(Wave Books, 2013) 
Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s poetry is filled with the poet’s biography and a sense of his presence in the physical world, but it also confronts the limitations of personal experience as the ground of poetry. In People on Sunday, his fourth book, O’Brien appeals to conventional meter and diction to draw more from his life, and his language, than one could offer in prose. The result, surprisingly, recalls Empson’s comments on the impersonality of Buddhist art, in which impersonality means a property naturally evasive of human perception. For music, this means a tempo slower than the human heartbeat. For poetry, by analogy, it means verse slower than speech:

                                   Time too is
Indivisible into manageable units
That would be faithfully observed

By an undissenting populace
Like holidays or laws, whatever those are,
And there is as yet no populace.


In this poem, titled “Series,” we encounter concealed pentameter that forces us to linger on the secondary stresses of polysyllables that go unsounded in speech: “faithfully,” “populace” (twice), “holidays.” Do these phrases (“manageable units”) belong to the speaker? The poem seems to abdicate voice. “Whatever those are” implies detachment—if not ironic, it is sophisticated, casual. This urbane diction belongs to a literary tradition (Eliot: “the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere”) and it belongs to the intellectual class. No poet escapes cultural affiliation, and the speaker here is aware of this, raising it to a theme. O’Brien’s work counts on readers to share his personal tastes, and to be amused by his desire to distance himself from those tastes. In the poem “Names of Production,” allusions correspond to the interests and preoccupations of professional intellectuals. Classical music. Silent films. Baseball. Etc. The speaker is a poet, and so the connections between names—Strauss-Khan, Wilpon, Pynchon—are rhyme. This felicity is a form of embarrassed self-criticism, but is also an earnest expression of how human sensibility depends on coherence. The poem “Hesiod” similarly emphasizes modern concerns in a Works 

and 

Days almanac style: “Be mindful / Of unofficial anniversaries / In the leaves of the sickly apricot”; “Don’t confuse the figure waiting / On the bed for you with property.” “Wait mindless / As an herb” is good advice if to emphasize use value—flavor, medicine—is a viable recourse to the exchange value of the marketplace. Despite its irony, this line seems sober and pessimistic: we should aspire to sacrifice the mind. If only we could be so useful. O’Brien’s self-criticism expresses sadness in its most damning levels of irony. The book’s title is taken from a 1930 German silent film depicting working-class Berliners on a summer holiday weekend, ending with the intertitles, “And then on Monday...it is back to work.” The title poem is slavishly descriptive of that film’s narrative, and worries over its own position toward the leisure and tastes of the amateur actors in the film (“Whose desire / Is this anyway”). “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey,” after the Schubert song cycle) acts out similar anxieties over political identification. The poem ends with a rare metaphor and a pregnant nonchalance about the efficacy of contemporary protest rhetoric: 

                                        still 11:36 a.m.
In Berkeley as the women of Cairo

March to say again to the military
They’ll walk with their something to lose
Past the steel reeds, and to say
Hey, I’m tired of dying


The speaker is concerned for these activists, but the action is too far away to know its principles (“their something to lose”). The cliché figure of the military weapon as musical instrument (“steel reeds”) intrudes uncomfortably into the absentminded thought. The women’s final complaint is voiced in the idiom of someone sympathetic but distant, impotent. Sentiment is not enough. A trimeter line: cut off too short.

                                                                                           —Joel Calahan 



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