse broke, as café-presses will do, right when you want coffee;  Dobby discovered non-hairball inspired projectile vomiting, which I joyously cleaned up; I infused twice the amount of an antibiotic and decided to care less; The West of the Lone Alp Tête de Hergé Water Municipal OverLordShip sent us the sweetest municipal worker ever, even if he did keep slapping me on the shoulder [He told me that I "looked fetching today," so he can slap the hell out of that boneless hump as much as he likes, and he also declared the outrageous water readings to be the fault of the electronic doodad and not the result of a gushing leak, or my two diuretics.]; Then the ants attacked, again, this time traversing the back porch, the kitchen window, and proceeding, lemming-like, to drown themselves, en masse, in a sink full of soapy water.  This was accomplished in the course of 30 minutes, as I *know* there were no aunts committing suicide a half hour earlier, when I so carefully hooked myself up to the wrong antibiotic -- right next to the Death Pool of soapy Lemon Ajax.  Meanwhile, the Special-Oh-So-Special Topiary Team arrived to try and rectify some of the burgeoning Labyrinth issues... and we had to send La Bonne et Belle Bianca Castafiore out to oversee their work, despite her obsessive reworking of the Jewel Song (Gounod's Air des bijoux) into a soulful Lithuanian version.  Unfortunately, her tendency to transpose parts with Latvian translation... well, we're not sure her focus is entirely on the correct training of the British Boxwoods.

I signed up last week for the Poem-A-Day service of the Academy of American Poets.

That can be a real life-saver on mornings such as this 'un.

And as I calmed down, I realized I didn't like today's poem much.  So I locked myself in the Computer Turret (one day soon, I'll explain the modifications we've made to accomodate slithering into that space from a power chair, with CRPS-flaring legs, a reconstructed ankle and elbow, a prosthetic hip, one prosthetic shoulder, and one shoulder gone missing... using the rope ladder/bridge strung from our small tower to the barn, now the Rehab Center for Carnies and Wayward Acrobats.)

And I spent several hours with George Oppen, renewed that love.  Fred was good enough to ferry up a thermos of excellent coffee mid-afternoon, and the Marlinspike Hall Domestic Staff showed me the kindness of pretending they didn't know it was me up here delivering my usual arias of "damndamndamndamn" when the Screaming Ninny CRPS Dystonia Spasms showed up.

I'm in a sharing mood, as your current thought ("Dear Jeezus, does she have to share everything?") attests.

Courtesy of the Poetry Foundation, my intention to start a sort of poetry war action, and my outright theft of their holdings, here are Sections 1-22 of Oppen's Of Being Numerous:


There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,

The sad marvels;

Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.

‘You remember that old town we went to, and we sat in the ruined window, and we tried to imagine that we belonged to those times—It is dead and it is not dead, and you cannot imagine either its life or its death; the earth speaks and the salamander speaks, the Spring comes and only obscures it—’


So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say

A city of the corporations

In dreams

And images—

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter,
Is impenetrable.


The emotions are engaged
Entering the city
As entering any city.

We are not coeval
With a locality
But we imagine others are,

We encounter them. Actually
A populace flows
Thru the city.

This is a language, therefore, of New York


For the people of that flow
Are new, the old

New to age as the young
To youth

And to their dwelling
For which the tarred roofs

And the stoops and doors—
A world of stoops—
Are petty alibi and satirical wit
Will not serve.


The great stone
Above the river
In the pylon of the bridge


Frozen in the moonlight
In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness

Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
Which loves itself


We are pressed, pressed on each other,
We will be told at once
Of anything that happens

And the discovery of fact bursts
In a paroxysm of emotion
Now as always.   Crusoe

We say was
So we have chosen.


Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck
Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning
Of being numerous.


Amor fati
The love of fate

For which the city alone
Is audience

Perhaps blasphemous.

Slowly over islands, destinies
Moving steadily pass
And change

In the thin sky
Over islands

Among days

Having only the force
Of days

Most simple
Most difficult


‘Whether, as the intensity of seeing increases, one’s distance from Them, the people, does not also increase’
I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place

Yet I am one of those who from nothing but man’s way of thought and one of his dialects and what has happened to me
Have made poetry

To dream of that beach
For the sake of an instant in the eyes,

The absolute singular

The unearthly bonds
Of the singular

Which is the bright light of shipwreck


Or, in that light, New arts! Dithyrambic, audience-as-artists! But I will listen to a man, I will listen to a man, and when I speak I will speak, tho he will fail and I will fail. But I will listen to him speak. The shuffling of a crowd is nothing—well, nothing but the many that we are, but nothing.

Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities—The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted

And he fails! He fails, that meditative man! And indeed they cannot ‘bear’ it.


            it is that light
Seeps anywhere, a light for the times

In which the buildings
Stand on low ground, their pediments
Just above the harbor

Absolutely immobile,

Hollow, available, you could enter any building,
You could look from any window
One might wave to himself
From the top of the Empire State Building—


If you can


Phyllis—not neo-classic,
The girl’s name is Phyllis—

Coming home from her first job
On the bus in the bare civic interior
Among those people, the small doors
Opening on the night at the curb
Her heart, she told me, suddenly tight with happiness—

So small a picture,
A spot of light on the curb, it cannot demean us

I too am in love down there with the streets
And the square slabs of pavement—

To talk of the house and the neighborhood and the docks

And it is not ‘art’


‘In these explanations it is presumed that an experiencing subject is one occasion of a sensitive reaction to an actual world.’

the rain falls
that had not been falling
and it is the same world

. . .

They made small objects
Of wood and the bones of fish
And of stone. They talked,
Families talked,
They gathered in council
And spoke, carrying objects.
They were credulous,
Their things shone in the forest.

They were patient
With the world.
This will never return, never,
Unless having reached their limits

They will begin over, that is,
Over and over


           unable to begin
At the beginning, the fortunate
Find everything already here. They are shoppers,
Choosers, judges; . . . And here the brutal
is without issue, a dead end.
                                            They develop
Argument in order to speak, they become
unreal, unreal, life loses
solidity, loses extent, baseball’s their game
because baseball is not a game
but an argument and difference of opinion
makes the horse races. They are ghosts that endanger

One’s soul. There is change
In an air
That smells stale, they will come to the end
Of an era
First of all peoples
And one may honorably keep

His distance
If he can.


I cannot even now
Altogether disengage myself
From those men

With whom I stood in emplacements, in mess tents,
In hospitals and sheds and hid in the gullies
Of blasted roads in a ruined country,

Among them many men
More capable than I—

Muykut and a sergeant
Named Healy,
That lieutenant also—

How forget that? How talk
Distantly of ‘The People’

Who are that force
Within the walls
Of cities

Wherein their cars

Echo like history
Down walled avenues
In which one cannot speak.


Chorus (androgynous): ‘Find me
So that I will exist, find my navel
So that it will exist, find my nipples
So that they will exist, find every hair
Of my belly, I am good (or I am bad),
Find me.’


‘. . . he who will not work shall not eat,
and only he who was troubled shall find rest,
and only he who descends into the nether world shall rescue his beloved,
and only he who unsheathes his knife shall be given Isaac again. He who will not work shall not eat. . .
but he who will work shall give birth to his own father.’


The roots of words
Dim in the subways

There is madness in the number
Of the living
‘A state of matter’

There is nobody here but us chickens


He wants to say
His life is real,
No one can say why

It is not easy to speak

A ferocious mumbling, in public
Of rootless speech


It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.


Now in the helicopters the casual will
Is atrocious

Insanity in high places,
If 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


—They await

War, and the news
Is war

As always

That the juices may flow in them
Tho the juices lie.

Great things have happened
On the earth and given it history, armies
And the ragged hordes moving and the passions
Of that death. But who escapes

Among these riders
Of the subway,

They know
But now as I know

Failure and the guilt
Of failure.
As in Hardy’s poem of Christmas

We might half-hope to find the animals
In the sheds of a nation
Kneeling at midnight,

Farm animals,
Draft animals, beasts for slaughter
Because it would mean they have forgiven us,
Or which is the same thing,
That we do not altogether matter.


There can be a brick
In a brick wall
They eye picks

So quiet of a Sunday
Here is the brick, it was waiting
Here when you were born




In the sense of transparence,
I don’t mean that much can be explained

Clarity in the sense of silence.
George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous (1-22)” from New Collected Poems. Copyright © 1968 by George Oppen. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: New Collected Poems (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2008)
Ants be damned, water workers be blessed, gratitude for Melita coffee filter cones, and thanks to Fred, but most especially thanks to George Oppen, who nailed poems to wood, and who STAVED, STAVED, STAVED, and singularly rendered it a not-necessarily transitive verb.

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