(Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2013.)
I can’t put O’Brien’s newest poetry collection down. By this I do not mean that I am propelled through People on Sunday until the end, but rather, that I am compelled to read each condensed, cerebral yet tangible poem over and over and, yes, over again, every time seeking a more complete understanding. People on Sunday is not for a day of rest, but the hard work a reader will need to put in, perhaps surrounded by reference materials, from encyclopedias to archived newspapers, is well worth the time and effort. For example, the reader needs to be familiar with the high arts of the “D’Haussonville” poem’s overarching reference to French Neoclassical Painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ “Louise de Broglie, Contesse d’Haussonville,” as well as the reference to the Egyptian politician Omar Suleiman within the “Suleiman” piece. You get the point. O’Brien is a poet and a historian and perhaps somehow People on Sunday blends any distinction between these callings. The collection takes its name from a 1930 German silent film set during the interwar period. O’Brien’s People on Sunday is about the relationships between different times and places. More specifically, the collection explores the seemingly displaced space, not withholding that of our present day, between these moments.
From the historical, as mentioned above, to the fleeting nature of time, as alluded to in the poem “At The Edge of The Bed,” the temporal motif is a logical – and, more importantly, an accessible – angle through which to approach an exquisitely highbrow collection written by a cultural historian. The poem title choice “Materia,” for example, is an intriguing one. The word itself contains all of western civilization from Latin roots to contemporary legal taxonomy. “Materia,” like much of the collection, is interested in the temporal, not necessarily in the sense of a sequence of events along a traditional past-to-present timeline, but perhaps rather in an associative manner, how it may connect more-meaningful, less-linear dots to one another. “Materia” states:
I had the single method: wait like form
On the inside of the outside, made
Of being made. There space is nothing
So large as, tests don’t end they resume,
The good and bad have the same structure.
Let me be more specific: during the war
I remained unreal in order to match
The conflict’s absence of termination
The poem respects time, the need to “wait,” and even yields to it as the speaker “remained unreal in order to match / The conflict’s absence of termination.” Later, still within section “1” of “Materia,” “Things that endure are not things. / They tend to show up in religions, / Both transforming and transformed.” The poem recognizes the rules of and motion of time, acknowledging both what has happened through the past tense, “transformed,” as well as the present, which is currently happening via the present participle, “transforming.”
“Materia” honors the steady forward movement of time, thus allowing O’Brien to credibly and effectively, employ it non-linearly. “Materia” doesn’t claim to alter time. Often, it avoids even literal inaccuracies, if you will, contemporarily accepted since French surrealism.
Or I joined one moment of helplessness
To another so that a perpetual intimacy
Spanned them, defeating time by further
Dividing it into nameless parts […]
These lines refer to the way in which the speaker’s mental perspective deals with moments, how he categorizes them. Yes, he needs to cope with the war he cannot foresee the end of, but really, it is his feeling of “helplessness” that he needs to manage. The nonspatial continuum, while obviously not actually tangible, is somehow more palpable than a feeling experienced. Perhaps time is a slightly more manageable placeholder for this feeling, which allows the speaker to cope with the “helplessness” of having no control. This substitution in and of itself is, of course, twofold; time is also intangible, so the notion that anything could be even less manageable consequently highlights the “helplessness.”
“Materia” is interested in the temporal motif’s associative connections. Within section “2” of “Materia,”a reader will find:
When listening to music without drums,
Which is my definition of the classical,
When listening to how it erases the difference
Between those who gather and those still dispersed
The poem defines classical music according to its own purposes stating that it is “music without drums.” Drums are often considered the timekeepers of a piece. Classical music has strict time signatures and tempo instructions that all the players keep. The reader is subtly alerted to this communal sense of time. Notice that the following lines read “the difference / Between those who gather and those still dispersed” rather than “the difference / Between those who gather and those dispersed.” The word “still” implies that those gathered were also at one point separated. Through this metaphorical use of redefined classical music paired with the diction choice to include “still,” the reader can literally hear the boundaries between these two groups of people, different only in their timing, evaporate.
O’Brien also highlights the complexity of time in section “2” of “Materia.” He writes, “One thing / We know: in finishing ceasing stops / Via a set of collectable reverberations.” This slant repetition of sorts, uniquely employing synonym verbs, both highlights the act of finishing/ceasing/stopping and also emphasizes the repetitive and continuing echo effect of “reverberations;” the section closes but resonates perhaps as masterfully as any I’ve ever seen.
People on Sunday includes four poems titled “Series” – notice yet another nod to the temporal – spread throughout the collection. Let’s visit the forth and final of the batch. The poem begins:
To remember people in the act
Of speaking is to love them
And not the turquoise substrate
Redon supposed was all there was
To vases, any container, the vessel
If it is not important it is at least interesting to know that the Redon to which O’Brien refers to is French symbolist painter Odilon Redon and the work of art his oil painting, “Flowers in a Turquoise Vase.” Of a loved one’s face, O’Brien writes:
[…] An open mouth
Unembarrassed in the lower parts
Of the face, vase that when
It’s drawn becomes a lamp
This poem is perhaps one of the more easily digestible of the collection. It is as if these pieces are almost-meditative breathers for the audience. They are shorter, but much more importantly, I’d like to suggest that they have fewer moving parts; lines such as “Thinking about the lip of the vase / Or a smudge of stray indigo” do thoughtfully and compellingly blur a distinction, but do so between two definite subject matters, the vessel within the static painting and the metaphorical vase, the image within one’s head of a face with an “open mouth” “in the act of speaking.” The poem is one of resonance flowing within the thematic vein of time – in this case, along the outskirts in the exploration of memory – and is complete in reverberation, closing with something lapidary:
Thinking about the lip of the vase
Or a smudge of stray indigo
Above it, and the butterfly about
To test the limits of what’s happened
Once and less than once.
While Geoffrey G. O’Brien might not offer up provisions of conversational language or much of that down-to-earth tone that allows some contemporary poets, such as Matthew Zapruder, author of Come On All You Ghosts, to approach scholarly, rather philosophical motifs, this collection is worth every bit of work it demands. People on Sunday is rare and brilliant in its pairing of a sage-like wisdom, that which only a labored history can allot, seamlessly entangled within the emotional core true poetry gorgeously exhales.
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Heather Lang’s poetry has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published by Cider Press Review, The Del Sol Review, IthacaLit, Jelly Bucket, and Mead. She serves as Assistant Editor for The Literary Review and has reviewed for Atticus Review, Gently Read Literature, and HTMLGIANT.