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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Loosely Organized Thoughts on Oppen’s “Return”

“In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess. We cannot reconcile ourselves.
No one is reconciled, tho we spring
From the ground together-”

from “Return

This particular passage of “Return” by Oppen is for me a wonderful depiction of a conflict I am beginning to recognize in a new light. I’ll get back to the poem momentarily to explore how this is related, hopefully, but the passage is particularly moving because it dovetails nicely with a new understanding of what “atheism” implies, though I hesitate to use the word with all its connotations, but that’s for another time. The juxtaposition of humanity (a term I am, yet again, antsy about using in this context because it has to me a connotation of placing humans somehow above or outside of “nature” and thus in turn unwittingly invokes something (e.g. god) to do the elevating) with the beautiful image of the tree that appears in the next stanza struck me strongly. Oppen preempts the next image of the tree a bit and tells us that “we spring/ From the ground together” which is a newly fascinating idea, one I’d always grasped and indeed believed, but to which I now hold firmly and with a new touch.

This first stanza’s natural hum of life, this “dim sound” which you hear in time-lapse shots of rain forrest foliage growing, or on the parkway, with which Oppen and I cannot reconcile ourselves is itself (though I believe the inability to achieve reconciliation in this poem is twofold, both between the individual and society as well as and man and nature), or at least points directly towards in its own synthetic nature-ness, a contradiction. It is both entirely natural, in the sense of its being indirect, feedback, the remainder of unintentional overabundance, the “noise of increase;” as well as entirely synthetic, man-made, man-made yet appearing between the edges of what is “man-made” and what is “of nature.”

This passage is juxtaposed against, first, the opening lines which declare ownership and possession of the earth (“But we drive” implying the problematic response to this ownership), and second, the next stanza’s passionate description of a sequoia seed’s imagined growth. The grand declarations of a king are likened to such now-common claims on the earth as laying a road or sod, and then the imag(in)e(d) of the tree bursting forth even though it is in a “room without soil” next to “the tremendous slab/Of the tree.”


What are we to make of this powerful depiction of a natural act witnessed in the isolation and most un-natural setting of a museum? Oppen seems to like using the man-made as a way by which to return to nature, as he does in “Image of the Engine.” As I’m working through these first couple of books in his collected poems, I notice a particularly resonant (with me) movement towards reconciliation (though Oppen has already said such a movement is impossible, despite the impetus) between the earth and us. The imagined seed grows into a full tree in a matter of five lines, remarkably compressed, like the time-lapse films I have already mentioned. The line that strikes me the most in this passage is “we saw the seed reach out, forcing/Earth thru itself into bark, wood, the green.” The break after forced makes “Earth” and “-self” carry the weight of the line (which is interesting and problematic in and of itself, imbuing the planet with a selfhood [as I just gave to a line…]), but thru is the key word. “Earth thru itself.” Earth does not willing (especially in a “room without soil”) bring about the tree; the tree forces its source upwards, out of itself. Thus, we have what appears to be a guilty and mocking depiction of man’s declaration of ownership of the earth, yet the awareness that the Earth’s production is often aided, or forced, by its own products. So we have a solid, if tentative, stance by the end of the second stanza of where we stand in relation to the earth on which we subsist. The growth and advance of man is not unlike the growth and advancement of a giant sequoia. We “force Earth thru itself.” The stanza’s closing appositive, “How much of the earth’s/ Crust has lived/ The seed’s violence! The shock is metaphysical,” begs the question “What seed?” Both the Sequoia and man are valid answers, affirmed by the final word “metaphysical.” The very nature of nature (especially in the museum where nature is not itself, is a sliced and separated rendering [relying on both definitions: to repeat/relate/narrate and to give in return/return again to]) transcends (or is brought up to, at least) to the level of “meta-,” an insight to how we are and think that is maintained both within and outside of being and thinking. The Sequoia slab and its seed exist in nature, in the museum, in the speaker’s imagination, with multiple layers of meaning that are, are about, and point towards nature. The sequoia seed as metaphor for mind achieves a metaphysical awareness of its origin. Neither the tree, nor us however, are entirely reconciled with this.

We move immediately from the metaphysical shock of the seed’s violence to “the wood weathers. Drift wood/ And the foot print in the forest grow older.” I was puzzled at first, but now love the next line’s “This is… not what we mean.” It is the first clear statement of the poem’s resigned imperative to continue this forward movement. However, the knowledge of decay, as the poem continues, inspires feelings of desertion and betrayal. After all this pushing of the earth thru itself, to have it expire, to watch and be preemptively aware that it will soon fail, is disconcerting. Yet it guiltily inspires communion. We are “not innocent/ Of loneliness.” Meaning, we are guilty, and this guilt in turn inspires yet again Oppens abrupt return to the Earth. We imagine ourselves isolated in “the streets of the living” and are immediately, so quickly as to necessitate a self-interruption again (the return to the meta-physical awareness that came with the seed’s violence of eruption), returned to nature— all of this is after, during, and before nature. We are “a sap in the limbs.” This guilt over our self-imposed loneliness inspires Oppen to turn abruptly, directly to his wife and their own place in the chain of creation and death.

