SEEN FROM A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW on Google Maps, the Bohemian Grove (20601 Bohemian Ave., Monte Rio, Sonoma, California 95462 — you can even see the street view to a certain point) doesn’t seem all that forbidding: A lush valley of timber with occasional clearings through which we can glimpse cottages and outbuildings, there’s nothing behemoth, though surrounding areas have opulent estates, formal gardens, and shapely pools. It looks dull. It probably is. The Grove — site of the “Mid-Summer Encampment” of the exclusive Bohemian Club, where the wealthy and powerful put on skits and cavort and cross-dress and give rise to conspiracy theories — provides both a central image for Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s third collection of poems, Metropole, and a literal cover image (a sepia-toned pastoral snapshot, taken, I hope, without permission). “To be fit / for the world one must periodically leave it, / affectionately,” O’Brien says. His poem reads like a Zagat guide to the Grove, seemingly gleaned from reports both official and infiltrative:
Grab our missing spears and begin
to think the Bohemian Grove, trees,
theatricals, songs that hold exquisite
filtering of sunlight down to the boys
were women there in the powerful glades,
in the 20s, there’s nothing like it, to have
loins for the first time running around
in leaves, in the 70s I sang a song of we
became ourselves again as women, specifically
houris, the “leaves of love” falling
by chopper and could see the security cordon…
— from “Bohemian Grove”
Who shall be allowed to participate in language, in naming and noting, in this world made of words? The book’s title raises the question too, with its attendant issues of center and periphery, capital and province, power and powerlessness. In the mysterious center of power, O’Brien reminds us that, even at play, in secret, naked or in drag, in fantasy and kink, the powerful are never not economic agents, warmongering, destructive.
O’Brien is unlikely to gain membership to the Bohemian Club by virtue of this book, although geographically he should be eligible, as a resident of Berkeley, where he is a professor at the University of California. Newspapermen founded San Francisco’s all-male Bohemian Club in 1872, with a charter that promoted alcohol, argument, and “good-fellowship among journalists,” but by the turn of the century its summer encampment at Bohemian Grove had become a nexus of wealth and power and The Arts. Their motto is “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” which supposedly is a reminder not to talk business, but mostly is just spooky. (Whose motto is about spiders?) They do, of course, talk business, and some of that business has been the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atom bomb.
But they also talk art. The journalist and historian George Wharton James, in his pithily named California: Romantic and Beautiful, The History of its Old Missions and of its Indians; A survey of its Climate, Topography, Deserts, Mountains, Rivers, Valleys, Islands and Coastli...