OCTOBER 13, 2011
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 Coastline; A Description of its Recreations and Festivals; A Review of its Industries; An Account of its Influence upon Prophets, Poets, Artists and Architects; and some reference to what it offers of delight to the Automobilist, Traveller, Sportsman, Pleasure and Health Seeker, With a map and seventy-two plates, of which eight are in colour (1914), had the glorious opportunity to expound on the grand vision of the Bohemian Club, noting that it was founded
by a few of the literary and artistic spirits that found themselves in San Francisco after the first great decline of the gold excitement of 1849. Its members were all individualists. They cared nothing for precedent or other men’s ways of doing things, hence in their annual celebrations they struck peculiar and striking notes of fun and entertainment that made an invitation eagerly sought after.
Early guests of the Bohemians included Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling, though today’s members are more likely to be defense contractors and mutual fund managers. Every Republican president since William Howard Taft has been a member, along with several Democratic presidents, Henry Kissinger, Jack London, Walter Cronkite, Ambrose Bierce, Henry Ford, Witter Bynner, Barry Goldwater, Bret Harte, Colin Powell, Mark Twain, and Donald Rumsfeld.
All of this history bears on O’Brien’s book, which is about the grotesqueries of aesthetics and politics. In O’Brien’s work, the Bohemian Grove becomes an emblem of the art impulse gone awry into its most patriarchic, bourgeois, dangerous, murderous, bloody meaninglessness. In proposing the Grove as a Tartarus of art — and, more generally, that the dominant culture is itself becoming a kind of Bohemian Grove — Metropole is a companion volume to Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas: both are descended from Blake’s understanding that we constantly wrap ourselves in chains, even and especially when we enact performances of liberation. To Blake, when we start to rise from our chains we slip into other, heavier chains that we think are freedom, and each is tougher to escape. From this perspective, the joy we think we feel becomes just another form of agony. In Metropole, the provincial paradoxes of California provide a metaphor for a more universal condition, as the book’s title suggests. At its core, Metropole presents an argument about agony and self-delusion, misery and exploitation, and yet the presence of the poems at all suggests the possibility of transcendence, although the poems make no claims to being transcendent. In the slack spaces and slippages between things, there is something that satisfies me on that fundamental (if ultimately grotesque) Bohemian Grove, I-like-art level; but the poems create, in another area, a disharmony that also satisfies.
Part of this disharmony is the clash between speech and silence, presence and absence. “Vague Cadence” describes “a part of speech without a name” as “a building dream within.” An unclassified part of speech must be invisible — some way a sentence works that isn’t written, but is read nonetheless. Not spoken, but heard. Words repeat almost unnoticed, inside lines, rather than at line-endings — moves, useless, marks, practice, acts, hapless — consonance behind a scrim. It is like a ladder that materializes only as you climb. This holds true for the rest of the book: If the cadence of Metropole is vague, it is all the more alluring for being only dimly perceived, like an army drilling some meaningful, hard-to-interpret distance away.
Perhaps though — as O’Brien gently reminds us later, in the poem “Metropole” — the outsider’s paranoia is a misreading. Here, the pantomime of the Bohemian Grove is compared to the starkness of a bomb testing ground, for bombs, perhaps referring to the U.S. Navy bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico:
Use of these motifs suggests a supple understanding that the face and head can turn repeatedly. The pattern of the shield was raised with spears like current hours sent through time to see, so some believe it written very quickly others soon agreed. The owl or spider hidden on the dollar bill rewarding paranoia is if anything a printer’s mark. Viewed through small embedded lights, North Oakland looks like contests won by quiet whites and pinks the jasmine spills. No chance of living anywhere but testing grounds
The potential for attention to become its own form has also been a question for the poets who seem most directly to have influenced O’Brien, such as Michael Palmer, Ann Lauterbach, John Ashbery, and Marjorie Welish. O’Brien’s work seems more interpersonal and directly political than theirs, which may be a generational difference. At times the poets of the late 20th century have seemed like mere decorations of a decadent empire, having failed, by and large, to engage the essential matters of their time. O’Brien’s work on the sentence seems to me a direct assault on language itself, and, admittedly failing to unharness the possibility, at least permits attention and focus as, he writes, “a form of enraged sympathy.”
