People on Sunday by Geoffrey G. O’Brien

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I like all the talk happening about Conceptualism in poetry. I like it, because some people get so angry about it. Not everyone. But angry people can be so resourceful in their logic. Sometimes angry people aren’t very patient, especially if their only audience is other angry people. But they’re also the ones that are going to pose what feel like essential questions. “What is a poem?” cry out the angry people. “Real poems must be affective / sentimental / accessible / meaningful / perceptive / insightful / playful / imaginative / artful!” I have been one of those angry people, but I didn’t come up with enough to say. I yelled at my cat about everything these Conceptual poets are “ruining” about poetry. And then I took delight that I could listen to angry people and sensible people and perspicacious people talk to one another. Thanks, all you kinds of people!

What does Conceptualism have to do with Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s People on Sunday? Quite a bit. At least if you want to consider ideas like the definition of blatant or the definition of stanza, and how, as ideas, they are not solid concepts. That’s what O’Brien does in “Distraction.” Or perhaps you want to consider the infinitely elaborating complexities that a portrait by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres imply, as O’Brien does in “D’Haussonville.” I know. I know. These types of poems would never be let into the Conceptualist club, because Conceptualists don’t like their poems read only talked about. O’Brien’s poems are far too much pleasure for reading. And yet, O’Brien’s poems undermine concepts. As in, we think the meaning for the word “blatant” is fixed (it’s “so obvious,” ha ha!), but when in the history of language did language-makers suddenly determine there was a need for this word? O’Brien locates it at Spenser.

The fact
That Spenser used it [the word blatant] to modify “beast”
Makes its kinship with blaitand, “bleating”
In 16th c. Scots, appealing, but the Latin
Blatire, “to babble,” also makes sense
In context.

And this is all very exciting and subversive to this solid language thing all of us, at least in our more mundane activities, take for granted. O’Brien is opening up the concept of language and making us question what we might actually expect from language.

Now you don’t have to tell me that this is the customary work for poetry. Whether it’s the subtle connotations that can be associated with a single word (a point even New Critical critic William Empson could endorse) or it’s the overwhelming evidence that language must be recognized as a mere artifice to meaning (as so many critics are happy to attest, but I’ll single out Charles Bernstein as my favorite), language has always been a ripe concept for rupturing in our American poetry. But O’Brien’s target is not only language. In “Distraction,” language is one concept for consideration. In “D’Haussonville” the concept is portraiture.

But there is a much larger concept O’Brien is pursuing: perception itself. If you have read O’Brien’s previous volumes, Metropole and Green and Gray, you’ll understand O’Brien’s predominant mode. The speaker is like a connoisseur of preoccupation. He appears preoccupied by so many different sensations and the memories he associates with them and the images that other people could imagine associating with those memories. The poems in those books remind me of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, where, Sebald taps into the actual rhythms of memory, like his memories are physically transplanted into my mind. I hear the language of that book in this inner ear that is how I think and why I think. Sebald’s prose is an inside mind, and I am compelled to enter into it further and further. Please, I pray when reading Sebald, let there be no end to how far inside the mind Sebald will take me. This same sensation is what I feel reading O’Brien’s longer poem, “Metropole.” It is addictive the way the life of the mind is addictive, and I can tell you this is not just some intellectual addiction. It is some part of my inside me that needs and needs these impressions, and the soft language-movement that takes me from one impression to the next.

People on Sunday is similar and different. It still has O’Brien’s preoccupied speaker. Perception as a concept is laid out as something that can be both concrete and vague all at once. But the poems in People on Sunday tease out that concrete part of our experience. If we live in a country at war, which part of reality are we actually culpable for? If we look to language for information or advice, how do we receive that language and then parse out its meaning? As a book that was composed around the Occupy Movement of 2011, which avoided commitment to specific policies in favor of a pure focus on protest, People on Sunday appears as an apt expression of that culture.

In the book’s title poem, “People on Sunday (1930),” the poem follows a man through all his leisure activities on a Sunday as though the poem was following him or it wasn’t following him.

And yes, she’s still in bed so you’ll have to
Enter the water without her, splash of white
Where you just were. You, if you are still
The man on the shore, help the other
Woman with her impossible suit and now
Your friendliness has a touch of eros to it,
You would wake her much less roughly
On that same part of the shoulder
You targeted unsuccessfully this morning,
But this one’s already awake and away

Which man should we be considering here? The man who tried waking the woman he was with this morning, but left without her to go swimming? Or is he the man who stayed on shore to help a woman with her swimsuit, and who, as he touches that woman’s shoulder, can’t help but remember the woman he was with that morning, when he touched her shoulder to wake her?

Isn’t experience like this? The constant qualification of every certainty? Perhaps it is better to say our knowledge of experience is like this. Concrete events set against the potential events we can imagine happening, or that might have happened, but we were preoccupied thinking of something else that was supposed to be happening, or we did do one other day, or someone expected us to do. This is life, or our experience of life as it shifts and meanders through our subjective gauze. To read O’Brien is to take pleasure in the determinism that prods our indeterminism forward through time. To read O’Brien is to experience experiencing in an experienced way.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →