A Language of New York

      “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Emily Dickinson’s test for poetry is what I experienced when, sometime in the mid-60’s, at a social gathering I pulled from the living-room shelf what must have been This In Which. I found things there which I had thought impossible to say. The language, the words, sprang directly, so it seemd out of the innermost marrow of human bone. Beside them, all other language seemed to fade away in rags and tatters. What spoke in it showed a space extending thousands of years behind and ahead of us. I had entered a more naked air and no fire could warm me.
       It was a penetrating reminder of what I must do, in those largely evil days on which we were fallen, Stefan Wolpe and I, he attacked by Parkinson’s and I by a mysterious “new virus” that was treated as if it were a form a cancer. This poetry was a lifeline, swinging as we were over abysses which grew deeper steadily. Years layer, after Stefan’s death, I truly discovered Oppen, not as a guide, though he can be that, nor as a model, but more as a kind of figure marching ahead of me. The traces of his ongoing made a path, a trail.
       Native to New York City as I am and living here most of my life, I have had to grapple with it, sensing it often as an obstruction, at other times as an enemy. The city as a living fact, as there, to be reckoned with in terms of anger, compassion, and sometimes in a marvelling which can become a kind of profound acceptance, emerges out of Oppen’s poetic vision. His poems give us the map of its impact, his words the outlines of that map.
       The hardness of New York is at the center of our experience of the city, the hardness of buildings, stones, pavements, automobiles, streets, scarely mitigated by threads and patches of green growth; the hardness of the drive for money, hardness of a commercial city from earliest times (a fact that it kept it largely Royalist in the Revolution). Only the rivers, the wharves, the docks offer opening out of the hardness. Those who have come to live here are faced daily by this hardness. Commerce, exchange, the bartering of goods, have formed this city. New York is clearly a sea-city, sometimes an island, though unaware sometimes of the surrounding water, piers, docks, boats, the movement of rivers and channels edged by stone and warehouses in “the grey bright air.”
        Like New York itself, the language seems cut out of granite; words are stones carved, chiselled and rubbed clear into the shapes most necessary for use. As always with Oppen, the essential is insisted on. Everything else is pared down, cut away, in order to make teh inevitability of what is being said emerge. The tension in his language tightens when it is in New York. In the rooms along these streets people huddle like survivors of a shipwreck, always under pressure, strained, in bafflement. The roots themselves are crumbling:

               And every crevice of the city leaking
               Rubble: concrete, conduit, pipe, a crumbling
               Rubble of our roots.
                                                                     (“Image of the Engine,” The Materials)

There are small moments of respite,

              . . .In which some show of flowers
              And of kitchen water hold survival’s
             Thin, thin radiance.
                                                                  (“Antique,” The Materials)

Like the rare patch in the street:

           O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
           It has a little life, sprouting
           Little green buds
           Into the culture of the streets.

                                                                 (“The building of the Skyscraper,” This In Which)

The “meditative man” has failed, Oppen tells us. But in an effort to “listen to a man” and to “speak, tho he will fail and I will fail . . .” we hear the voice of Phyllis “Coming home from her first job . . .”:

           Her heart, she told me, suddenly tight with happiness—
           So small a picture,
           A  sport of light on the curb, it cannot demean us

           I too am in love down there with the streets
           And the square slabs of pavement—

           To talk of the house and the neighborhood and the docks

           And it is not ‘art’

                                                                   (Of Being Numerous 10)

There is another kind of respite here. The “spot of light” is a different light from “the bright light of the shipwreck.” Even inside the rooms, there can be another kind of flowering:

                                       -In some black brick
                                       Tenement, a woman’s body
           Glows. The gleam; the unimaginable
           Thin feet taper down
           The instep naked to the wooden floor!

