The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Last December, poet and scholar Roberto Tejada delivered the thirty-first annual George Oppen Memorial Lecture in San Francisco. This event, featuring a different guest lecturer every year, brings new aspects and fresh takes on the American Modernist poet to light. Tejada's lecture focused upon Oppen's time in Mexico during the post-WWII years of the 1950s when he was forced out of the country due to the anti-communist witch hunt craze of Senator McCarthy and FBI henchmen out to harass Americans, such as Oppen, with Communist Party affiliations. Tejada fleshed out this period of Oppen's life, contextualizing the general atmosphere and its place within Oppen's creative work. The Oppen lectures, however, are not always scholarly and at times enjoy a more anecdotal tone. This was the case, for instance, several years back when British poet Tom Pickard took the helm and spoke on Basil Bunting, with whom Pickard enjoyed a close, personal friendship. It is also what makes the writing collected together in The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship so significant and an informative delight to read.
As the title indicates, any personal recollection of time spent with or around Oppen will inevitably include mention of his wife Mary and her contribution to the occasion. She played an indispensable role in the poet's life and work. The couple met when they were just eighteen, soon married, and stayed together, in near constant company aside from Oppen's volunteer military service during WWII, until his death in 1984. In their early years together, they traveled from the West Coast to New York City and spent time living abroad in France. They founded To Publishers, a short-lived but significant project that published Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and befriended Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky. Some of Oppen's first work, Discrete Series, notably appeared in the February 1931 "Objectivist issue" of Poetry, edited by Zukofsky at Pound's instigation.
As the Depression continued throughout the 1930s, the Oppens became increasingly involved in socialist politics, eventually joining the Communist Party. During this time, the Oppens ceased all literary activity, concentrating solely upon economic and social activism while also beginning a family with the birth of their daughter, Linda, in 1940. In 1942, Oppen went to WWII, serving in the European theater of combat. Shortly after his return, the Oppens came under scrutiny for communist affiliation, and the family fled to Mexico until 1958.
Oppen began to write poems once again towards the end to their stay in Mexico and continued doing so upon his return to the United States, publishing The Materials in 1962 while living in New York. From that time forward, Oppen worked on poems at a constant rate, regularly publishing a new collection every few years. The couple often traveled out of New York to sail in the isles off the coast of Maine. In the late 1960s, they moved back to San Francisco, where Oppen had spent time as a teenager. The Oppens Remembered primarily covers these latter years, when many of the contributors were young poets themselves and came to know the Oppens as friends and informal advisors. Their household provided a working definition for what a successful partnership between two people looks like, as well as how artistic and social-political principles might be balanced within its daily functioning. As Charles Amirkhanian attests:
Visiting George and Mary was always a wonderful experience, full of intense, if oblique, conversations that would continue for hours. There were no distractions. No radio -- no television blaring in the background. What they modeled for Carol and me was the value of a lifelong partnership. They validated each other although the world was slow to recognize them or their work -- and slower to uphold their political ideals of class and social justice.
In a tangential yet similar vein, Diane Wakoski speaks to the Oppens's unpretentious, practical nature in the case of footwear:
Mary, George, and I are walking in Manhattan [...]. This is the second time I have noticed their footwear. In the 1960s, no one had heard of Birkenstocks, which are now my everyday footwear. A forerunner, though, was something called Earth Shoes. To my Cinderella eyes, these splayed paddles for the feet seemed hideous.
