Rob Halpern: "Becoming a Patient of History"

Saturday night, December 11, 2010, San Francisco welcomed home Rob Halpern at the Unitarian Center in San Francisco where Rob gave the Poetry Center's 27th George Oppen Memorial Lecture, entitled "Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics." The room was full to capacity.

Rob's talk was thrilling and offered much to ponder.

Locating his fascination with Oppen's work in the way the poems "refused to settle into difficulty or transparence," Rob noted his coming to Oppen's poetry during the late 90s, a time of "terminal cynicism" when a number of Bay Area writers found themselves between crises, the devastation of AIDS, the flowering of neo-liberalism, and the emergence of the dot com boom. Rob suggested that he and other young writers found themselves "living melancholic lives," characterized by a sense of loss and "terminal belatedness." It is in this context of disaffection that Rob and a number others--David Buuck, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Yedda Morrison, Dana Teen Lomax, and others--found themselves reading Oppen's poetry and Selected Letters.

About reading Oppen's letters and having noted the phrase “cries havoc in a small voice” from one of the letters, Rob said that:

there remains something so appealing in those words together: “cry” “small” and “havoc”— something vulnerable and adamant, uncertain, and committed to what might seem entirely unclear. It was as if there were potential dangers everywhere, dangers which the language at one’s immediate disposal often seems inadequate to name. This appealed to my own uncertainty and doubt as well as my desire for something other than what seemed at the time to be a terminal cynicism....We were “between crises” as one might speak of being between wars, but there is never really any such “between”—just the spell of an interregnum when everyone is holding breath, and waiting, and pretending to adapt to a set of conditions that seem entirely fake and everyone’s just going through the motions of being ok, while living interminably melancholic lives, having identified, on the one hand, with too many personal losses—losses I myself had not yet learned how to mourn; and on the other, with a feeling of terminal belatedness, when it didn’t seem possible to believe in anything long enough to respond to it.

Rob talked about the complex array of feelings, sincerity and ambivalence, that one finds throughout Oppen's Selected Letters. He noted that,

the [Oppen] letters provided a whole catalog of what Sianne Ngai would call weak affects, which work to register or resist the ideological saturation of social space, as well as the distortions in relation and perception that Oppen was confronting in the 1960s. But Oppen’s feelings seemed anachronistically to offer a response to the disaffection that was so infectious during the late 90s. Any one of Oppen’s weak affects seemed to offer an antidote: but the whole gamut was like an arsenal. 

With this, Rob set the stage for discussing gender in Oppen's work,

...This question concerning gender has since opened many unexpected avenues of inquiry, and has led me to believe that one can feel the work of Oppen’s middle period thinking sensually through the many submerged contours and tensions of an intensified post-war biopolitics, that is, the form politics assumes when the human condition itself, its biological and psychic substrata—from atoms and plasma, to desire and subjectivity—become the terrain of conflict, work, and investment. My sense here is that these contours and tensions become the material of Oppen’s work, from The Materials through Of Being Numerous, as they find themselves mediated—muted and amplified, clarified and distorted—through the longing and remorse of a very particular lyric subject. All this ends up making certain historical conditions of the moment audible, as Oppen himself emphasizes in his poem “Route:” “The purity of the materials, not theology, but to present the circumstances […] The context is history / Moving toward the light of conscious.” To present the circumstances and the history means to make conditions and struggles legible—and these, of course, are never pure—and I believe Oppen’s poetry was very much a part these struggles, against the grain of his repeated insistence on making his writing politically unavailable. These are biopolitical struggles: organized around the production and administration, the transformation and destruction of subjectivity and life, and they underscore what Hannah Arendt refers to as the confounding of the household and the polis in The Human Condition—a work published in 1958, the same year as Oppen returned to poetry in earnest after a notorious 25 year hiatus, during which time he sought exile, avoiding HUAC in Mexico where he raised a family. Arendt’s work echoes Oppen’s concerns, sometimes with uncanny precision. For her, the erosion of the public realm, or the common, at mid-century has everything to do with the wholesale absorption of “the household and housekeeping activities” into a sphere of social activity once referred to as politics. Arendt goes on to elaborate how the unstable border between the political life—organization of the common—and the household—care of family and self, basic necessity, survival—conditions the corporate management of so-called private interest, which then emerges as the most public of all concerns. And it is this instability I believe that one can feel in Oppen’s mid-century writing: in the “new structure of space” the work creates, conceptually and syntactically, through all its hesitations and declarations, its opacities and lacunae, its contradictions and impossibilities, all its conflicting affects and emotions. As Oppen pressures, worries, and amplifies what he refers to as his political non-availability, the work, as a sensory organ capable of cognizing material we otherwise can’t access discursively, registers precisely what he was refusing: the whole shifting terrain of what one might think to call “politics.”

