Poetry as Labor

In Reviews on November 20, 2013 at 7:00 am


by John Ebersole

People On Sunday, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s latest book of poems, is named after a 1930 German silent film directed by Curt and Robert Siodmak, from a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Noteworthy for its use of non-actors, critics mostly focused on its remarkable ordinariness as an ironic prelude to Hitler’s Germany. But O’Brien is less interested in the city of Berlin, and more interested in Sunday itself and what it represents in the film and in our own lives. Essentially, Sunday is a day of compulsory leisure from the rotations of work. Framing weekend-time as a gift for the worker (as if time itself is property), society can elaborately stage for its subjects their experience of leisure, as in the eponymous poem, where nameless characters gallivant around the city on a Sunday. This is just one of many representative snapshots of activity that span the poem’s ten pages:

There are so many like him

Outside, and the monuments, arches to be

Passed through in a car, and of course

The bridges, the smoke. That which can’t be

Passed through or under can still be passed by,

Advertisements on the sides of apartments,

Windows, trains, and trees. They’re all going

To the same unrevealed place, half an arrow.

Shy in the best-friend role, she looks down

Suddenly interested in tree-filtered light

On pavement.

 (from “People on Sunday (1930)”)  


Like a set-designer on a big-budget film, society provides massive props and scenery for its actors to navigate and feel free within, as we see in the poem: urban planning literate with history, commercial boasting latched to living space, the loneliness of role-play in the crowd, coupled with the soft perceptual disassociation. O’Brien’s speaker, so sensitive to the props that influence civic life, is summoned into existence by estrangement writ large and writ small, revealing itself in both the social and the private.  However, while his treatment of alienation is intimate and engrossing, the speaker in People On Sunday maintains a distinct distance from the ontologies he explores, much like a doctor who in order to treat her patient must detach from that patient’s suffering. Indeed, O’Brien’s poetry has rarely been drawn to pathos or using personal revelation to animate his verse. On the other hand, his allegiance to a speaker so sapped of tone isn’t a gesture of remoteness, but instead serves to protect his art from becoming a disposable and frictionless product. If true, then the frostiness in People On Sunday protects the speaker while shielding the reader from the faux enthusiasm more common in marketing and politics than genuine dissent. O’Brien intends (ambitiously and perhaps only in theory) to immunize the poet and the reader from being turned into compliant acolytes by the very maladies they explore together:

What follows is terms and classifications, the West

Of speech congratulating itself from within

A system so complex there’s no way not to be

Effective. Just as they had planned, the streets

On either side are lined with all that’s needed,

Storefronts whose glass returns a look

Filled with the contents it displays

(Mannequins, organics, mobile phones)

Making even moving sitting still, embrace

Above anything that’s so


What follows is seven dominated days

Of the week ready to blind with really anything

At all, your thoughts as you come forward

Out of the haze like the sun through a curtain

Or go to sleep so as to be further use—

Till sight doesn’t feel like buying houses

Aren’t these one and the same task?

(from “From Honey to Ashes”)

The poem’s title, most likely taken from Lévi-Strauss’ book on the structures of primitive consciousness, or perhaps a reference to the documentary about an indigenous group’s first contact with modernity, shows O’Brien’s intellectual fixations. Like the natives in the documentary From Honey to Ashes, O’Brien’s People On Sunday recoils at the blunt systems that define the values we live by. And the book seems to reflect one of the claims of structural anthropology – namely that cultures are built upon binary conceptions of being (light/dark, smooth/rough, raw/cooked) born long ago out of rudimentary sensory data. Yet over the course of history, and in advanced cultures like our own, these once organic binaries slowly began manifesting themselves as antagonistic opposites: rich/poor, happiness/depression, Left/Right, and on and on. A primitive culture, for instance, might marry two members of opposing tribes or arrange any number of customs to diffuse group conflict, but in America and elsewhere, O’Brien seems to suggest, our society doesn’t seek to solve these divisions, but seeks to either exacerbate them or at the very least keep the population from knowing they exist through endless distractions. Throughout much of People On Sunday, the poet is arguing that responsible governance and morality has metastasized into various forms of injustice. Our politics have become polarized and dull, ensuring that the systems scripting our perceptual lives remain unchallenged. If the dominant binary in the West has finally come to desire/consume and heard/unheard, then O’Brien’s poetry – as a reaction against this pathology – becomes a sort of talisman of our abandoned nature.

In addition to the poet’s subject-matter, one always senses in an O’Brien poem that a conceptual point is being made. Besides his half-robotic vocalizations, the poet experiments with style too, mostly through initial capitalization, slicing and suturing enjambment, word-repetition, and rubbing out most punctuation. By utilizing these techniques, O’Brien’s poetic line both insists on its sovereignty and also its connection to the whole. In other words, one can read a line as a free-standing phrase, while also seeing its logical connection to the poem’s totality. It’s a provocative metaphor for what ails Western culture: society instructs the individual to be afraid of the idea of interdependence and instructs them to reject the notion that individual choices impact our communities. As a result, this conceptual binary, instead of reinforcing the civic passivity mass culture counts on in order to thrive, directly challenges it. Furthermore, the ways the lines are constructed expose our reflexive resentment when a difficult art challenges our thinking:

Dancing is anger made good

While a rival marks the opportunity to speak

Passed up yet somehow heard.

You wouldn’t want to manage his estate

But drifting through a lonely game

Of unrelated terms, imagining crowds

To be simple plots of environment,

Seems equally arranged…

(from “Hesiod”)

O’Brien’s work is a poetry that nudges us beyond simple protest, where empire lets one blow off steam, but to consider resistance, a resistance replicated in the reader by his difficult poetry.  O’Brien’s book is demanding and wrestling with it becomes a form of labor. However, the outcome of that labor belongs entirely to the reader. At first, reading People On Sunday feels like being forced to do a task with your less dominant hand. But by choosing such an idiosyncratic and difficult style, the poet creates a new type of work that most are (if “given” the time) qualified to do. With practice comes mastery, and when the reader is finally calibrated to the poet’s frequency, an authentic delight sets in, and one begins to feel less like they’re being trained by the poet and more like they’re being spoken to by him.


Discussed in this essay:

People on Sunday by Geoffrey O’Brien. Wave Books. 2013. 128 pages. $18.

John Ebersole edits New Books in Poetry where he interviews poets about their latest work. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Humanities ReviewstorySouthBateau, Western Humanities ReviewColdfrontOctopus,HTMLGIANT, and elsewhere.

Photo: Still from People on Sunday, 1930

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