The Oppens, though, weren't ones to worry over fashion statements. They had been through worse enough times in their life to see such concerns as ridiculous in nature. David McAleavey recalls one particular conversation with Oppen regarding past events:
He talked about building houses in Southern California -- which he was doing before he decided to flee McCarthy and live in Mexico -- and how on one occasion he spent a day trying to run mortar to the bricklayers, carrying hods of the stuff. He realized that he was not as strong as the laborers who normally did that work. He talked about his World War II experiences, in particular about the wounds he suffered in that foxhole where he had nearly died. He was working at that point as a truck driver in a convoy in France, when they came under artillery fire and had to abandon their trucks and seek shelter wherever they could; he and another soldier jumped into a hole in the field made by an earlier shell, which was not the smartest move, because, as he noted, they already had learned how to hit that particular location. And apparently another round hit their hole just after they jumped in. The other man bore the brunt of it and was clearly very badly off; his life could only have been saved if he had been carried out of the hole and some unknown distance in quest of immediate medical help -- but anyone who had tried to carry a comrade on that battlefield would surely also have died during the attempt. George instead pulled the wounded man on top of him, witnessing the man's hateful realization that George wasn't going to try to save him. When the next shell fell, it pierced the already-dying man, and thus did less serious damage to George than it might have. He was nonetheless in a series of military hospitals for several months, recuperating. When he was released from the hospital, he went to pick up the uniform he had been wearing back when he was driving the truck, and the soldier who located it said to him, "This can't be yours. It's full of shrapnel holes. The soldier who was wearing this vest is dead."
Linda Oppen further attests to just how serious in nature Oppen's experience in WWII was and the debilitating effect it had on him. Her remarks, which have been transcribed and edited for publication here, came during an interview for the Oral History Initiative for the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University. Unedited video of the event is available online. She describes how her father "did come home wounded. Very wounded. He was deaf. He was tentative [...] when he returned it was a dark room [and] a careful and fragile [man]." A little later, continuing on: "It was a long time before he recovered, and the psychological damage -- we now have words for and understand a great deal more than was understood or about then... The nightmares. I was aware of his nightmares. Well... into the years in Mexico. They went on for a long time."
Many commentators upon Oppen's work have noticed the deliberate hesitancy that's to be found in the poems. He ever carefully bears down upon the exactness of each word. Every phrase has been ordered and reordered before its presentation. Finally, when delivered with minimal show of the finesse behind its composition, it is by way of simplicity the work reveals its complexity as poetic statement. Sharon Olds shares one of her own "early favorites" that she "would look and look at," "A Theological Definition":
What is or is true as
Olds describes her fascination with these lines:
I would believe it and not understand it. I was just not able to get it, my brain not physically equipped to take What is/Happiness and What is true/Happiness and see them simultaneously; but I liked to feel what went on in my mind when I tried. The cogs locked -- everything stopped -- I floated in his lines, trusting, without understanding.
It is such unvarnished testimonials, offered out of love and respect for the lessons each author learned on numerous occasions when in the presence of the Oppens, that appear throughout this book. Rather than an alphabetical or chronological ordering, editor Rachel Blau DuPlessis has ordered the contributions according to "their most central represented moment, their most salient findings within the longer encounter." The result is a wide-ranging, diverse reflection of the core components within the relationship between the Oppens themselves and the friendships they shared, with emphasis upon the interrogation of the ability of language to adequately, and not so adequately, represent the nature of experience. The open embrace of the failings they witnessed and lived through as engaged, committed members in pursuit of the artistic life together.
Linda Oppen acknowledges, "They had a remarkable life." And while few couples today -- let alone of the Oppens generation -- enjoy the same open communication and shared commitment to a lifestyle of sacrifice over privilege, Linda Oppen speaks uninhibitedly about the balance of responsibility and planning in her parent's relationship. It was Mary Oppen who kept the household organized and the day-to-day business of life manageable:
She's the one who made it all possible. I mean it's not so much that she kept the home fires burning as that she grew the tree and chopped the wood and found the house to rent. All in the background, and just did it, within budget or whatever the constraints were. Always with total support and appreciation of my father and much discussion with him but not much help of any practical nature.
"Remarkable" as the Oppens were, they nonetheless faced the same hurdles any other couple must discover: their own willingness and determination to overcome the impositions of society's expectations. Their relationship is significantly unveiled further here than ever before. Future studies focused on Oppen's work will benefit from the complications and intricacies brought to light, while familiar readers will revel in learning from these fresh insights into one of the clearest yet complexly opaque poetic masters.
The Oppens Remembered: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
University of New Mexico Press