Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Geoffrey O’Brien, Who Goes There
Dos Madres Press, 2020, $18.00

Review by Joseph Donahue

The interrogative of the title alerts us, yes, to “who” goes there, but also, given the poet involved in the asking, to the puzzle of where this “there” might be. Where, we ask, all our life long, is that “there,” the one into which people, places, and all that happens, goes? Each poem in Who Goes There, touches upon a single anxious paradox: what can we know of our not knowing, a not knowing that rests on the rational edge of mysticism, which is to say, ignorance, close to, but ostensibly declining, a mystical unknowing?

As a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien has always evoked with preternatural exactitude the proximity of an almost palpable beyond. Who Goes There is all about us reaching the limit of the quotidian, and sensing something else. Consummately alert to the irony that we are subjects in a world that has its own interest in knowing us, and it surveilling what we know, the poet acknowledges, at the start, that someone is often, but not always, watching where we are going. It is the inversion of the book’s disposition towards appearances. We may not know who goes there, but someone always knows who we are, and where we’re going, if only a “grizzled guy” at the back of the subway, “who is about to tell you how things are” (“Rumor Painted Full of Tongues,” 7). Moments of unmonitored perception are, therefore, prized. The title poem makes clear that despite myriad obstacles, the speaker, and so the reader, goes, if only imaginatively, to a relatively free “there”: “The island across the water / May be stared at all morning without permission” (1).

So then, who was present, somewhere, and now is not? In this volume, some who come and go are no surprise. Alien invaders, for example. They are crude in their coming, not really so mysterious; we don’t always know where they come from, but we all know, roughly, how every story involving their comings and goings on earth is going to shake out. We’ve seen the movie, as O’Brien knows, and if not, the movie based on the movie, which was, it turns out, quite probably, based on a movie. Those who come from beyond space, (the philosophically minded poet here tweaks the adjectives, “outer “for “beyond”—pop culture repurposed for speculative ends) are, in part, the result of tales about them that take root in the collective mind, which in turn, in a chant of apprehension, would seem to invite them to visit. In fact, they never go, because they are here for good:

We were told
That they would come
That they would hover
That they would infiltrate
That they would be indistinguishable . . .
        (“They Came From Beyond Space,” 21)

As a film, music, literary, and opera critic, and especially as a poet, O’Brien has long been drawn to the uncanniness of certain popular narratives, those which seek to assure us that we are who we thought we were before, say, seeing the movie, yet trouble us with the possibility that we are not. “Traces of Life on Mars” extends the sci-fi motif, giving us, in amazed lament, what once went there, this time on Mars, and is now left behind for our wonderment. O’Brien conjures a deep cultural past, deploying sci-fi’s love of the ancient depicted as the radically other. The inhabitants of Mars left evidence closer to what would be found at an archeological dig than abandoned on any technologically advanced way station. Turns out, again, we are not only who goes there, but who is always long gone. In another poem, “Ancient World,” O’Brien proceeds directly to the deep past, providing an Alpha for the Omega of the temporal landscapes of the volume. He draws on another of his longstanding fascinations: ancient cosmologies, scanning a spectrum of modes of knowing, long discredited in the secular world, which nonetheless might be of use in answering fundamental questions of who and where:

These to be remembered
Omens and prodigies
Prophetic dreams
Unearthly voices . . . (14)

“Ancient World” is, in essence, a paraphrase of ancient literature, and paraphrase is an essential aspect of this poet’s method. Through it, O’Brien renders the formal essences of various kinds of writing without ever evoking some specific text or tradition. (This insight I owe to J. Peter Moore’s extraordinary review of O’Brien’s previous book, Blue Hill, the title poem of which is a mythopoeic tour de force.) It’s how come we always feel we are within at the moment of the telling, whether it’s prophecy, epic, romance, history, or lyric, but can’t quite say how we have such a knowing sense of the world we are in, while remaining prey to the turns and twists of the particular genre’s rendition. This poetry arises from a lifetime of immersion in cultural forms by a poet rigorously, almost fanatically, circumspect in regard to the specificity of his sources. Unlike many who take up historical materials, especially those in the Pound tradition, O’Brien does not send the reader on a scavenger hunt for wisdom texts. He would rather reimagine the experience of living within a world governed by a wisdom text, most likely one that is no longer working quite right, in fact, one where to our dismay, the wisdom turns malevolent.