Rob explained that he had developed an "indexical key" and that he is "using the archivist’s finding aid as a model, or maybe it’s more like one of Roland Barthes’s alphabetized books, or the convolutes of Benjamin’s Arcades Project" as a structure. Here is a list of his table of contents for the larger Oppen project he is working on:

Anemones, Antigone, Arendt, Bad Things I’ll Never See, Baldwin, Baudelaire, Biopower, Black Nationalism, Caregiving, Chaos (Chance, Contingency), Clarity, Common Grave, Common Place, Common Sense, Community Histories, Containment, Disclosure, Dolphins, Domestic Dysphoria, Enemy, Eternity, Experience of The The, Failure, Feminine Distances, Feminine Light, Fiddling Again, Frances, From Disaster, From the Polis to the Household, Future Anterior, Hamlet, History (or What Is Not Autonomous In Us), Homecoming, Housing Crisis, Human Capital, Human Condition, “I Could Not See To See,” Incorporating Private Interest, Know Yourself, Mallarm√©, Mauvais Vitrier, Natural History, The Neo-Liberal Imagination, Not a Dialectic, Not Some Manly Toughness, Note to Myself, Nothing, Of Ethics, Outside Light, Pathos of Distance, Patiency, Pedigree, Penetration, Popular Front, Preponderance of Objects, Post-historicism, Realism, Riot, Self-Possession, State of Exception, That Women Have No History, The Difference Was What Love Was, The Little Hole, Undead, Violence, Vision, Zed.

Unfurling a few of these meditative, critical, poetic inquiries (Domestic Dysphoria, Paitency, From Disaster, Failure, Penetration, What does it mean to see Nothing), Rob laid out a complex array of large and expansive arenas for thinking anew Oppen's work; here's a small bit from Domestic Dysphoria:

...a certain gender trouble that haunts the poetry of Oppen’s middle period, and it may be inseparable from the deepest concerns moving through the work itself—concerns about nature and history, time and politics, what it means to act in the world, and what it means to be acted upon. The dysphoria registers a crisis in masculinity, if not a catastrophe in the very idea of historical agency.

He continues:

“I can see nothing at all,” Oppen writes in a Daybook, “except that one encounters the thing. And, it is impossible not to say, encounters oneself.”

“I can see nothing at all,” can almost be taken as a positive assertion, an achievement. And while this statement in itself is not an unusual one for Oppen, what follows is quite unusual: 

“And encounters in himself the passion of logic which, like the young man’s desire to sleep with the latest movie star, is unlikely to be satisfied, but can lead to crimes of violence.” (142) 

Now that’s an unusual comment, and it isn’t just a random squib that Oppen cribbed in a less than heady moment: but something he entertained and rewrote on another occasion, replacing the phrase “the latest movie star” with the proper name “Debbie Reynolds” only to continue: “Tho I am not altogether opposed to crimes of violence […] since I am not altogether pleased with the idea of standing still.” (143)

The image—of a woman, of the latest movie star, of Debbie Reynolds—displaces and haunts the thing one encounters, or longs to encounter, if only in order to know oneself. This note in the daybooks reads like the back story of “Of Being Numerous:” The whole technique of the self Oppen seems to promote—self-knowledge—would be a masculinist prerogative that finds its negative resolve in the image of a woman, the latest movie star, encountered by any young man: and because this encounter is nothing more than an occlusion of sense on a collision course with a passion of logic it can lead to a crime of violence.

As serendipity would have it, earlier in the day I had been reading Rachel Blau DuPlessis's article, "Manhood and its Poetic Projects: The Construction of Masculinity in the Counter Cultural Poetry of the U.S. 1950s" in Jacket Magazine. DuPlessis reads the work of Creeley, Olson and Ginsberg, exploring the reconstruction of masculinity performed in the poetry of these poets. Pointing out that it is masculinity only that is undone, to use a Judith Butler term, and not the binary construction of gender, DuPlessis notes that,

Further, one might see the manhood they were collectively, and differently inventing as an imperial expansiveness in the counter-cultural mode. Allegorically speaking, the center claims the goods of the periphery but ignores the periphery’s co-equality and right to power. Thus, to “gender” Edward Said’s work on culture and imperialism and construct a mechanism for feminist reception, we could say that these male poets “deconstructed and demystified” the male “center” but neglected to continue the critique by inventing “a new system of mobile relationships” to change power relationships between center and periphery that might moot those terms entirely (DuPlessis quoting Said 274-75).

