Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s fifth book, Experience In Groups, seems generated out of the anxiety inherent in a distinctly human desire—the desire for direct and true contact with the world as it is. But the world rarely (if ever) provides such direct epistemic access. That’s where O’Brien’s poetry lives, always seeking a more authentic, more true expression. Melancholic and analytical, he’s irritated by epistemological (and phenomenological) limitations; time, history, the sensorium, technology, and language weigh heavily on his mind. Such an anguished poet is bound to produce, much like Whitman, a defiant and contradictory style.
Wind hammered windows with lines
Of unbroken rain, innocent of carrying
These incidents coming down night
After night as though the dark.
There were other things to think about,
How pleasure moves like blood in water,
Ink, turning left then doubling back
All edges and none, driven on
By half an aimlessness.
Clotted with fits-and-starts, about-faces, and hushed sources (to use a Zukofsky phrase), his poems produce in us a countless number of cognitive events that are hard to resolve. Meanwhile, his grammar-dreaming sentences (knotted with function words) have a way of amplifying our craving for understanding (“All scenes are hunting scenes”). It’s only when we take a step back and listen to the poems from a distance that the need for certainty dissolves and is replaced with feelings Shakespeare would approve of. It’s the kind of revelatory moment that makes reading poetry so special. O’Brien’s meandering lines are full of little mysteries and deeply felt enigmas, a style reminiscent of Bishop and Ashbery, except O’Brien is less charming and outlandish; he’s more resolute and political, recalling the Language poets, but like Eliot and Stevens, he’s tranquil and blue. When O’Brien writes that he’s “Dreaming of more than Guadalajara/From an office in the tower,” it’s illuminating; he’s a poet who doesn’t drift off, but on.
And then you wake. An engine room
Again, that ratio of silence to roar
Where each feels like the other
Kind of old-fashioned to arise
A little too decided in its means
The imagination still constrained
By the future of its needs, which run
Yet are themselves run. A game
In which stretching toward falls back
Less close. Like going on
From rough to smooth, but only like
Or brass, if brass were rain
That taught you how to measure loss
First the bed, which is so very
Forgiving that you often lose your place
In the trial, forgetting that it is
About some misplaced ornaments
About still only having surrounds
Then the aubade outside and beyond
Where almost lives each bird
That flies or sits, making up a way
Through the enterprise. That’s about it
Yet far from it, the least of it
Not so much that you have to do
Something, but wake to, driven
Like a broom through stained glass
This isn’t the best poem in Experience In Groups, but it might be the most enduring. (Although not a sonnet, it recalls Sonnet 66.) O’Brien pivots from “game” to “trial” to “enterprise” with technical ease and when the speaker announces, “That’s about it,” we’re right there with him, but then the poem’s mood suddenly swells on the word “Yet,” and the rest of the poem discloses itself like all great poems do, scratching against silence. Mortality hangs around a lot of poems in Experience In Groups, but it seems especially present here (as well as in the poem “Sweet Timothy”). If the imagination isn’t emancipatory, but proof that something’s wrong, where does that leave love or joy or grief or whatever? The poem ends on a spasm, and the sound of broom, which rhymes with the “engine room” in the first line, provides a perfect sonic thrust through the pretty glass.
There’s a palpable despair that animates most of O’Brien’s poems, which he keeps in check with cold precision and restraint, the hard edges of which he skillfully softens with a lyric sweetness that finds clearest expression in the solemn music he produces (remarkably) out of words with little lexical meaning and a matter-of-fact tone.
Things are worse than they are.
The earth returns a usable world.
All my cells are pages stamped.
Half the time reach comes back
With nothing though everything
Touches everything else. The sun
Has gone out in the poem
In both senses of out, all senses
Of in. Or hasn’t yet come, has
Too weakly to be felt on your back.
Sunlight messaging the streets
Makes them look spread with quiet
Excuses for motion called place.
One day hate-rhymes with the next.
Things stay together, the center can hold.
We know a few reasons for this
Through which the ones we don’t
Escape. But be calm, as calm as
Small green plums in the fridge
At the end of August. If only one’s left
Be easy instead. Each feeling
Departs the time in which it lasts
For another point on the graph,
The next chest in the world. You are
A host of the temporary, taking
The short view of a long century
Already ending, leaving, left behind.
O’Brien seems to have a Hegelian view of history: suffering is the collateral damage of progress, but we, stuck in the present, only experience the damage. It’s one of the more scandalous facts of our lives. If each day “hate-rhymes with the next,” as the poet claims, do centuries? Millennia? The answer doesn’t matter. We are caught in the thickness and duration of now, materially disposed to perceive only the substance of days and months and years; progress, in other words, can never be viscerally felt in the granularity of the everyday. The pace of the poem, the first of three titled “Experience In Groups,” picks up speed by ignoring its own advice to remain “calm” (like Williams at the fridge, O’Brien can’t help himself) and instead panics (or is it numbs?) the tercets with a dialectic fit that only stops at the moment of contact with the mysterious “pines.”
