By John Freeman
New York writer Michael O’Brien might just be the best-kept secret of America’s poetry world. In the past four decades, he quietly has produced more than a dozen volumes of wry, effervescently meditative verse. “Sleeping and Waking,” his latest, might just be your best ticket to a more reflective state of mind this fall.
How does O’Brien transport his readers? It’s not by reinventing poetry. Like Ezra Pound, eight decades before him, he pares down to the simplest image.
Breath, ash, sleep and stone are the colors in his palate. Strung together, his lines fall down the page in a single rivulet like the art on Japanese wall hangings. “After Kiyohara Motosuke,” named for the ninth-century Japanese noble man and poet, reads in its entirety:
“I wish I could bring
home the brocade of
that autumn field of
bush clover, deer
snorting in the brushwood.”
For Pound, faces in a Paris metro appeared like “(p)etals on a wet, black bough.” O’Brien also spends time on the subways—in New York—where the apparitions are just as vivid. He spies a woman, slowly eating a fresh pear—another passenger shaking up her newspaper, “as/if to be rid of the/ worst of the news.” Walking down Houston Street, he glimpses an ad painted on the side of a building punctuated by a tiny, single window at the center, with two faces peering out.
New York in all its mystery and scabrous energy comes alive in O’Brien’s poems as it hasn’t in verse in years. Stretching its boundaries upstate and into his mind, O’Brien renders the city in pastoral tones and with fly-by-night whimsy. In “Once,” he observes a woman: “on the street she/yawns, her jeans/yawn, her knees/rhyme with her eyes.” “Certain Evenings,” his opening prose poem, ought to sit next to Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” as a snapshot of the metropolis in motion.
Subtly erotic, humorous and shot through with the sweet melancholy of passing years, this is terrific, deceptively elegant work. Taking us to places we’ve seen before, but not with this kind of elegant pixilation, O’Brien accomplishes the most difficult thing of all in putting anything down on the page: He makes us forget his eye is not our own.
Every few years, like so many great artists before her, Adrienne Rich has torched her late style to the ground and started anew.
And so her early Auden-like verse evolved into the oracular line she developed in the late 1960s, which formed the backbone of her powerful feminist poems from the 1970s, especially her National Book Award-winner, “Diving into the Wreck.” She then dismantled this powerful armature in order to expand the landscape of identity as she explored it through the 1980s and early 1990s.
Since 2000, however, Rich’s poems have entered yet another stage—language has been reduced, sometimes pulverized, down to its finest mica. One doesn’t read her poems so much now as skitter across their cluster of images. Rich’s still prodigious ability to make language beautiful keeps these linguistic mobiles from becoming too much air and gesture, too little form.
“Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth,” however, brings us full circle, as Rich returns to the musical influences which encouraged her to write in the first place. Here are blues refrains, improvisations and the sound of birdsong. Mixed in with poems about prison life, about torture, about Wallace Stevens, it forms a potent volume.
But don’t give it a label. Rich bristles, still, at definitions, as they are the things that make it harder for society (and artists) to change, to evolve. “If we/(who?) ever were conned/into mere definitions,” she wonders, “if we accept.” Rich leaves us hanging there as to the result—she has proven, in her own work, what a life lived without such strictures can produce.
“Sleeping and Waking,” by Michael O’Brien, Flood Editions, 63 pages, $12.95; “Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth,” by Adrienne Rich, W.W. Norton, 108 pages, $23.95.