Poetry is a trade secret. Its essence, we are told, cannot be cracked, hacked, or conclusively mapped by even the most well-meaning of lab coats. I’m paraphrasing of course, restating one of the most widely accepted commandments governing poetic discourse, handed down as the “heresy of paraphrase.” But as Lawrence Kramer points out in his essay on “Song as Paraphrase” (2015) the New Critical contempt for reductive synopsis is in a sense guilty of its own charge of sacrilege: it is reductive to read paraphrase strictly in terms of blasphemous simplification. Language is a system of rewording, rephrasing, refiguring the ideas and expressions of others. “Any utterance harbors the potential for other utterance,” writes Kramer, “for the simple reason that anything that is said can also be said in other words.” Certainly, some of the founding documents of Western poetics read as ruminations on paraphrase, from the mimesis of Aristotle to the self-consciously derivational practice of Robert Duncan. Poets do not simply speak. They serve the idea of speech, by refiguring it, by adopting and adapting it on the fly. However — and this is important — it is one thing to write a poem that, by its nature as poem, participates in the logic of restatement. It is another thing to make something so poetic, in its attendance to paraphrase, that it expands the horizon of expectation and arrives at the far boundaries of convention. Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Blue Hill (2017) is such a work.
As the prefix suggests, paraphrase stakes out a position along the margins of expression; it lives off the light of an other’s making. As a poet, cultural historian, editor, and critic, O’Brien has adopted the posture of the para. “We were bookish people, steeped in a conversation about books that had already lasted years,” he writes in his prose fantasia The Browser’s Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading (2003). “The space between the novels we read and the novel we lived was a zone of cunningly sustained indeterminacy.” The writer casts himself as an escapist reader, amassing the archives that feed the condensed form of paraphrase. And what is paraphrase if not “a zone of cunningly sustained indeterminacy.” It is where one loses track of what is one’s own and what is borrowed, entering into a space of mutual vicariousness. Take for instance O’Brien’s prolific prose catalog, a veritable multi-volume hornbook on the American culture industry. In these books, one finds a writer so enthralled with his subject, be it detective fiction (Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, 1981), low-budget exploitation cinema (Castaways of the Image Planet, 2002), or heavy-rotation pop music (Sonata for Jukebox, 2011), that his writing becomes a means of turning reception into a scene of primary creation. In their Bomb Magazine interview, writer and critic Luc Sante says that O’Brien is “seemingly capable of compressing entire encyclopedias into his parenthetical asides.” While these asides accentuate O’Brien’s prose, in poetry he finds a mode wherein the aside exists not simply as a departure from the proposed narrative but for its own sake. It is the form best suited for highlighting the economic imperative of artful synopsis.
The closing sequence from The Blue Hill, “Caller from Ganymede” is a case in point. In its 19 sections, the poet summarizes scenes from a 1960s sci-fi film that, on the surface, seems ill-suited for such careful reflection. (This is after all a film that was re-titled, for its American release, The Blood Beast from Outer Space.) Originally titled The Night Caller, the British-made film tells the story of a dying species of extraterrestrials who send a monstrous ambassador to earth who abducts young women to send back to the home planet, where they will serve as breeding stock. The opening poem institutes a form that will repeat throughout each of the numbered sections:
In the place from which
the signals came
it was already the future
but the future was grown old
and striped of gloss—
In the dusk of the immobilized city
the cars along the river
switched on their headlights
as a bright object feel from space
without one motorist
to see it or cry out—
The hypotactic syntax pushes perception as the writer finds generative constraint in that open form of the sentence. Cobbling together clauses, O’Brien builds his poem like a generative linguist, disregarding the particularities of performed speech in favor of the abstract rules that govern native competency. Denuded to the point of rendering conventional punctuation obsolete, the poem features a repeated use of the hyphen, allowing O’Brien to register measure without marring the evanescent feeling of song. A number of poems in his seven preceding books of verse attest to his interest in expanding upon the lapidary minimalism of such avant-garde poets as George Oppen and Robert Creeley. In “Caller from Ganymede,” the poet steers away from cultivating a personal canon and closer to the anonymous restraint of paraphrase. But references still lightly filter into his language. The closing line fuses together two hallmark utterances in poetry—Williams Carlos Williams’s image of the unmanned auto in “To Elsie” and Rilke’s exclamatory speaker from the first of the Duino Elegies (both published in 1923). Taken together, they convey a voice coming to realization, responding to the craziness of mass production through patient attendance, advancing not simply a poetry of witnessing, but also one of guarded participation.
While the third section of the poem clearly attests to O’Brien’s love of film, the second hints at his confession that he first turned to poetry because it seemed the cheapest means of making movies. In one of this section’s discrete lyrics, “The Song,” O’Brien begins, “Oh faithful travelers/Whither for where you rove,” gesturing to an imagined history of vast distances that separate the lover from his love. The bardic speaker relies upon the memory of travelers who might “Hold fast the song/ […] So when you meet her / she might hear each note.” While a woman in another poem, “The Old Tune,” hopes for the day when she no longer remembers the song that sends her into “spasms of mistrust,” the speaker in “The Song” rages against the dying light of memory loss. He fears improvisation and departure, fears the traveler taking liberties, the poem speaking directly to the heresy of paraphrase. Although clearly uneasy with restatement, never does the speaker rehearse the treasured verse for the reader. Its absence thus spurs the reader to fashion fantasies of possible lyrics. Accepting that whatever song we conjure is only a contingent rendition of the ideal song, the one we never hear, the poem prompts us to paraphrase.
In the titular suite, a 25-section poem on a particular instance of witchcraft persecution in 15th-century Sweden, O’Brien takes yet another approach to the paraphrase, putting it in service of rhapsodic defamiliarization. If “Caller from Ganymede” uses paraphrase to render a flatness inconsistent with poetic convention, then the opening piece plays a bit close to poetic expectations, while challenging the notion of paraphrase as a restatement meant to clarify meaning. The absorptive narrative clarity of “Caller from Ganymede” shifts to a clarity of feeling and intuition in the self-titled suite:
The blue hill
Some have been there
The blue hill
The eyes are changed
The voice is altered
The blue hill
When two that have gone there
Meet by chance
They nod their heads
The blue hill
A nod that nobody
Else gets sight of
The blue hill
Who ever dreamt of such a place.
As O’Brien tells us in the notes, he drew his information from Bengt Ankaroo’s academic history, Witch Trials in Northern Europe, 1450-1700, which details the tradition of the Blåkulla, or blue hill, an island in Sweden’s Kalmar Strait and a suspected site of Sabbath occult gatherings. Public executions of 20 suspected witches took place at the site. As much as O’Brien’s work resonates with the recovery work of contemporary documentary poetics, his handling of the material testifies to his investment not in evidence but in innuendo. Paraphrase is particularly important here. Little direct description of the Sabbath makes its way into the poem. Rather, O’Brien shows in increments how the phrase “the blue hill” begins as suspicion and builds into all-consuming construct in the mind of the collective. All the allegorical potential remains intact. While O’Brien paraphrases the academic history of occult persecution, the poem points to the role paraphrase and hearsay play in the accumulative constitution of myth. Each section follows the pattern above. The repeating name of the place underscores the obsessiveness of the subject, enabling O’Brien to convincingly show the link between heresy and hearsay.
In the end, The Blue Hill situates paraphrase as something other than a method or exercise. With each section, O’Brien returns to the affective weight of being called, treating the urge to rephrase as his calling. It is this ecstatic sense of second-sight that allows a book so painstaking in its craft to yield such visceral pleasure.
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