Liberating: that’s the best word I can come up with for the experience I had reading Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s second collection of poems, Green and Gray. What else could I say about a poem that declares this victory over life’s demands: “So much for problems and their solutions.”? What else could I say that would be more accurate than O’Brien’s own commentary on the book and its methods, embedded throughout this self-aware collection? As one poem puts it, “The feeling is / of the other side of the beginning of a bridge, / imaginary numbers, scratches on a table”; and these poems are “cold coals / of wildflowers, wars / at their centers, they go on for years / burning near the front / and from below.” Brilliantly conceived and executed, O’Brien has managed to be abstract and engaged in fairly lofty ideas without coming off as pretentious.
There is this warning for readers, though: if you’re looking for perfect poems, you should probably look somewhere else; O’Brien doesn’t write those. He begins “The Nature of Encounters” by “already screwing up the end of the poem / with a hopeful form of forgetfulness.” If you’re looking for poems that connect with you emotionally, that speak urgently to you, the reader, and bring comfort or mild epiphany to you in difficult times, this book might not be what you’re looking for. As O’Brien writes in “This Partly Imagined Tale,” “It may be / that feelings haven’t been accurate / instruments for some time now.”
What this book does take as its major concerns are the social, the intellectual, and the political; but especially, it addresses “the problem of senses confined to a head.” The focus on the perceiver, the senses, and the objects of perception keeps the poems from becoming didactic or sentimental by putting everything on the level of phenomenology. His avoidance of a poetic voice as it is usually conceived of in the mainstream contemporary lyric also keeps him free of such pitfalls. At the outset of “Objects in Portraits,” he writes that, “In the uncertain light of the first person / anything made is embarrassing.” He has chosen an interesting way around such embarrassment; he has decided to compose many (possibly all) of these poems with the language of other texts: not his own expression, but the expressions of words moved and rearranged into new contexts. In this way, the words do not follow an author’s intended meaning so much as they precede it and give rise to it. This reversal of the standard order of events or process is featured prominently in the poem “Hysteron Proteron” (the rhetorical term for such reversals). It contains some of the most politically dangerous moments in the book. O’Brien manages to cover bombs (think cruise missiles), toppled statues (think Lenin, think Saddam Hussein) and 9/11 with an intelligence and care to the nuances of connotation that allow him to get away with lines like “the fortuitous encounter on a sky / of two planes and two towers” and “911 Is a Joke, How Can I Move the Crowd, Police and Thieves, The Ocean.” [Just for clarity’s sake, “911 Is a Joke” is a song written by Public Enemy in 1990, here used as an example of how eerie hysteron proteron can be.] Another poem, “They Met Only in the Evenings” (as a brief note at the front of the book explains), was composed using only language from the USA PATRIOT Act and Jean Genet’s Querrelle. “The New” was composed by extracting phrases that mark time from Dante’s La Vita Nuova and arranging them into a meditation on causality.
The real achievement of this book is in the unexpected and often unexplainable moments of clarity that O’Brien arrives at through the expert use of these compositional methods. “In Re Others” pulls this off better than any other poem. One of many in the collection organized around anaphora—a technique which O’Brien employs to great effect—the poem moves along steadily on the repeated phrase, “There is this to say.” And much is said about the self and the “other”—those it coexists with—much of which “can be said with a ship / and a wave, with only and also.” But what it comes down to in the end is this: “a bee in a well, the edges of islands, / any meeting place of the one life and the other / and the rekillable flowers that grow there / as though to say: there is this.” The tail of the anaphora, “to say,” has fallen off, and there is only “this” left, naked and glorious: a thingness that is beyond any of the poem’s things, an awareness that is not confined to any sum or part of those who are aware, an imperceptible hum that can even resist the word silence. I suppose this is what I mean when I call this book liberating.
[Reposted by the author from the Sycamore Review weblog]