“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-”
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.”