Thursday, November 10, 2017
(On negative capability)
The wheels of the overturned wreck
I am having trouble seeing how–
some lines trip, now they blare
my head my eye
an old tv, giving up the ghost.
Before horror, everything.
Beyond horror, nothing.
O scow or barge loose–
should safely be moored. But people, those
people who have power in them?
I don’t mean to despair, I mean if we do not–
at least to hear
in the manner of poetry.
The second and third stanzas of this poem are taken from a journal entry trying to account for my experience of these last two days, as the reality of a Trump presidency in the US begins to sink in; the rest are citations and modifications of some writings of American poet George Oppen, who fled, with his wife and daughter to Mexico during the early 1950s after being repeatedly harassed by the FBI for his radical politics. Oppen is celebrated as a poet of “negative capability”–Keats’ term for a poet who builds work from the capacity to ask questions and to reside in “uncertainty, mystery and doubt,” rather than foreclosure or a drive to a preconceived end. For Oppen, and perhaps for all of us, ethics emerges from such confrontations with what seem to us to be situations of crisis. How do we describe and respond fulsomely to our histories, and to the events that unfold around, before, because of and despite us? Such activities take time, and often, in a crisis, that’s exactly what we’re sure we do not have. Nevertheless, to take the time to try to think, to hear and to see, in and despite our various states of blindness, deafness and panic, is our truest calling, and something like prayer.
Those lines that begin “the wheels of the overturned wreck…” are taken from Oppen’s poem “Route,” which recounts his experience, in 1925, of being responsible for a fatal crash. Drunk, and at the wheel, he lost control of his vehicle. I don’t mean to despair, I mean if we do not–” also reworks a portion of that poem, which is found in New Collected Poems (2002). (I write: “I don’t mean to despair, I mean if we do not–/at least to hear/ in the manner of poetry;” Oppen wrote: “I don’t mean he despairs, I mean if he does not/ He sees in the manner of poetry.”)
“Before horror…” and “O scow or barge loose…” are lifted from Oppen’s “Daybook 1,” working notes that seem to have been written between 1963 and 1964, after the Oppens had returned to the US. (Stephen Cope, ed., George Open: Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007): 58. In this section, Oppen muses on the latent potential of those who approach situations as bystanders, rather than actors