In the Common Dream of George Oppen by Joseph Bradshaw
(Shearsman Books, Exeter, U.K., 2011)
The line between truth and fiction is deliberately blurred in Joseph Bradshaw’s In the Common Dream of George Oppen, resulting in a collection that finds its outlet as much in lyric essays and scholarly errata as it does in poetry to construct a hybrid monument to its subject. The entry point of examination is George Oppen’s politically-motivated 25 year hiatus from poetry, a period that, for Bradshaw if not for Oppen, is rife with poetic material.
It is within this imaginative space flanked by known facts of Oppen’s life that less prominent, altered, and wholly imagined events in the Objectivist poet’s life sprout like fungi and become the objects of examination. An interview with Oppen conducted by Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) and interrupted by the disembodied voice of Jack Spicer sprouts in one corner. In a deeper nook is found Bradshaw’s homage to Coleridge’s phony background to the writing of “Kubla Kahn,” with Oppen composing his (nonexistent) poem “Idaho” “literally scrawled over his copy of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’” when a strange visitor appears at the door and “thrusts…a worn, familiar looking notebook” into Oppen’s hands. The multi-layered confusion of the previous sentence is intentional and the only way to accurately represent the many strata of varying authenticity that Bradshaw adds with each new section of the book.
This tendency to resist resolution of fact and fiction is at times maddening, given the degree to which Bradshaw employs the technique; however, through the near-constant dislocation that the reader feels from the truth—at times fully aware of the fabrications at play, at times suspicious of by-all-accounts factual information because of the pervasive blurring of “the facts”—one of the strengths of the book emerges. When Bradshaw himself enters into the book in the section “The Impossible Poem,” the trembling torque of the uncertain half-truths finds release in the appearance of a voice coming in from outside of the labyrinth to speak directly the reader caught up in and perhaps frustrated by its continual turns and dead ends. “The Impossible Poem” begins with the following paragraph, which, as early as its first three words, is clearly designed to burst and relieve tension, to soothe:
This is true: the work before you is still the work ahead of me. It is not George Oppen (does it even need to be said) but something other than what that figure stands for. It is an alchemy of memory, both actual and “false.” (I say “false” because it is not false—I have felt a stranger breathing down my neck, in a wind, a we, descending, as our gifts remain above us, ungrasped.)
Perhaps a better survival tactic is to distrust anyone who tells you “This is true” (especially following the speaker’s repeated manipulation of that same truth), but the need to latch oneself to an absolute at this point in the book is so strong that Bradshaw’s first-person voice comes in with the authority of an adult to a child. The gentle adult voice comes in to assure the reader that the authority is more complicated and less authoritative than he would like to let on. But is this another, still deeper strategy or manipulation, or is this the facade lifting for a moment to reveal its messy framework? It is more satisfying to assume the latter—that Bradshaw is being honest about his inability to control the project, which does not excuse the irreconcilability of certain choices in the text as much as it validates them. The alternative, which is that Bradshaw has inserted this straight-talk address as yet another layered maneuver, would paradoxically reveal that, on the whole, Bradshaw had less control over his project than in the “messy” explanation.
Following this concept of the controlled chaos, some of the best writing in the book comes in the form of a timeline in “A Chronology,” the book’s final section. Composed of certain odd facts and images that had glanced up through the body of the collection, the timeline compiles these fragmented ideas into a cohesive and propulsive countdown into the genesis of Bradshaw’s project. It begins:
circa 41,000 BCE—A woman holds a mollusk’s shell up to her ear, marking the beginning of the ocean. Rikle reconfigures this moment in the opening of Sonnets to Orpheus: “O hoher Baum im Ohr!” [A tree arises in the ear].
375 BCE—Startled at its own image, a centaur darts out of the cave and stumbles to its death over the cliff’s edge. The delayed thud, echoing through the canyon, is Plato’s laugther.
