Saturday, March 03, 2007

Green and Gray

I can't really think of any books--recent books, that is--that are doing what Geoffrey G. O'Brien's Green and Gray, is doing. (One of my favorite poems is here, others are here and here). Perhaps the thematics and thought-structure recalls the Frencher side of meditiative-speculative poetry in the last twenty years--Rosmarie Waldrop, Michael Palmer and Norma Cole. He might be a tonalist.

But there's such a relentless refusal of particulars, of the soft law of detail and concretion ("show don't tell" in workshop-ese) in Geoffrey's book, a refusal enabled, I think, by the fact that the poems insist on remaining lyrics written in something that hovers close, often, to blank verse. They insist on--and consist of, and insist in--the line as a kind of untransgressable boundary, strengthened the more that they push up against it with puns and rhymes and syntactical prestidigitation. Line as a mobius strip that enforces a forgetting of its own past, a smudged present part not-yet and part already.

I have forgotten what
would travel from the north
as a series seen from above
or from below, and the followers,
the flowers, I tore them up
the next summer, or rather
before or immediately after
and thought no more about it. ("Three Seasons")

I'm already screwing up the end of the poem
with a hopeful form of forgetfulness.
Let me confess to you that I plan a perfect poem,
one written during the historical period.
Now this was a period I don't remember
and now another is coming to meet it.
This may fuck up the perfect poem
I admit I'd already planned a kind of mass for. ("The Nature of Encounters")

Each kick-turn, then, involves both a (necessary, involuntary) forgetting of its origin and an attempt to ward off an ever-imminent ending, here the period to the couplets that keeps dislocating the poem (pushing it forward or back) and keeping it from being equal to itself.

Over the course of the book, if you read it in one or two sittings, the adventure of the line-as-phenomenon/line-as-subject leaves in the mind an image of what form is and what it can be--a way of resisting the dislocations of time. I keep thinking of Marcel Broodthaers rewriting of Mallarme's "Un Coup de Dés" as a utter visuality, as form whose content is form.

It is tempting, I suppose, to read form-as-content in Geoffrey's book, its intense abstraction ("remorse of the senses") as a critique of the increasing homogeneity and contentlessness of American life, where opposition is, in fact, turned to a curious kind of affirmation, activism become passivism; where dissent is neutralized into some pale form of civility, and the cherished freedom and choicefulness of the U.S. middle-class has no relationship to matter. This is a correct reading of the book, and a helpful one. But I wouldn't want to miss the work's deep positivity, its participation in the experimental project I mention in the last post. It is not only a critique of life-made-abstract, of sameness, but an attempt to use these things as methods that can prevail against them as lived. In reading recently for a working-group meeting on Marx and Darwin, I was pointed to these sentences from the first preface to Capital:

Nevertheless the human mind has sought in vain for more than 2,000 years to get to the bottom of it, while on the other hand there has been at least anapproximation to a successful analysis of forms which are much richer in content and more complex. Why? Because the complete body is easier to study than its cells. Moreover, in the analyiss of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both.But for the bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labor, or the value-form of the commodity, is the economic cell-form.

I think this is a fantastic account of the power of abstraction to work against abstraction, to find forms of concretion and difference and particularity that are not false or chimerical. Just as for Deleuze, whose empiricism is similar to Marx's, repetition of the same, repetition as a stutter, demonstrates the baseline difference that cannot be submitted to claims of identity--"differnece without concept"--in Green and Gray, Geoffey dresses his poems in a camouflage of non-particulars, somnambulance and hypno-melancholy, submits the poems to line's repetition-without-concept to reveal the sub-perceptible differences and particulars to which we might attend:

The experience of leaving
one category for another,
of smooth being colder
than rough and of
that December I suffer
as the experience of leaving
one category for another,
using a life that way
that opens and stops
moving, done,
furtively waving
as with one month
that opens and stops
among the others. . . ("Mixed Mode")

This isn't really the abstraction of, say, Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," described recently by an interlocutor as " the individual subject purging itself of material determinations." The purge happened long ago. Instead, Geoffrey works to drive abstraction to its breaking point. Coming a few poems away from the end of the book, the repetition above, the little stutter, could be read as a kind of pivot, the book having hit a kind of zero-degree of abstraction-contra-abstraction, and finally giving way to the new, refreshed particularity I'm suggesting is its end. The penultimate poem, "Hysteron Proteron," allows itself the enormous conceit of containing "examples of all that has happened" and goes on to index various events political, personal and literary. The first time I read the book, I objected to this poem as the book's end; after a run of poems which so steadfastly refuse proper names and the like, to come across "Paris" and "911 is a joke" truly threw me. Now, though, I guess I'm pretty convinced that this is the point. Though I'm still not sure that the close of the book completely succeeds at what I'm reading it as attempting (a turn to particularity after the suicide of identity, the suicide of the same) I'm also not sure what such a success would look like in this instance. Only Beckett, it seems now, has pulled this off, if anybody has. And in any case, if the exit arc comes too little and too late, then perhaps what it does is point us to the next book.

For those who are skimming, the point is that you should get this book. I look forward to hearing what people have to say about it, and about my reading of it.

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