Geoffrey O’Brien — critic, columnist, essayist, editor-in-chief of The Library of America, and poet — is both a preservationist and an elegist, savoring what can be saved, acknowledging what will always be lost. This poetic mandate requires that O’Brien, a curator of shadows and vanishings, document the futility of incorporating the past into the present, other than as a diminished shadow, as afterglow, as echo.
In a Mist (2015), his seventh collection of poems, is a painstaking summoning and dissection of situations culled from personal history, myth, film, invented scenarios, offering a powerful inventory of snapshots and scorch marks of experience taken from these various zones of construction. They establish sites for sight and ruins of reckoning, conceptual land mines of meaning through which poet and reader must navigate with close attention.
O’Brien’s poems have always espoused a skeptical rigor and precision of language, so it seems fitting that the first poem is dedicated to George Oppen, a poet associated with the Objectivists and credited with the kind of sincerity and clarity on display throughout this volume. “In Memory of George Oppen” includes the epigram “The solitary are obsessed,” taken from from Oppen’s “Tourist Eye.” The appropriation is germane to both the individual poem and the entire collection, as the themes of loss and disappearance are serialized in a dispassionate but obsessive focus. Oppen writes how:
One might look every where
As tourists do, the halls and the stairways
For something bequeathed
From time, some mark
In these most worn places
Where chance moves among the crowd
O’Brien engages a similar protocol of sifting and scanning, of retracing identity’s arc through its temporal track and acknowledging the lost, forgotten lines of its trajectory while trying to understand what such loss represents for one’s being in the world. Usually, obsession suffers negative psychological connotations; for poetry it can offer the most honest and in-depth deliberation. I admire the kind of poet who bares her or his obsessions and writes them unstintingly rather engage in the safe and civilized modulation of content to appear — or be — properly various and fluent. The single-mindedness of poets like O’Brien show what radical concentration can construct: the virtue of over and over.
“In Memory of Oppen” considers what it means “to inhabit / a continual erosion / of what is there.” These lines signal the presiding concern of the poems to transmit the evanescence and encrustation of experience, dwelling on the spectral or disembodied but also the material and tactile as they diminish or disintegrate around him. O’Brien is neither pure abstractionist nor materialist, too preoccupied with sensitively recording the obscured, fragile and haphazard world of appearances, disappearances and transformation to side with any one particular orientation. Moreover, his conceptual grappling with mortality, consciousness and imagination denies any quarter to nostalgia or sentimental flourish. Facts embed in objects and ideas so the concrete and incarnate combine almost in a kind of synesthetic combustion so “you can hear the noise / of shadows vanishing.”
Shadows are prominent phenomena in a book dedicated to the momentary and the fragmentary, images cast indirectly, incompletely, lapsing into ether or aura of remembrance. Memory retrieval always assures loss and incompleteness, appearance into disappearance, presence and essence falling away: “Like the sound of glass / As it shatters / Into shadows of shadows.”
Since the signature of the visible is cinematic in so many of these poems, often composed in related sequences and scenes, O’Brien is able to make key relationships between the cellular and celluloid, the body as composed, viewed, and missing, film as medium and as occlusion on vision. Film stock and bodies are both prone to erosion, erasure and dissolution—a fact that O’Brien illustrates again and again. Those shadows noted above become discordant set pieces of the world mediated by eye, camera and imagination, none necessarily a reliable witness to the evidence scrutinized. Whether in the poetic narration of lost films or the recollection of long ago relationships (two poems refer to forty years prior), the crisscross of certainty and doubt about the accuracy of what is being seen, felt or thought produces a doubling, disorienting effect that charges these lines with both intensity and honest vacillation.
The obliquity of what can be seen or known is literalized in the description of, in one poem, “his face / tiled downward” or “your eyes, looking in down, “ in another, or in the longest single poem, “Insomnia,” the conceit that visual perception is a less helpful calibrator of our identities than the coordinates than time: “Not knowing who/ or what we are/ we at least know when.” However, O’Brien does not practice a frustrated forensics intent on dismantling its own idealism in recuperating the past. Any archival work here operates as an act of hope, a backward or sideways glance towards “the repository / of absence” even for an inexact restoration of image or memory in the present. All of the characters in these poems are primarily specters and as Derrida has written in Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International (1993): “…the thinking of the specter…signals towards the future. It is a thinking of the past, a legacy that can come only from that which has not arrived — the arrivant itself.” The paradoxical impossibility of the return of those personalities still significant to the narrator, along with their arrival through imaginative reclamation, fosters a positive awareness of their impact on him, thereby completing a circle of coherence where loss is relayed, deliberated, overcome and yet preserved.
Although Geoffrey O’Brien’s poetry and prose always contain the exorbitance of contemporary cultural realities, signs and subjects, this volume especially resembles in agenda, if not voice, the greater part of Thomas Hardy’s work. As a matter of course, Hardy’s “The Voice” summons his “woman much missed” through the mist of time, she too, like so many of O’Brien’s figures, “being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness.” That homophone is instructive for both Hardy and O’Brien, because through the mist is that which is missed.