1170 CE—Metaphor makes its first literary appearance, through the string the two lovers tie between each other (via le rossignol), in Marie de France’s ‘Laüstic.’
The gaps in the timeline rapidly condense, moving through 1797, the 1950s, 1963, 1965, and 1984 to end with:
early 2000s—Startled, I awake: I’m in the old Weremart in Caldwell again, alone, sorting through the notebooks in the stationary aisle, when I begin to notice they’re all filled with the markings of a familiar hand.
The timeline is so effective for its energy and the way it makes use of repetition: we read the mythic factoids with a sense of the familiar made strange by the new, straightforward presentation, and this invokes a sensation like that which Bradshaw is trying to convey in his closing entry.
He borrows from the spooky campfire story cliché ending, looping the narrative around until it enact its own telling, but following all the genre-crossing experimentalism, to end with such a rigid form in order to end on a time-tested, chill-sending trope is refreshing. It harkens back to “The Impossible Poem,” the section where Bradshaw attempts to perform the ultimate illusion: to convince the audience that now, for this next trick, you have cast illusion aside. The “Weremart in Caldwell” is certainly a Wal-Mart (Google finds one in Caldwell, Idaho), commingled with another minor book trope, wolves. The brand new notebooks on the shelves “filled with the markings of a familiar hand” are more of a mystery: are the markings Oppen’s or Bradshaw’s? Whose markings, throughout the book, has the reader become accustomed to—have they been Bradshaw’s, or is it all the markings of the hand of Oppen being traced and traced until the paper shreds?
The ending timeline as a whole stretches back to the beginning of the book. Its elements are first introduced, in a somewhat altered but mostly whole form, in book’s first proper section, Incipit:
But in the beginning there was a man. He told us that, in the beginning, we have to choose the meaning of beginning—i.e., we must choose our own myths. Here are our choices:
a) In the beginning there was a child who, holding a mollusk’s shell up to her ear, first uttered the word “ocean,” which started the flood that still soaks us to this day.
e) In the beginning there was a startle. I woke in the Waremart in Caldwell, alone, finding myself sorting through the notebooks in the stationary aisle, which I began to notice were all filled with the markings of a familiar hand.
The markings of a familiar hand, indeed. Perhaps this is the way that Bradshaw puts us in George Oppen’s “common dream”: we cycle through the same motifs and images as they alter imperceptibly around us. Notice: the early “Waremart” (a mart of wares—a more straightforward pun on Wal-Mart) adjusts to “Weremart” later, shifting another notch away from its origins and into the symbol world of dreams.
It is this dream world that, paradoxically, we wake from in these scenes of Bradshaw wandering the aisles of an abandoned Supercenter. He wakes but only into another dream-state, one where Oppen becomes Coleridge and Sir Thomas Wyatt and Blake’s burning Tyger. At other points in the book, where the little groundwork there is to be found is shifting beneath the reader’s feet, such strings of references can be delightful individually, but become disorienting if one takes one’s eyes from the image at hand and trying to orient oneself in the spinning world.
It is for this reason that the anchoring finality of “A Chronology” ends the book on its highest note. In compiling in the rigid, authoritative structure of a timeline certain of the bizarre and mysteriously poignant elements that precede it, Bradshaw anchor’s the book into its reality at the most crucial point in providing the previous whirlpool with the suggestion of unruly order. Instead of preceding the text, the chronology follows because, like Oppen’s 25 year silence or his scrawling out lines that he did or did not realize would be his last, we sort events only posthumously. The chaos and confusion over veracity and actuality can only settle down conclusively in the afterword. The tidy perspective of history and the timeline is that the matter had been concluded, right or wrong. Because it fits the timeline, Oppen did sit down with the Elephant Man for that interview. Oppen did, “in those 25 blank years,…visit the green shores of Idaho.” Bradshaw did capture that long gap in the life—in a life—of George Oppen.
Logan Fry lives in Austin, Texas, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas. His poetry has most recently appeared in elimae.