Reviewed June 8, 2012 by Sten Carlson & Robin Clarke
In the belly of the metropolis—which is to say, everywhere—how does one write against that metropolis? Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s newest book of poems, Metropole, approaches this problem through what he labels an “unfamiliarly allocated” combination of very long and short poems, including the title poem’s thirty-nine pages of iambic pentameter paragraphs. We want to think about how, in refusing the poetic “freedoms” that free verse and lyric expressivity promise, Metropole highlights the way much contemporary American poetry, with its adherence to a kind of unbridled lyricism and/or narrative authority, emerges as—at best—anachronistic upon the current socio-political scene in the US; invoking such authority, under an American regime that at every turn has used speech to obscure the brutal conditions of its own production and consumption, ignores the lived degradation of critical thought and speech in America and globally. Faced with an existential crisis—a project of making meaning in a world where meaning is always already either bought, sold or violently instantiated by regimes of power—mainstream American poetry appears to have responded largely with denial, a denial that feels ahistorical at its core. With its commitment to “clear and lucid communication” (so reads a blurb about our current Poet Laureate’s most famous book), mainstream American poetry is increasingly ill-equipped to articulate the ever-widening gap between experience and what of that experience we might effectively say to power. To wit, Troy Davis murdered by the state of Georgia despite clear and lucid evidence of his innocence and two million clear and lucid voices speaking their truth on television, in print, and on petitions. Rather than “clear and lucid communication,” such a democracy more closely resembles Joseph K.’s muttering within the courthouse’s endless labyrinth, unable to prove his innocence because no one will tell him his charge.
The title prose poem “Metropole,” with which we begin here, attempts something different. Nearly 40 pages in length, written in unrelenting iambic pentameter, and arranged into almost seven-line prose paragraphs (the seventh line always enjambed), “Metropole” more or less outpours unabated:
If these poems, written well before Tunisia and Egypt, before the irruption of Occupy Everything—well before O’Brien himself would be among those beaten with nightsticks by UC Berkeley and Alameda County riot police on the lawn of the institution where he teaches poetry—seem proleptic, it is because they take as their object that which is driving the machinery of the 1% toward shut down/catastrophe. As the back copy of Metropole says, the poems “measure the ‘vague cadence’ of daily life, testing both the value and limits of art in a time of vanishing publics and permanent war.” Both normalized and made musical by the repetitive pacing of the pentameter, O’Brien’s sentences alternately succeed and fail to produce the usual markers of well-wrought lyric poetry. The poem is formally split between the musicality of its meter and what we might call the criticality of its sentences. We are reminded of Baudelaire’s dream of
A contemporary “miracle” is a tall order, but Metropole goes a long way toward realizing something of a (musical, undulating) syntax of/for the contemporary American metropolis. O’Brien writes, “A parody of love, how insecurity of conquest guarantees a force remains were found for weeks within the rubble.” Here, “remains” begins to name a process and a result, serves as object of a pronouncement about love and the subject of some large-scale catastrophe. What seems to be private space reveals—like pointillism, with a closer gaze—a public sphere both full of possibility for meaningful collective life and overrun by a corporatist state that seeks to suppress horizontal contact in order to maximize the flows of vertical power relations. O’Brien’s cuttings, propagating new possibilities, settings, and discursive registers at the break, are never neutral: “you print the boarding pass invades the house.” The boarding pass, once a document to print and present to officials, here sets in motion a suburban “home invasion” nightmare. To say it differently, the ticket to a certain class-limited freedom to travel great distances turns, citing as it does those planes that turned away from their usual business or pleasure destinations toward their targets. A politicized, semantic turning migrates into the action of the sentence.
The violence in “Metropole” is internalized, smuggled into what feel like easy, beautiful, docile prose sentences: “The walls stay mostly blank but that can be embarrassing as being judged by choices bravely made their home was always full of guests, citations of citations, mutual acknowledgment you don’t both have to be there for.” We are tempted to call this effect a long take on a new new sentence. What Ron Silliman called the “torsion” encountered across periods in new sentences here occurs within the sentence itself: predicates become subjects; verbs twist into nouns (and vice versa); the semantic bases of clauses crumble as new meanings are built over the last ones. The transitive—when verbs take direct objects, as in “I go to the store”—goes haywire in O’Brien’s prose, activating articles and prepositions as well as verbs. The “choices bravely made” appear as orphans of any number of antecedents: to be judged by choices bravely made is first a simile for what the embarrassment about blank walls feels like; but then again, those choices also have the effect of making their home “always full of guests”; with the appositive “citations of citations,” the speaker seems to acknowledge—or apologize for—the confusing start the sentence has made, but adds that perhaps this is all evidence of a “mutual acknowledgment”—a prior condition—that the speaker of the poem and the reader “don’t both have to be there for.”