                                                                   (“The Source,” The Materials)

The effort, the hope, always in Oppen is for the children who will inherit. But this effort seems without issue:

           An enclave
           Filled with their own
           Lives, they asid, but they disperse

           Into their jobs,
           Their circles, lose connection
           With themselves . . . How shall they know

                                                                   (“A Language of New York,” This In Which)

That this is true may be because:

           ........       the fortunate
           Find everything already here. They are shoppers,
           Choosers, judges . . . . And here the brutal
           Is without issue, a dead end.
(“A Language of New York,” This In Which)

The makers of money, in the streams of power, seem fortified by what is expensive, but it is themselves they spend in what they buy. Only in the shining gewgaws of fantasy, in the decorations lighting up the streets of the poor
                                          .....the Christmas lights
            In the windows shining and blinking 
            Into distance down the cross streets.
            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
            .  .  . one can be at peace
            In this city on a shore
            For the moment now
            With wealth, the shining wealth

            The children are almost awed in the street
            Putting out the trash paper
            In the winking light.
                                                                    (“Red Hook: December”
                                                                                   This In Which)

is there true abundance, a sense of fruition in the neighborhood’s joy, the local celebration, the illusion of bliss.
        Those who live in this city are caught, trammeled, unfree, pressed into narrow patterns which they have chosen or had chosen for them. Where do we even see them drawing a free breath? Oppen is both of them and apart and he gives them their voice. Failing to speak, his half-silences, the breaks in his voice, speak even more of their exhaustion, what is choked back in them, their directions which lead nowhere, the traps of would-be fulfillment which become their prisons. The clarity of Oppen’s gaze gives them to us in their actuality, and his tenderness brings them close to us. Within the compassion there is often a kind of despair that it is so and not otherwise, that for most people everything is to be endured, to be borne, that stoicism is the only answer for them. Compassion, despair, and a kind of acceptance merge into each otherr and Oppen moves, in his vision, from one phrase to another:

                                    And yet as night
             Their weight is part of mine.
             For we are all housed now, in all our apartments,
             The world untended to, unwatched.
             And there is nothing left out there
             As night falls, but the rocks.
                                                                   (”Myself I Sing”
                                                                           The Materials)

Acceptance can become a kind of grim humor, a breath of somehow hope, a compassion which alleviates despair. Might it not be other for the children, or their children?
       If the children, who should embody hope, can make despair the more terrible because of what they are born into,

            Children waking in the beds of the defeated
            As the day breaks on the million

            Windows and the grimed sills
            Of a ruined ethic
                                                                     (“Philai Te Kou Philai”
                                                                               This In Which)

there is more than despair in the vision of “The righteous little girls;/So good, they expect to be so good . . .” There is respect for them and anger at what awaits them. The impulse of hope for the child spurts out most strongly when Oppene speaks of his own or his friends’ children. “Sara In Her Father’s Arms” is full of wonder and elation:

                                               . . . - Sara, little seed,
            Little violent, diligent seed. Come let us look at the world
            Glittering: this seed will speak,
            Max, words! There will be no other words in the world
            But those our children speaek. What will she make of a 
            Do you suppose, Max, of which she is made,
                                                                       (The Materials)

        The images of women, above all of Mary, are the most unambiguous. They are images of wholeness, of courage, images of tenderness, with only two exceptions. Women are linked to “infiniteness” (“Surely . . . the most evident thing in the world”) in their insistence on carrying life on, on continuance. In their refusal to give up, “carrying life” on the city streets, vulnerable in their courage, with everything seeming to depend on them, they embody also a kind of blindness, the blindness of courage. They are the pillars on which life rests, but they are tremulous. The girls of the jet-set

           Stare at the ceilings
           Blindly as they are filled
           And then they sleep.
                                                                        (Of Being Numerous 23)

It is this blindness which makes for “feminine profusion” and, of the technologies, it is

                              . . .  the feminine technologies
           Of desire
           And compassion which will clothe
           Everyone, arriving
           Out of uncivil
                                                                        (”Technologies,” This In Which)