Rob’s work on Oppen shares something in common with DuPlessis here.

In a portion of Domestic Dysphoria that Rob did not read Saturday night but which he has graciously sent me, he references DuPlessis's article:

In her essay "The Construction of Masculinity in the Counter-Cultural Poetry of the U.S. 1950s," Rachel Blau DuPlessis draws attention to the way "certain elements of stereotypical feminine compliance were, at least in theory, necessary to normal men in the 1950s" (Jacket 31 October 2006, 11). While specifically treating Allen Ginsberg's "orgasmic homosexuality," Robert Creeley'as "hyper-scrupulous male self-consciousness," and Charles Olson's "hyper masculine heroes" as three ways male poets found to negotiate gender, DuPlessis questions the ways these poets challenge dominant masculinities, while simultaneously preserving a regime of unequal sexual difference (37)." DuPlessis is quiet on the question of Oppen and gender, perhaps because of her particular closeness to Oppen's work. My sense is that while Oppen's "case" is implicated in these historically situated negotiations, his gender difficulty can't be matched point for point with these other poets' interventions into the social organization of sexual difference at mid-century. What complicates the specificity of Oppen's gender troublein contrast to say Olson's, Creeley's and Ginsberg's is his actual role in the historical events that conditioned the mid-century transformation of masculinity.

I look forward to seeing how Rob unfolds Oppen's difference from these other three mid-century male poets, particularly because I sense all kinds of prickly gender problematics in Oppen's work and in fact just for that very reason, among others, a couple of years ago I started work on an as yet uncompleted series of poems that enter into Oppen's poetry, writing through them. But this is all another matter.

For now there is this question: if it is historical circumstance that produces too this failure in Oppen (I don't think Rob is arguing that there is such a failure, but rather something quite to the contrary), what significance does this failure have for the undoing that Oppen does attempt? If hegemonic masculinity is critiqued, shifted, but within an unchanging binary structure, might this actually preserve (with a terrible vengeance, and thus the violent crime of ) a binary gender construction and hierarchy? In "What does it mean to see Nothing," Rob writes,

World historical agency returns here, but in the form of collective participation in unacknowledged events, or events whose form of consensual acknowledgement—the image—keeps us from acknowledging anything at all. And this may be the terrible meaning of being numerous.

There is too much in Rob's amazing and provocative talk to begin to parse. I look forward to reading more of his always capacious and generous work.  Rob closed the evening with this section:

This is how Oppen links the lyric ‘I’ and its vision to the conditions of possibility of the war crime itself. And this is “all we have made of the universe by looking at it.”

“Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series, // The sad marvels;” but one can’t see them with clarity, because they cohabitate with every thing we see; they may even create the light by which we see these things. 

The worldly light Oppen needs to see by is so easily confounded with the bright light of encounter itself. And he’s on guard not to be among those of Rimbaud’s “Cities” in the Illuminations: “where savage gentlemen seek distraction beneath the light they made.”

One might seek simple things to see, instead, things that are uncontaminated by these occurrences, uncompromised by the light they generate, outside the world they made. One might seek things like sea, sky, hill, house, girder, street. One might seek these things while avowing the risk that one might fail, that one might not see them, or that one might succeed in seeing them, and in doing so, see nothing. One might seek these things in order to reassure oneself that one is here, too. But one can’t see the thing for the feedback, and everything feeds back. So then one seeks the stone, the mineral fact, the “nothing place,” but even these quaver in the glare. Nothing can reassure one in the way one needs to be reassured. Nothing can -- for the circumstances may not be credible. 

Still, one might be pierced by the things one can see, and touched by the things one can’t.

Here are some excerpts from Oppen's Of Being Numerous that Rob quoted and provided on a handout at the talk:

(from section 1)

There are things
We live among 'and to see them
Is to know ourselves.'

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series.



So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say

A city of the corporations

In dreams

And images--

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter
Is impenetrable.

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