The difference between escape and departure,
The difference between command and
Instruction, between description and praise,
Praise and assent, assent and complicity,
Complicity and fold, fold and seam,
Seam and border, border and line,
Line and detention (at a border),
Detention and camp, camp and asylum,
Asylum and detention at a border,
Detention at a border and rest,
Rest and care, care and worry is
Fog become rain when it hits the pines.
Dramatic irony not not knowing things
But not knowing the things you do.
And they aren’t things, but a time,
The jail of the year. What can be done?
The dishes somehow are clean,
That struggle is over. You can leave
The kitchen entirely, without guilt,
Flick, turn, or pull down the light.
It’s been one of those lives in a day
Repeating vague portions of the new
To make time right, but it isn’t, filled
With objects at the end of the aisle
Of a stare. So the little collisions
Experienced as progress through.
But it isn’t, it won’t, so be patient
As the future, things not even
Yet in the ground. Be ground,
Though not the one we having are.
For a poet so metaphysically (and politically) pessimistic (“How did I end up in the present tense?”), he’s not immune to the comforts of love. In “May,” perhaps the most moving poem I’ve read in a long time, he seems to push back against Williams who claims in his 1954 poem, “The Ivy Crown,” that “The business of love is/cruelty” whereas O’Brien’s poem begins by asserting the opposite.
This is a love poem. It has no business.
It happens in that anyway world
Where the bodies are by now decided
To get all the way up, accompanied
By changes in temperature and light
Welcome and unwelcome both,
Lie down, get up, go prone again,
Get nowhere in time. I won’t
Reduce to a single preposition
A relation to the one person about it
Like grass. Who has a pronoun, a name,
Three or four even, which globe,
Without containing, her experience,
Of which I chase awareness till
Her letters are with one exception
All over this deepening sheet, name-
Blind blue of a cloudless day.
Unconcerned with property disputes,
The poem gradually permits itself
To figure grass, the blue of the sky
Because we see those first kinds
Of immense quiet as sleepers
While walking the dog in the hills
And store them for future use
As simile and metaphor, each
Ancient and suspiciously free
Of present disaster. But today royally is
Blue and cloudless, this blue, this
Unironic absence of clouds over green
That makes you temporarily more
Intelligent, makes time harder to track
Until it seems it’s always been
Only this pleasure somewhere
Between hours in the form of a bell
Melting mid-ring. The poem’s now
Broken one of its rules in order
To keep ringing. Because I want to
Be smarter than true it continues
To disobey the trace of my injuries,
Remembering home is not a place
One at all leaves or gets to
But supremely anonymous
Relations with rhythm, a fragrance
Where skin meets time on which
No pronouns fall, here in the presence of.
Not lasting but repeatable and
Each of the instances claimed
For the series, belonging with the ones
That came before it, the others
Still to come but not in doubt,
Yesterday moving on top of tomorrow.
If blue were an all-day affair work
Didn’t tear us apart in, but held
As shape and song, the anonymous one
Playing on repeat, referencing nothing but
The very red distraction I attend to
Where bed turns each afternoon away
Along the suede sound of good decay
There’s still plenty of time to invent,
None of it spent in advance, then,
In intuition of every day to come,
The flowers lasting for more than a week,
Blue growing down to grass,
It would be like this.
The seven-line stanza (“royally”) recalls Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The poem feels less burdened with dread than most in Experience In Groups. The speaker seems downright content in his “anyway world” and the heartbreak of an unintelligible society is, at least for the moment, kept at bay, “where skin meets time,” while three of the poet’s foundational concepts (and there are several), “blue” and “bed” and “grass,” find synthesis in the last stanza where the music of the lines drift mournfully inward, against a current, towards the absolute of the left margin.
O’Brien has many interests: political protests, right-wing ideology/terrorism, the internet, mass incarceration, police killings, public memorials, photography, music, art—all sorts of other things. These interests seem directly correlated to ideas of freedom, which run parallel with his philosophical yearning for direct contact with life, both of which intersect and become entangled in the practice of poem-making. The results are ultimately satisfying and even beautiful and it seems clear to me that Experience In Groups is O’Brien’s most accomplished book. It lacks an aesthetic nervousness the previous collections possess because it’s more comfortable with its ambitions. Poems of particular merit include “After England,” “The Middle Distance,” “Nothing, Everything,” “Translations from the Occitan,” “Sonnets So Far” (possibly the poet’s masterpiece), “A Downward Motion,” the remaining “Experience In Groups” poems, “We Are Home,” “Sweet Timothy,” and “My Complaint.” Perhaps O’Brien’s greatest achievement is that he never fetishizes himself or panders to his audience, a rarity these days in poetry. Although his poems are resolutely abstract and he seems to find no pleasure in the surface of objects nor has an urge to burden us with autobiographical data, there’s moments in his poetry when he does disclose his ordinary life (doing dishes or laundry or walking his dog and so forth) and the details, while utterly mundane, occur so rarely in his work that they elevate (rather than cheapen) our brief time here, unconsciously radiant and tragically doing things.