In its tug of war between verse and prose, “Metropole” opens up both a poetic and a critical space and makes, for us, an important, if difficult, point: perhaps we don’t need poetry; or better—perhaps poetry doesn’t need us. Wired to a 500-year-old meter (itself the ‘mother’ tongue of English verse, the beat which marks the economic, military and commercial speech for the empire) with both tranquil and tranquilizing effects, whatever pronouncement this prose poem might make on our current socio-political milieu is swallowed up in waves of sound. As William Carlos Williams has it, “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” Our reveries undulate, machines undulate, in Metropole, the poem itself—a technology of “mutual acknowledgment you don’t both have to be there for,” a self-propelled ship among the other alienating, undulating machineries of our lives—might just run even if readers don’t show up.
Amidst syntactic collisions, heterogeneous discursive registers, and discontinuous narrative threads, O’Brien’s long poems are everywhere determined by prosaic regularity: achieved in “Metropole” via strict iambic rhythm; in “Three Years”—the other long poem we wish to discuss here—effected as the speaking subject circles somnambulic-like around calendar markers, images of sleep, and references to immobility. Circling around, that is to say, elements of content that lose their referential power by virtue of repetition, just as any repeated word—apple, apple, apple, apple, apple—loses the mystifying aura of its signifier. The poem features a writer-speaker for whom June, August, November, December pass, emptied of any pastoral promise or gratifying meanings that poetry has traditionally wrested from time, mortality, the seasons, and so on: “Years / pass through the common instants.” The speaker’s gaze passes helplessly over dates on a calendar:
The poem’s failures as lyric paint an at times funny portrait of the solipsistic subject Lukács marked in existential writing, Beckett tortured to no end in his late novels, and Fredric Jameson later took up as definitive of postmodern malaise. Unlike Beckett’s narrators, however, O’Brien’s is incapable of introspection (of becoming, then, the central modern or post-modern anti-hero of the piece); O’Brien’s speaker/artist doesn’t create, nor does the poem function as any worthwhile world to escape into or out of (“unaware” has to be one of the most common words in the book). What poem can one make from the line “Every day I wanted to get out of bed”? Indeed, one could perhaps make many Robert Lowell imitations from such a beginning, but in “Three Years” this type of statement arrests the poem more than begins it: the narrative remains static as time and plot fail to develop. Without real vertical “growth” toward higher or deeper meaning—even a meaning about the relativity or absurdity of such a life—this looped narration hi-jacks the meaning-making faculties of poetry. Amidst this long, beautiful, at times boring1 song-in-sentences, the speaker has recourse only to the structures of the lyric—the tick-tock of a metronome—stuck in an un-poetic situation without relief. “Thinking to read for once before going under / felt again on my body the weight of December.” Rhyme and metaphor—“Going under”—eerily evoke anesthesia-unto-death, haunting the lines like peripheral images in the margins or reading in a car moving past the wreckage of an accident.
We move through by tracking the names of the months against the lived “common instants,” clinging to and leaping between the gaps that appear between phrasal units. In place of fullness, we meet numbness and fatigue—building at moments to terror—in which the bourgeois subject is utterly alienated from herself, the work of his body (“it turns out I’ve been quite productive”), and therefore the hours which pass without sufficient—read “poetic”—significance in a world where humans are alienated from the work that they do and the products, even artistic, that they make: “a bad play about envy I don’t feel the pains of”; “January and its silent products, each / destined for the large room supposed to be there.” In short, we proceed as Stein must have, upon returning to her childhood home of Oakland, California—O’Brien’s old stomping grounds—to find the home gone, toward aphorism: There is no there, there. Indeed, there isn’t—“Three Years” is a poem about time, not space.
The speaker here finds herself in the quintessential Romantic situation—simply out walking in a “beautiful lonely . . . beaded atmosphere”—but the molecules won’t quite cohere into a landscape available for poetic reflection. While the sleepwalker-speaker continues to reproduce the forms of lyric expression, he has awoken into a language-depleted universe, a subtracted Orwellian newspeak, unawares. Here the attempt at simile, “like harmless diamonds,” disintegrates into an iteration of imperialist violence: there are no harmless diamonds, and to survive the diamond trade is to survive in a lifeworld founded on total plunder.
