From "A Test of: Spacing" by Marjorie Welish, Presented as the George Oppen Memorial Lecture
A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, & Transcendence
Although Forrest Gander’s 'Finding the Phenomenal Oppen' shares the Objectivist’s respect for observation, it treats reality—the ethos of that objectivity—differently. Unlike the Objectivist’s regard for Realist types, Gander’s sustains a Naturalist’s appreciation of social community modeled on a febrile nature within which lies a forensics of differentials.
Deriving a world from a sociology built on the 19th century schema of classes, Objectivists follow the discursive formation of Realism where human behavior is concerned, with men and girls populating the city and going about their business; however, Gander’s mission is to try to find a phenomenal Oppen within the categorical Oppen.
Nature’s experiment-in-process—its trials and errors from the perspective of human interests—is a dynamical situation with its own excitement. Something tells me only those who tend to see inanimate objects like rocks as inert things cannot apprehend the stories and narrative of earth’s trials; Gander’s own early field work and current on-going geologic interests sustain a respect for the dynamical ‘thrill-seeking’ forces informing natural experiment (as poet John Clare knew well). As for ‘Finding the Phenomenal Oppen,” Gander’s own experiment in discursive poetry is to be found in the ways in which ‘poetry and meditation and assay knock on each other’s doors,’ as he says. The essay’s rhetorical domain is that of argument, a proposal put forward on behalf of being numerous as this plays out in the configurations that emerge from an apparent natural chaos.
Quoting Oppen, Gander makes the argument that favors a poetry of sensations, of a nature crowded with sensations in which human beings participate as perceiving bodies. As in the late poem from ‘If It All Went Up in Somike,’ presence is not abstract but embodied and concrete:
us in the stones and is less
always than that help me I am
of that people the grass
and touch in their small
distances the poem
So Gander argues from poetic phenomenology that is concrete if not always particular, for no factual data mark this observation to account for spatial disposition as did, say Pliny the Younger writing of his lands or of the phenomenon that was Vesuvius. Without defaulting on the empirical specificity of materials and what things are made of, the phenomenal Oppen is, in Gander’s view, dedicated to a phenomenologically social space. People and grass are co-existing objects whose relations, configured similarly, are there to be perceived. A gestalt rather than a structure, this touching through small distances echoes late Heidegger, to whom Maurice Merleau-Ponty responds. However, that Merleau-Ponty indicates ‘a certain way of linking up with the phenomenon and communicating with it,’ sometimes expressive of configured space, sometimes expressive of structure, shows the philosopher conflating gestalt and structure rather than keeping these ideas distinct. For instance, the Working Notes appended to The Visible and Invisible, the book on which this philosopher was writing when he died, do remark that ‘a philosophy of structure [. . . ] will better form on with geography not history. For history is too immediately bound to the individual praxis.’ Instead of praxis—or, for that matter, forces inscribing a Darwinian place--, is a configuration suggestive of structures; there is where human beings may be found.
Whether or not Oppen might have read Merleau-Ponty, ‘their thinking intersects,’ writes Gander. He remarks:
It is possible that Oppen read Merleau-Ponty, possible even that he read parts of the philosopher’s important posthumous book The Visible and the Invisible. Certainly Oppen, too, focuses on connecting the visible and the invisible—‘the bolt / in the frame / of the building’ as he writes in Discrete Series—and in his notebooks he refers to the “seen and the unseen” in connection with his own work.
Readers of Oppen’s notes are apt to find the Oppen they seek: some favoring the phenomenological, some favoring the pragmatic. With Seascape: Needle’s Eye in mind, Michael Heller puts it thus: ‘Indeed, in reading him, it often seems that one is confronting not so much an innovation but a search for the adequation of means and ends, in an intuitive feel for what is necessary rather than any sense of experimentation.’ ‘The bolt/ in the frame/ of the building,’ then emerges as the concretion of fitness the lineage of which extends from Socrates’ functional beauty to Darwin’s and Charles Peirce’s adaptive behavior—the poetics of what works. For his part Gander lays emphasis on the phenomenological integrity of the unseen, which Oppen respects as part of the work, and to which Merleau-Ponty has dedicated thought that would elevate perception over sensation.
Quite remarkable is that even as Gander’s own poetry is crystalline,-- ‘Finding the Phenomenal Oppen’ concatenates a vernacular informality that puts Oppen’s interests ahead of his own,-- or at least makes of the essay a talk supple enough to lend argument a colloquial lyricism; meanwhile, Gander’s poem/meditation/assay in free verse demonstrates how the lyric may be taken as other. To this Gander has added a third aspect: a semiosis of the in-between. Can we say that here is a didactic poem brought forward through the late 18th century’s relaxation of taste and imposed rules, and beyond, into a domain where no je ne said quoi has gone before? Well, not quite, but it is a foray into the zone of the as-yet-unnamed. Appended to ‘Finding the Phenomenal Oppen’ and yet part of it, is Gander’s reminiscing on his ‘memory of Oppen’ in a first-person history not found in the essay/poem itself, which was evidently worked up from elsewhere. From e-correspondence, I extract this memorandum from Gander: ‘Re: notebooks, I keep three kinds at once. One, a notebook of responses to the books I read., questions and commentary. Also, keep a notebook of impulses, the compost of later poems. Observations, lines that occur to me, the startings of poems, etc. Finally, I keep a really large format Bease and Porum notebook at home in which early drafts have enough pasture to develop.’ I wonder whether this methodological shift from a practice of cumulative experience aided Gander in keep this work to a loose discursive project wherein essay and poem amalgamate but do not homogenize functions. In fact, Gander tells me that the talk he gave at Harvard on the subject provided the first draft of the poem.