Geoffrey O'Brien's IN A MIST

John Tamplin

Geoffrey O'Brien's poems are full of things vanishing. The first three poems in his new book, In a Mist, appear to be elegies for vanished people. "For S." concludes:

A wisp is too harsh.
At mere hint of sight
all parts of you
drop into the glare. 

 "A Yard at Daybreak" ends:

The shop is shuttered
and the yard so quiet
you can hear the noise
of shadows vanishing.

The poems offer faint images in clipped lines, favoring a suggestive juxtaposition of elements to a discursive epiphany. Their preoccupation with the vanished and the fleeting is complemented by a mode of presentation in which lines are subjected to abrupt and often rhythmic enjambments. The short lines recall to the eye and the ear the poetry of George Oppen, a connection O'Brien makes by entitling the volume's first poem "In Memory of Oppen." The poignant irony of the title is that Oppen himself lost his memory to Alzheimer's. How fitting, then, that these poems should chart the varieties of loss: personal, experiential, cognitive.

Readers familiar with Geoffrey O'Brien will most likely have encountered him through his eclectic, effusive prose accounts of the cultural memory of the second half of the twentieth century, a string of books about hard-boiled novels, popular music, Times Square, and the Sixties. The enthusiastic gush of those books cannot prepare readers for its apparent antithesis in the chiseled spareness of his best poems.

Traces of these enthusiasms surface in In a Mist. One suite of poems imagines synopses for "lost" films, whose titles alone remain. But if the source material is sometimes similar, the clipped style of poetic treatment could not be further removed from his wonderfully prolix prose. Consider the pithy "David Goodis," in which O'Brien refashions lines from the work of the eponymous novelist into the baleful suggestion of a narrative: 

His room had a bed,
a table and a chair. 

He turned and looked around the room
and tried to see something. 

The quiet became very thick
and it pressed against him. 

The heat
was stronger than any liquor. 

He told himself to relax
and play it cool. 

He told himself
to get back on balance. 

As he went out of the house
he could still hear the screaming. 

And later, turning the street corners,
he didn't bother to look at the street signs. 

The procedure is once again reminiscent of Oppen, whose poem "To C. T." was "written originally in a letter to Charles Tomlinson who, in his reply, suggested this division of lines into verse." But O'Brien's facility with slivered phrases appears especially when he handles his own words. He has a knack for the aphoristic, as is only appropriate for a poet who so favors compression. "The Chimes" opens: 

The nature of time

Is to dissolve
Into reverberations

The character of dusk
Is to proclaim them 

Sound and sense are perfectly balanced so that each phrase suggests more than it asserts. The mystery of these declarations is only deepened by their syntactic simplicity.

In his book on the movies, Phantom Empire, O'Brien catalogs the various paradoxes associated with the modern phenomenon of a collective cultural memory intentionally constituted by the film industry. What happens when a society gets its idea of the history of the Mahdist uprising, say, from the movies? In a Mist registers an analogous invasion of the real by the virtual in these lines from "Insomnia":

In the present
I try to recreate a present

I saw in the past
only obliquely 

being absorbed in a past
that looked just like a future 

to be spent so deeply rapt
in the study of the past 

that by the time the future came
I had gone back the other way. 

Reality is too delicate to withstand our expectations; it collapses under the weight of our prejudice. Experience vanishes in a mist of our experience of it.

Part of this poetry's success (part of any creative success) is its felicitous marriage of form and content. In this case, and to absurdly over-simplify, fugitive glimpses are well-suited to attenuated lines. The book falters whenever O'Brien relaxes his vigilant attention to the line. The central suite of poems, "Program Notes for a Festival of Lost Films," contains frequent lapses in the rigor of the line ("The sea is topped with glitter. The foam / seems to come to life. In the darkness we see heads / poke out of the water"). More attention is paid to the conceit of summarizing lost films than to the craft, and the clever twists of narrative ring false when the reader recalls the strenuous clarity of the book's best poems.

The final poem, "The Birds," culminates in the book's most dramatic vanishing act. The speaker describes the "incredible process / of bodies becoming visible" as the dawn breaks. The transition from night to morning accompanies the shedding of discursive thought:         

at those times thought was difficult
if it can be called thought 

a cross between groping
and being flooded

The universe of things reveals itself to the senses in a progression of increasing clarity. The climax of this progress is the sensory world laid bare ("nothing but a world / made real by touching it"). Finally, words themselves vanish, winnowed into pure sound rhythms:

here now here now cheep
here now cheep

kick it keep it
kick it keep it           

hither hither whence
hither whence 

aweep aweep aweep
aweep aweep 

These are lines for an ear unhindered by thought. O'Brien makes of the loss of one kind of "sense" (common sense, sense-making) the recovery of sense-as-sensation, an achievement for which he is to be congratulated and, more importantly, read.

John Tamplin is a freelance writer and translator from Louisville, KY. 

In a Mist
by Geoffrey O'Brien
Shearsman Books, 2015
$16 paperback; ISBN: 978-1-84861-360-7
81 pages