The resigned imperative, the begrudged awe, begins to reveal why it is an imperative and why it is taken up with resignation: there is a hope that through generations (in both noun and verb form) we may asymptotically approach happiness, yet a weariness at not having arrived there yet: “Mary,/Mary, we turn to the children/ As they will turn to the children/ Wanting so much to have created happiness/ As if a stem to the leaves.” I find the conflict of “wanting” and “to have created” especially fascinating. The desire is always present. Oppen actively wants. However, he wants the creation to be already manifest, to have already been created and to experience it presently. The next stanza becomes all the more intriguing in light of this past/present conundrum (which also illuminates time-lapse sequoia growth in the museum). There is an impatience here. This stanza is already well versed, no pun intended, in the agitated tropes that have cropped up in the poem: past/present, edges, the space between nature and civilization, the space in which those same two overlap, and what the manner of human reaction to nature means.

Oppen recounts a time when his family had returned to nature. Immediately, Oppen corrects the placement, though. It is not just a scrub that might still exist, it is a scrub “of the past” that is on “the fringes of towns/ Neither town nor forest, nothing ours.” There is much to unpack here. It is between nature and civilization, it is part of both (it is a scrub, overgrown, defined by its presence in and composition of nature; yet it is also the fringes of towns, not too far from civilization), yet it is neither. This tense betweenness throughout the poem is compacted and emphasized, especially in these three lines of intense repetition, correction, adjustment. And then, the daughter. In the meadow, by the roadside (that is, between both and in both nature and civilization), she recognizes, maybe even names, “Horse.” That is all. She does not explicate or examine, slice and glaze in order to present in a museum— but Oppen realizes this is not what he is really aiming for. This sweet innocence is powerful, even overwhelming, but where does one place it? He attempts to place it closer to the natural (the girl is welcomed by the horse and her learning what a horse is with a first hand experience is welcome), but realizes this is just his placing it at an extreme. He is immediately thrown back to the other extreme. By attempting to place the civilized (his daughter, a human from the city) in nature (in the presence of the horse) the sweet recitation “Horse” only catapults Oppen back to civilization, to the city. Frustrated yet again, he unleashes a most incredibly cathartic spat of lines broken up by stanzas, line breaks, and punctuation: “The rest is—// Whatever—whatever— remote/ mechanics, endurance,/ The piers of the city/ in the sea. Here are whole buildings/ Razed.” Oppen is caught between the remoteness of nature and the remoteness of civilization. Civilization is humans pushing the earth thru itself. Yet there are parts we have pushed through and abandoned, evident in the crumbling city blocks. Does the king of the first lines claim these parts, too?

I stumbled across this pertinent interview quote doing background browsing on Oppen while writing this (given its about Of Being Numerous, the poem that started me on Oppen, but it still discusses his themes):

“I realize the possibility of attacking many of the things I’m saying and I say them as a sort of act of faith. The little words that I like so much, like “tree,” “hill,” and so on, are I suppose just as much a taxonomy as the more elaborate words; they’re categories, classes, concepts, things we invent for ourselves. Nevertheless, there are certain ones without which we really are unable to exist, including the concept of humanity.
I’m trying to describe how the test of images can be a test of whether one’s thought is valid, whether one can establish in a series of images, of experiences…whether or not one will consider the concept of humanity to be valid, something that is, or else have to regard it as being simply a word (Interview with L.S. Dembo 175).”

I am continually perplexed by this problem, and I feel it is reflected in Oppen’s issue of coming full circle to nature again. Yes, we invented taxonomies, classes, languages, etc. from what we witnessed in the world but I am confounded by (and all too perceptive of the impossibility of) how these words, simple or elaborate, make their way back. Perhaps thus my poetic obsession with sacrifice, making way for, summoning, and creating the new, not for the sake of the new, but because the old is inadequate.

The final section of the poem brings it full circle, returning to the mockery of the first lines’ presumption, yet acknowledging that, though we may have changed modes, things are much the same: “The medieval sense seems innocent, the very/ Ceremony of innocence that was drowned./ It was not.” The rhythms of the last stanza I find particularly intoxicating, and, though the lines are longer, they have that touch of respiratory angst that I love so much about Creeley (whose poems I sometimes imagine being read aloud by an asthmatic suffering an attack). I’ve found out about Coughlin and Pelley, but I’m dying to know who Petra and what The Relief are. The last lines underwhelmed me the first time, and I still think “In the sun in a great weight of brick” is a weak way to end a poem that so interestingly explores its concerns, but the final image of the “streets boarded and vacant where no time will hatch/ Now chairs and walls,/ Floors, roofs, the joist and beams, the woodwork, window sills” grew in poignancy the more deeply I delved into the poem, because ultimately, that is where we are left. Oppen has voiced his concerns, explored possibilities, become frustrated, and is ultimately, once again, left to consider the ruins.

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Filed under: Oppen, Poetry

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