Despite a century of demythologizing this, then that, certain contemporary poets labor like Los at his furnace, night and day, creating new mythologies. They have internalized the critique of modernity’s investment in the category of the mythic, but have not turned away from its possibilities. As has John Yau in regard to painting, as has Nathaniel Mackey in regard to music, O’Brien has found, in an adjacent art form—cinema—confirmation of the continued richness of myth, this critically disparaged artistic mode. Not all modern mythmaking aspires to the condition of Leni Riefenstahl. O’Brien’s early poem, “Maciste in the Valley of the Pagans,” (collected in Floating City, Selected Poems 1978-1995), features what, Wiki tells me, is “the oldest recurrent figure in cinema.” Maciste, a campy, Herculean strongman, rooted in classical mythology, was derived for the modern era from D’Annunzio’s film treatment of Flaubert’s Salammbô. He then muscles his way through a century of low-budget sword and sandal productions, taking on other names, such as Hercules, Goliath, or Atlas. O’Brien’s remake of an equally mythic genre is “My Life as a Cowboy,” an uncollected poem that crystalizes every western ever made, through its hyper-attention to landscapes of arid vistas and glinting stone. “Ancients” (also in Floating City) offers the quintessential cosmogonic narrative. The Hudson Mysteries, a Victorian fantasia, allows O’Brien’s to expand his imaginative purchase outward from a popular form, the murder mystery, and into the whole of an era. From the start, O’Brien understood popular forms to do what myths are often held to do, tell all of birth, death, and the meaning of what passes between, that we will ever know. (His paideuma, were he to offer one, would be an all-night movie channel where tableaux of fundamental agonies and desires are continuously acted out in the dreaming mind of modernity.) Genre is, for him, both a medium of revelation and observation of ritual. Possibly as a critic, and certainly as a poet, he tends to see all written forms as sharing crucial affinity with ancient ritual dramas, be they Greek, Japanese, or other, and so are inextricably involved in the way we organize our experience of the world, find our place in it, understand our desires and our dreams, and participate in its continuation.

In Who Goes There, “Double Noir” shows O’Brien turning from the larger popular genre of the noir, itself a sub-genre of the detective story, to the hushed, illicit truths of the viewer. It turns out our inner lives also conform to genre conventions. Moral concerns are revealed through overlapping sub-genres. From cinematic conventions, the poet fashions a fable of our interiority. The two sub-genres, produced and directed by our dreams, propose two studies in guilt. In the first, you, reader, are accused of something bad you did. Years ago, you murdered a priest. In the second, you only plan to do something bad, an assault, not on an earthly representative of the divine, but merely on the social order. It’s bad, what you’re thinking of doing, but it hasn’t gone down yet. Yet to be written legal and theological glosses seem to hover around the text of what you’ve done or are about to do. These noirs deny the possibility of having done nothing bad, thought nothing bad. That would be a different sub-genre, of less interest perhaps, because O’Brien is not really all that concerned with the contrary states of guilt and innocence. What absorbs him, here, are the contrary states of knowing and forgetting.

Throughout Who Goes There, forgetting, or more generally, the vanishing of the known into the unknown, is vigorously imagined. It can be troubling and sad, as in the gorgeous elegy “North Ford,” an extraordinary addition to O’Brien’s poetic body of work. More often it’s a desired goal. Deep down, we want not to know. We want not to be dispirited by the repetitive patterns of fate. An earlier poem, “Theory of Climate,” presents with apocalyptic ferocity what it feels like to slowly awaken to the eternal recurrence of the same. O’Brien’s poetry often struggles against such dark foreclosures, and does so continually in Who Goes There, through the cultivation of isolated perceptions, short poems in which we are invited to feel that fate has yet to take notice of us. Consider this marvelous evocation of a moment that seems cut loose from a master narrative, that seems a reprieve from whatever plot in which we are enmeshed:

—came back too late
after the coat check closed

and walked in the halls
of a different time zone—

even the lights
on the water switched off—

to shelter in the armchair
of a pitch dark lobby   (“Hospitality Center,” 18)

Small ecstatic moments mark our liberation from repetition. Who goes there? Not really aliens, or ancient curses, assassins closing in, creepy guys at the back of the car, a catastrophic president exiting his golden tower, or even the memory of the recent dead. Nothing so matter-of-fact. Nothing that fits in a plot. Not the press of missed connection, but the touch of presence, a short startling wisp of perception, a turn of thought that always brings us from or to our not knowing or, more mystically, from or to the threshold of unknowing, a countersign, as one of the poems would have it. We are deep into the perceptual and psychological world, into the common light of waking day, but still sensing ourselves as alive inside a reality that never fully discloses its rules (so maybe we’re in an art film), where lived life is felt to be, and is, fathomless:

the news came in the voice
Of someone who escaped

skimming across the yard
like winter air

how fast does light travel
in rain

and when it comes down
all night

how many voices
glisten in the sound of it (19)

Post by Joseph Donahue on 12/19/2020 at 12:00 PM

Joseph Donahue's most recent volumes of poetry are Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman 2018), and The Disappearance of Fate, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). He is the co-translator of First Mountain, by Zhang Er. With Edward Foster he edited The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry, 1970-2000 (Talisman, 2002). Two volumes (Musica Callada, and Near Star) of his ongoing poetic sequence, Terra Lucida, are forthcoming from Verge Books.