O’Brien is dealing with the old problem of distinguishing pretense from what we truly need from art, and therefore from each other. He takes a mathematician’s pleasure in attacking a challenging problem, in exploring pattern, shape, logical proofs, and theoretical constructions. In poems such as “Ambien,” “Dizzy Procession,” and the Whitmanesque “Failed Catalog,” he pursues experiments of phrasing all the way to their failure, or verge of failure, redefining failure as “an argument for permission.” If his lines sometimes seem like nonsense, remember that the most powerful lines in sacred texts are often a little nonsensical — they require a leap. (The poet Robert Hass has described the experience of reading O’Brien “like watching Fred Astaire dancing on a mirrored floor.” Fathoms of intellect, comedy, and politics reach far beneath the poems’ elegant surfaces.) The movement of the mind is the movement of obsession, often navigating unwanted and intrusive thoughts, as persistent as grief or as brief as a crush, and the process of a poem inevitably revolves through this territory but only takes form in the pressurization of poetic technique. “Failed Catalog” initially acknowledges failure and concludes with a shrugged reminder that failure has been promised and delivered, dropping off mid-stanza with “etc.” But it’s an “etc.” as loud as the “the the” at the end of Wallace Stevens’s “The Man On The Dump.”
O’Brien brings his scrupulous attention to prepositions and articles, the smallest units of language, and sees the immense possibility within, the way Blake sought “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower.” This is more than the grammarian’s nerding-out on parts of speech; it is the exploration of the atom, the subatomic. Armed only with sentences, O’Brien is asking what expectations and assumptions the reader brings to the inner workings of a sentence, of a phrase, of any combination of words, the parts of speech themselves. He is out to understand the possibility of the sentence, including, I think, the reader’s role in making meaning. He doesn’t tap out of this wrestling match against the enemy: It’s a tag team cage match, writer-and-reader to the death against The Problems.
“Metropole,” the 39-page sequence at the core of the book, is written in bands of iambic prose, three bands to a page, a feat of virtuosity that even the skeptical reader must admire. Form’s ghost haunts these pages. Colonial critics would have accused O’Brien of witchcraft for the things he says, and the ways he says them. Words frequently shift function over the course of a sentence, with nouns becoming verbs, objects becoming subjects, pronouns shifting antecedents, creating a very precise kind of dream-speak, as in this funhouse example: “The longer messages go unanswered questions falling down inside a crowd.” Or this: “The sun revolves around the earth revolves around the sun.” As a consequence, these embedded sentences have the intensity of koans or paradoxes or riddles. Their mere presence conveys both seriousness and play, aphoristic syntactic conundrums counterbalanced by sentences that overlap and may or may not match up.
California has always been a home for poets; it’s also always been mostly a poem itself. Among the disputed origins of the word “California” is the Anglo-Norman epic poem La Chanson de Roland (written in 10-syllable lines with a strong medial caesura and symmetrical assonance, much like Beowulf). From then on, the word seems to be a poeticized version of a city along the Crusade route, altered to fit the poem’s formal requirements, perhaps exaggerated through Orientalist exoticism. It begins to appear in literature, in other poems and novels, presaging a rich, magical island far in the distance, beyond Asia. Western civilization invented California before they found it and changed the land to suit the fantasy, the way a poet may adjust syntax and diction to satisfy the ear.
