Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, August 4, 2008

Geoffrey G. O'Brien, _Green and Gray_

O'BRIEN, LIKE HASS, teaches at  Berkeley, or at least did when this book came out last year. You wouldn't call him a "School of Quietude" poet, I'm guessing, though on the other hand some of his effects are quite reminiscent of Ashbery...if you model yourself on an avant-garde poet, are you therefore also an avant-garde poet?  Or a just a new species of quietudist? Hmm.

Not that I didn't enjoy the book -- I did.  But doesn't this --

You'll be asked questions, no doubt
will bleed privacy, will be allowed to leave
only the previous moments, may
in next ones be privileged to see
the permanent dissolve, passings
of orders from one hand to another
or by a look; in any event 
a chain that will concern you.

--sound like Ashbery, the parodically officious-yet-trying-to-be-kind tone, the apparently clear phrase that offers an enigma ("permanent dissolve")?  As in Ashbery, the vocabulary is familiar, the syntax elegantly conventional, the phrases seemingly transparent, yet the whole poems resist resolution into any unified meaning.  Which is exactly what I like about them.

In "They Met Only in the Evenings," a prefatory note mentions, all the lines are based on phrases from the Patriot Act, with a word from an English translation of Genet's Querelle substituted for one word in each line.  Which sounds like the sort of thing Ashbery might have gotten up to circa The Tennis Court Oath.  So not exactly a new thing, but a good idea at least.

"Hysteron Proteron" does not sound like Ashbery and is one of the more arresting poems here, as well as the longest.  The title refers to a rhetorical device in which a later event is named before an earlier-occurring one, and the last two pages are a dizzying rewind from 9/11 to Eve via various images from poems and lines of poetry, with Pynchon and Melville cropping up as well. I don't know why Milton's "pansy freaked with jet" is altered to "flower freaked with jet," but the accumulation of lines with towers, jets, falling, and death really sucks you down the whirlpool into the primordial soup...not what you would expect from a 9/11 poem, but it's one I expect to remember.

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