Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Cut-Ups, Collage, Zen: Poetry of Michael O'Brien, Particularly SLEEPING AND WAKING

I opened Michael O'Brien's book SLEEPING AND WAKING without knowing anything about the book or poet -- except that the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry this year. That's a good way to enter, with the probability that someone has found this remarkable.

The book opens with a sequence of city scenes, in a prose poem sequence, "Certain Evenings." I keep going back to one stanza in particular:

A small, pot-bellied woman in a bright green dress speaks antiphonal, incomprehensible sentences by the Seventh Avenue subway, possessed, testifying, rocking in place with the voices, their repeating decimal, ghosts that feed on speech. Nearby a man, head raised, eyes closed, is drinking the sunlight. He takes his time. His thirst is great.

The ferocity of detail grabs at me. I'm not there, but I know the scene. The moment. Wasn't it last spring when I walked past the park, on my way to lunch with ... ? At least, it feels that familiar.

Which is exactly the grasp that this quietly presented collection creates: the grasp of a dream half remembered, or the startle of waking from what seemed real.

O'Brien's skills are honed and seasoned. Born in 1939, he began presenting his poems while a member of the Eventorium, a "scene" of surrealist writers, artists, and filmmakers "way uptown" in New York in the 1960s. The jumps from short-lined, heavily enjambed, collage-style poems to prose offerings to tight little narratives belie the quiet, soft-pink-and-fog artwork on the wraps of the book (Flood Editions, Chicago, 2007). And the carefully selected "cut-ups" of language and scene are an invitation to add narrative along the edges -- an urge that Fanny Howe suggests is always present when we confront words, especially words in sequence. The collage of urban life's moments and scenes becomes an invitation to story.

Contrasting with the gray fractured city sweeps here is a central sequence called "In Maine." And from the core of that poem:


Backroad cemetery, stones
in their ranks, their good
order, desks in
elementary schools, all
the carved names.
Learned, then lost, word
gone out like a
light viburnum

terror of the hawk's shadow

Yes, this is also Zen, catching a moment, a vista, and pinning it simply onto the paper, available to step around. I like what O'Brien has done here. I'll be collecting his earlier work.

By the way, there's a dandy review of the book by David Orr, who knows O'Brien's work well; check it out in the NY Times archives.

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