Michael O’Brien’s Sleeping and Waking (Flood Editions, 2007) opens with a prose sequence titled “Certain Evenings,” a kind of paean to human needs and practices, praise for how the world offers up its images, praise for the “savage sideshow” (Rimbaud), the “parade. That ends at the cemetery” that is both New York City and “a man sitting in a room writing everything down.” Something Beckettian in that man in the room, though O’Brien’s world is rather hushed in comparison, precise, constrain’d, accepting. Here’s a paragraph of “Certain Evenings”:
In Penn Station an archaic music so serene it cannot be happening fills the great rotunda with snow. Something drags on the escalator, some impediment, the metal howls as each step lifts to its level and disappears. Two sentences proceed in parallel, indifferent, wearing away the listener’s attention. The travelers and their purposes have come to rest, waiting for the great trains. On the concourse new arrivals drift in numbers past the watchers, immobilized, practicing stillness, each attending the announcement of the one event, forsaking all others.Even the screech of metal scraping against metal is subsumed here, buffer’d by snow, the drift of new arrivals. It’s as if the world, citified, is—under the spell of O’Brien’s writerly attention—forced to exist in a fine stasis for our looking, as if every sentence produces an equal and opposite counter-sentence, so holding the moment in ever-ripe abeyance.
City imagery is predominant here, and mostly the strongest—some of the conveyances for natural landscapes, lacking the human form and O’Brien’s affection for it—us—to sharpen the focus, goes a little vague. (Maybe there’s a pinch of O’Hara’s famous dictum in “Meditations in an Emergency” sprinkled here: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”) I like lines like “the highway’s stoplights / hooded like falcons” and “grass / flattened by love, its color exhausted, a rain-spent morning glory // passing radio, rosary / drone of a rapper” (“As It Happens”). I like the Eliot-inflect’d lines—possibly spurn’d by the shake—of “Opens her Times like a / logical argument / shaking the pages as / if to be rid of the / worst of the news” (“Local”). O’Brien’s ear for demotic lingo-rhythms catches the syncopated stutter of “work against correspondence, the / world is not a / book, everything is / not something else, you / could look it up” (“Once”)—nodding to Casey Stengel there in the final phrase. Elsewhere (“A Pillow Book, Continued”) he notes “Pshaw! says the huge truck, braking” and “The blur of whatever. Hands thrown up, the hopelessness of words.” And:
Two men stand talking on the corner of 24th, waiting for the light to change so one can cross Ninth Avenue to the newsstand and buy a lottery ticket. As he starts out his friend says Don’t pick nothin’ strange.Bouncing around the book, sampling is never enough: here’s a whole piece:
GHOSTSWilliam Carlos Williams number-crunch’d by Creeley, snafu’d signage and clipped p. a. blarings, the way the city communicates its history to itself. Which is what a city is—a kind of living human dump, all fate and fracture, what’s gone glimpsed always—palimpsest—through the breakages in the notational now, and what’s upcoming, too, both the old fluencies and the future “do’s” abiding in ghostly demarcations. (Too, “Ghosts” grabbed my attention partly because of Vancouver photographer and art critic Christopher Brayshaw’s terrific ongoing series of photographs, “One Hundred Famous Ghosts.”)
Fake Greek temple
corner of Eighth &
14th used to be a
bank now sells carpets
stand clear of the
Michael O’Brien (b. 1939) is part of a kind of missing generation of American poets—a band of mostly rather late-blooming isolatoes, no generation at all in some sense. Certainly not the way the “Generation of ’26” (roughly, O’Hara’s) or the post-WWII hordes make (too) visible clumps. Mid- to late-’thirties births: Charles Wright, Robert Kelly, Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Russell Edson, Kathleen Fraser, Bill Berkson, Gustav Sobin, Tony Towle, Clayton Eshleman, Rosmarie Waldrop. In the short biographical note in Sleeping and Waking it is written that O’Brien was “one of the Eventorium poets, where his first book was published in 1967.” Which—because the Eventorium poets never cross’d my range—provides me with a history lesson, in the form of an interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis (by Jeanne Heuving, in a 2004 Contemporary Literature):
In the mid-sixties, I was in a very small New York poetry scene, The Eventorium, on 100th Street. There were readings, including surrealist plays and prose poems, a magazine, and relationships. A scene provides an intent audience, an audience that cares about your work and that applauds a new poem or a new departure. You get mixed reading lists, poets whom you have to run off and read; what you may get is publication, because little magazines and small presses are begun in those venues, like The Eventorium Muse. This was a surrealist-based scene centered on a productive but underknown collage-maker and poet named Frank Kuenstler, who has similarities to the slightly better known figure Ray Johnson. Other denizens were Michael Benedikt, Michael O’Brien, Serge Gavronsky, Barbara Holland; it was French-oriented with a lot of people working on translation, and quite a literate and literary group of people we were. An uptown scene. I did not go downtown, as those terms play in the New York sixties.Aucune idée, as one says. The American surreal’s mostly worn off O’Brien these forty years later.