Apr/May2014 Reviews & Interviews

Some Memories of George and Mary Oppen

by Phillip Larrimore

Buy now from Amazon! In 1977, I met George and Mary Oppen, both fine poets, though George is better known. I had been sent by Mother Jones to interview them, which nearly ended in disaster.

My questions, concerning Ezra Pound and the "Objectivists," a group of four poets consisting of Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen himself, were well worn to the Oppens. They paused and seemed to consult with each other in a troubled glance, then Mary told me sorrowfully that they had already answered these questions before. This was not said indignantly, or petulantly, or with anything like accusation, but as if they had simply exhausted the sort of thing that I sought. Chasteningly, she made it sound as if it was not I to blame, but them. This was very kind, but I knew better.

They looked so sorrowful and so beautiful at this moment that it wrung my heart.

Looking back, I am not sure how the subject of what I was reading came up. Perhaps it was essayed by Mary, to change the subject from my obvious mortification.

What I was reading then was a history of genetics by Francois Jacob called The Logic of Life. It was—and is—an elegantly written obstacle course, leading the reader around a sequence of erroneous propositions concerning the origins of life to an increasingly clarified picture of what is known by hard science in the present day. This seemed to interest the Oppens, and we talked about such things as organelles and the double helix of DNA for a half hour, as well as the many false turns scientific inquiry takes. From there we went to Heidegger, then Twyla Tharp, the choreographer, then the recently published manuscript of Eliot's The Wasteland (it was then that they spoke of Pound, affectionately but by no means excusing his anti-Semitism) and whether I should live in San Francisco or Manhattan.

Never before had I talked with adults 50 years older than myself with such candor, and parting from them at nightfall, I reflected on the irony of having been interviewed myself. (Many years later, I heard from Paul Auster that much the same thing happened to him when he went to interview them for Paris Review).

Looking back, I see there were many things about which I might have asked them: their stint as labor organizers in upstate New York in the 1930's, and their long exile from the U.S. during the time of Joe McCarthy. They did not return to the U.S. until 1962.

In exile, they settled in Mexico City and manufactured furniture. George showed me a photograph of his Mexican business partner with great tendresse, as if he expected me to understand much from it, but what I understood best was that the bond had become familial.

Later, I wondered how the manufacture of furniture influenced his poetry, for I am sure it did in terms of dovetailing and joinery. There is something of a balance problem resolved with craftsmanlike skill in it, too, like a sculpture suspended rightly and lightly on its armature. These factors were not evident to the same extreme degree in his first book, Discrete Series, as they were later, and I do not think it entirely fanciful to find in these later poems something that is sawn and sanded, turned and lathed.

I did not think to ask them about what exile must have been like. Nor was I aware at this time of their friendship with another exile, the world's greatest composer for the player piano, Conlon Nancarrow. What it was like to not write poetry for upwards of 30 years—which George did, relinquishing poetry for political engagement and political engagement for exile—I was afraid to ask him much about.

But he didn't treat not writing poetry as the fraught matter that I saw it, but replied rather casually that he had dreamed of copper nails rusting, an incongruity which he could not get out of his head until he discussed it with a shrink. Copper doesn't rust, and the copper nails were poetry, was what they concluded, and he started to write again rather than rusting. It was as if the poems were already waiting for him, though in fact he had thought about them, time and again.

So many questions occur to me now that I wonder at myself, and why the Oppens would receive such a tongue-tied young man. And yet, as it transpired, we became friends. Mary told me some months later that she was initially struck by what seemed a terrible sadness in me. I was struck by what seemed a great human steadfastness in them.

George was almost merry about amounts of the medication he had to take in order to forestall Alzheimer's, and he showed me the drafts of his poems, emended and emended again—one typed word pasted over another, and another, until the manuscript was thickened by dozens and dozens of such emendations. It resembled a reversed Palimpsest, one that accumulated rather than erased layers.

Conversationally, he had a wilder sense of extravagance than is to be found in his poetry, which is as chastely crafted as Shaker Furniture, and at one point stood on his kitchen table to demonstrate how Don Juan in the Carlos Castenada books would combat his enemy shamans by making occult gestures. He did not look absurd, then, but dashing and bold, as if rehearsing a tango.

Both Oppens thought the Don Juan books were preposterous but fun, and while they expressed a casual contempt for the totalitarian aspects of American culture, they also showed a surprising permeability to blues and rock n roll, not to mention a keen sympathy to the wear and tear of ordinary life.

George also mentioned that before winning the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1969, he had opened a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant whose message read, "You will soon have to become more academic."

"How often does a fortune cookie use the word 'academic' ?" he asked. The prize itself lead to the offers of teaching positions worldwide, all of which were turned down—perhaps in order to evade boring, repetitious questions.

Mary was what is described as commonsensical, except that the quality of common sense is rare in any event, and hers had a quality of tender justice. One felt weighed on a scale, and then—wonder to behold—not judged.

Neither of them exhibited any sign of having grown accustomed to each other after more than 50 years of marriage. I remember George being surprised by and curious about Mary's independent conclusions concerning Plotinous, and later in the conversation, Wittgenstein. She thought autonomously. He remained curious about her, interested in her, quite lacking that rote familiarity, that spiritual philistinism, which makes so many marriages dreadful. And she was this way with him.

I had never seen such a marriage as this, nor have I seen one since. It was this quality of freshness of perception, of not taking a long-term partner for granted, that impressed me most.

The sadness that Mary had remarked in me had complex sources, but one of these was a muddle in which I found myself concerning language. In brief, working on a commercial project had fouled up the impulse to poetry in me. It had put a wall of noise between myself and the voice.

Talking with them both was curative. It set me back on my course, and as it turned out, away from them and to New York.

My friend Elizabeth Streb visited me in December of that year with the express purpose of making me—compelling me to!—move to Manhattan, and by the spring this is what I had done. The Oppens had previously met her at dinner in my house on Portrero Hill and were much taken with her. They intuited who she was long before the wide world did.

I corresponded with them both for a little while after moving to Manhattan. George's problems with Alzheimer's, however, had worsened. The last note I received was from Mary, saying that they would be happy to see me on a planned visit to San Francisco—which arrived only shortly before the news of George's death. She then went to live with their daughter in Texas.

Their poetry has held up, I must add, and I re-read it now and then, along with Reznikoff and William Carlos Williams. The language is as spare as Williams—sparer—and George's, at least, is as scarified as a walking figure by Giacometti. The richness of the philosophical concerns make this spareness almost deceptive, and at times I have wondered at how little of it I initially understood. George was not as spare as Williams, but as spare as Heraclitus, and Mary was as pre-Socratic as he was.

But perhaps it would be best to say that here are poets who may be read throughout a life. And 40 years later, I will dream of them once in a while, and wake gladdened by an echo of their presence.


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