In 1914, James described California poetry thus:
Her singers have been more natural, more exuberant, less restrained an academic than those of any land yet known to history, and they have sung a larger truth into the inner consciousness of the thoughtful world, in that they have set a new standard, viz., that pure naturalness is to be preferred to conventional artificiality, that spontaneous expression is ever superior and more to be desired than labored and studied formal periods … I venture the assertion that there is one way, and one way only, to know and understand California. That is the way of love. One hour of love will reveal more, grasp more, comprehend more than a year of critical study. If you take the critical attitude — which in nine cases out of ten is the ignorant attitude — the antagonism set up renders sympathetic understanding impossible.
Whereas in the July 19, 2011 Los Angeles Times, the obituary for California poetry was half-written:
With still to-be-determined state budget cuts looming, University of California Press has decided to suspend the publication of its poetry book series New California Poetry. The press expects to take a cut of about 10% in direct funding from the University of California.
It was not merely the expected budget cuts that motivated the suspension of the New California Poetry series, which in its time has published 33 books, including Metropole and O’Brien’s two previous volumes. UC Press Director Alison Mudditt, whose appointment was announced in December, and who makes $287,757.50 a year, gently reminded the Times that “the shifting marketplace for books and publishing are of even greater concern. The far bigger challenges are the structural ones to our industry and markets which (not unlike the newspaper industry!) require us to rethink and retool to remain a vibrant and relevant voice in the digital age.” She is probably correct that the digital age has little room for poetry, although it’s a matter of choice about what fits in a room. I think of the old conundrum of who, among the peoples of Earth facing the planet’s destruction, should be sent on a theoretical space mission to continue humanity. Doctors? Engineers? Popes?
Let’s shoot poets, the press’s decision seems to say — either into space, where their important work can bother someone else, or perhaps with tranquilizing darts to keep them calm until a cure is found. A survey of industry professionals might reveal several possible cures, including, as Muddit says, the sudden manifestation of an angel investor to underwrite the series; but also, they perhaps when daydreaming imagine, the final silence of a poetry-reading audience, to erase the minute fraction, the speck from market research data. In suspended animation, the New California Poetry Series will be allowed to be forgotten, one more kind of human love atrophied, so that the UC Press may turn its attention away from Wharton James’s Prophets, Poets, Artists and Architects toward California’s Automobilist, Traveller, Sportsman, Pleasure and Health Seeker.
I am not being fair, of course. The UC Press continues to publish poetry, including important works from Ian Hamilton Finlay, and has an important backlist of work by Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, Paul Celan, and many fine anthologies. But so casually relinquishing commitment to serious contemporary poetry diminishes those older volumes as well. The problem-solving mind is at work here, as it is throughout government and business. Authorizing and deauthorizing art is part of California’s long guidance by the fantasies of the Romantic period. Dead poets are covered in laurels; live poets are left behind.
One of the pleasures of reading the New California Poetry series has been knowing that I’ll witness something new, hear a line I haven’t imagined before, and have my intellect and imagination engaged and pressed. It has published landmark books, including Keith Waldrop’sTranscendental Studies, which won the National Book Award in 2009, Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, and Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems, along with groundbreaking titles by Brian Blanchfield, Julia Gridley, Laura Mullen, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Joshua Clover, Leslie Scalapino, Juliana Spahr, Brian Teare, and Srikanth Reddy. The New California Poetry series has served poetry as Silicon Valley serves the software industry, offering consistent innovation, and O’Brien’s Metropole is one of the best of their books. They’ve proven that a publisher can be like the Bohemian Grove, in the best sense: an echo chamber and a place for serious play, where art and business can meet and try to come to terms.
I hope the UC Press is able to resuscitate the New California Poetry series; barring that I hope that its poets find publishers who will be dedicated to their work. According to Forrest Gander, one of the four co-editors of the series (along with Hass, Brenda Hillman, and Calvin Bedient), the series is dormant, “as a cave is said to be, not dead”; he believes that the support within the UC Press exists to re-launch it, with luck and fortune. That’s how poetry always survives, through luck and fortune. And money also helps.