Just as the wars and violent repressions glimpsed in Metropole are not accidents but the fruits of carefully laid plans, the illusion that nothing political lurks here in the pastoral scenery is the very problem that O’Brien’s book takes up. Somehow, in order to retrieve an experience of consciousness within a fortress of media propagandizing the dictatorship of a super-rich, war-profiteering ruling class, the poems must work at the fringe spaces—a marker of the poems’ “difficulty.” To try to make poetic speech equal to experience—to attend to lived existence—requires a way to register total political alienation and abjection: a world, for instance, where the American democratic President re-names (in eloquent language borrowing techniques from the tradition of oral poetry) Israel’s apartheid state as a “delay” for the Palestinian “vision,” or the sodomization and butchering of Moammar Gaddafi as, simply, “Gaddafi is gone – and the idea that change could only come through violence has been buried with him."
This is not to say, with Adorno, that ‘to write lyrical poetry in America after Abu Ghraib or Troy Davis or Deepwater Horizon (etcetera) is barbaric,’ but it is to say that any free-verse at present that cannot address the co-option of speaking agency and/as political agency via the discourses of freedom falsifies lived experience. Adorno’s later cutting qualification to his famous ‘Poetry after Auschwitz = Barbarity’ line—“Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write lyric poems”—finds purchase in a year when Osama Bin Laden is assassinated by the state and a great scream goes up—“USA! USA!”—in the streets and across the networks in celebration of the state’s (extra-judicial) right to torture intelligence out of its enemies. We see a great transfer of screaming from the tortured man to the citizens of the state that has normalized—again in clear and lucid speech—the political and legal procedures of torture.
That’s beautiful, lyrical poetry—part song, part argument—a kind of lineated prose or syntactical prosody that points us back to Baudelaire’s dream of a poetry supple enough to respond to the undulations of “enormous cities” and their “innumerable connections.” It’s beautiful and generic enough (which directive? which September—this past one or you-know-when?) to read as emergent upon events—“springs”—that have since sprung. If Baudelaire’s drunken call for a “miracle of poetic prose” comes out of the radical, turbulent transformation of late 19th century urban spaces and the consciousnesses that inhabited them, O’Brien’s response is a soberer one that records the atrophy of urban space into Bloombergvilles where a billionaire mayors, enriched by a deregulated Wall Street, take home 185 times more than their workers and deal with unrest via the introduction of a (increasingly privatized) creeping paramilitary police state. Metropole’s slippages are too tactical to be euphoric, speaking as it does through and against the effects of 35 years of neoliberal plunder in which the Bloombergs of the world have seized the bulk of collective wealth for themselves, leaving the 99% with the scant remainder.
We end with a signature grammatical moment from Metropole: with the torsion on “never/cared” here, the bulldozing rhetoric of “clean” coal (or hydraulic fracturing or mountain top removal—the list of toxic ways to exploit land bases ever grows) both levels the power of speech and magnifies, on a linguistic level, the violence of such leveling. One is reminded of the etymological root of the term “torsion”: via Old French from late Latin torsio(n-), variant of tortio(n-), meaning “twisting, torture,” from the Latin torquere, “to twist.”’ The torquing action of O’Brien’s sentence performs grammatically the ways corporate forces strip the most vulnerable communities of agency—linguistic or otherwise. Likewise, the unknown screaming that famously begins Gravity’s Rainbow returns here, across time and space and intellectual property rights, suggesting dreadful continuities of systematic American violence—a political gravitational pull that carries the rocket now into 2011. Pynchon concretized the gap between the rocket’s impact and its sound waves—audible only after the target is dead—in narrative delay (the rocket that is screaming at the beginning is launched at book’s end); O’Brien mobilizes poetically what feels to be the same scream, suspended in its audibility for decades, seen if not heard across the white space delay, across the verb “comes,” accruing transitive objects that self-propagate and annihilate themselves, like all signs, into (it seems) eternity. But landing, not in infinite poetic space, but on solid ground after all, where a reader finds not the emptiness of holes left by warheads but the potential of
1 “I don't console myself with or even want an ideal, tireless reader who would take it on in a single sitting. It's meant to be returned to, dropped again, maybe even abandoned,” said O’Brien in an interview for Studio One Reading Series. The term “putative opposites” also comes from O’Brien in this same interview: “The book ends in a 40 page prose poem written in an emphatic iambic rhythm that records the falling of verse into prose (the embarrassment of meter) and along the way thinks a bunch of other passages between putative opposites (New York-California, communism-capitalism, workweek-weekend, subject-predicate, etc.)”
Sten Carlson and Robin Clarke are the authors of the chapbook Lives of the Czars (Nonpolygon 2011). They teach at the University of Pittsburgh.