       The image of Oppen’s wife, Mary, is the most whole and radiant of these woman-images. In one glimpse of her, she is sister to the “burdened” women on the city’s streets on whom life seems to depend. She is “Carrying bundles” but unlike them, at this moment in any case, is untouched by weakness or “need.” Clear, complete and strong, she creates clarity and spaace, her eyes blue and wide in thet narrow subway passages, evoking the lovers’ bed in a small hut ina wild place of “O Western Wind, when wilt thou blow”, walking in the city rains.
       This image is always intensely of the present and, unlike the image of the woman in Vallejo’s late poems, there is no sense of failure connected with it, no guilt on the part of the poet for being unable to recreate the bliss of childhood, for being perpetually on the verge of departure. For Vallejo, the hardness and coldness of the city are not lightened by the image of the woman; instead, we are made aware of how damaged she is by it, of her suffering. And somehow, the poet himself in these poems, unlike Oppen, is seene as responsible for the helplessness of her suffering. For Oppen, the city is not simply a place of exile. He does not refer back, as Vallejo does, in nostalgia, to the happiness flowing from a mother’s presence or the warmth of the family. The harshness of New York, its linear forms (which, Robert Graves has maintained, lead to violence and hysteria) are impinged on and contradicted by the warmth, the curving shapes of the feminine as embodied by the beloved. Her image triumphs over the straight, grim line, the grid of streets and subways, the trap-like grids of rooms lining the streets. “Of This All Things” makes this explicit:

                       . . . everything is pierced
           By her presence tho we have wanted
           Not comforts
           But visions
           Whatever terrors
           May have made us
           To the earth, whatever terrors—

What Oppen sees he takes into himself:

           People everywhere, time and the work pauseless:
           One moves between reading and re-reading,
           The shape is a moment
                                                                           (Discrete Series)
Whatever compassion or pain may be contained in this looking, he does not bend or lean over that which he sees. The sound of the line tells us that, rising into a vertical, with the sound of “The shape is a moment.” The words stand in uprightness,  but running through them, the reader, the listener can feel a tremor, a trembling. It is not the uprightness of rigidity. This trembling makes the vertical speak. It is more than a vibration. It is the kind of inward breath which gives us the intense closeness of the words to the reality they sprring out of. The line rises up and stands over us, giving us a perspective of distance as well as closeness. Nothing is left out except what is needed to clumb to where we gain this perspective. A new kind of space, a space out of which everything can proceed, is won for us in this way. History is made visible in it and the future as well as the future’s ending and all of it breathed on by thet human, warmed, given life by ths [sic] essential voice: “We look back/Three hundred years and see bare land./And suffer vertigo.” (The Building Of The Skyscraper” This In Which)
       A partial hope can still arise out of the ending:

                                           Air moving,
           a stone on a stone,
           something balanced momentarily, in time might the lion

           Lie down in the forest, less fierce
           And solitary

           Than the world, the walls
           Of whose future may stand forever.
                                                               (“Parousia,” This In Which)

But this vision of an enormous temporal space does not release us from the urgency of now, as we are held inside a confining grid: “We are pressed, pressed on each other.” (Of Being Numerous, 6). What emerges out of the pressure of difficulty is that “Truth is also the pursuit of it:/ .....and it will not stand.//Even the verse begins to eat away/In the acid. . .”  (“Leviathan” The Materials)
       The intense drive to reach reality by thet power of words or of the mind is frustrated because “The roots of words/Dim in the subway.” And “It is not easy to speak//A ferocious mumbling, in public/Of rootless speeech.” (Of Being Numerous, 17) The weight of the world is in his words, but in his voice, the weight can become weightless, just as in the “ghosts” of words “Which have run mad/In the subways/And of course the institutions/And the banks” may possibly

           . . . . If one captures them
           One by one proceeding

           Carefully . . . . restore
           I hope to meaning
           And to sense.
                                  (“A Language of New York,” 4,
                                                                This In Which)

At this point, where the urgency of the moment is seen in a context of “the world, . . /. . . whose future may stand forever” (“Parousia”) the weight of pain and terror is lightened by the weightlessness of possibility, the possibility of hope.

This essay was originally published in the historic literary journal Ironwood as part of Issue #26, “George Oppen: A Special Issue” (Vol. 13, No. 2., 1985, 186-192). It has been reproduced here as close to its original formatting as possible.

Hilda Morley (1916—1998) is the author of six collections of poetry, including The Turning (1998), Cloudless at First (1988), and A Blessing Outside Us (1976), which she published at age sixty at the encouragement of Denise Levertov. She taught literature at Black Mountain College. "Morley manages to speak clearly and sparely of what is least sayable: the sense that we inhabit a living web, not as separate beings but as molecules of a larger and elastic whole," wrote Geoffrey O'Brien in The Village Voice