Recollections of George Oppen in a Letter to a Friend

‘This lime-tree bower my prison’

That lime-tree – no, what is it? mulberry? –
bower at combe’s bottom, your Brook Cottage
where the light sleeps so evenly in silence
one would not say even in summer’s heat
it pulses ... there you entertained
George Oppen, along with Mary who survives him;
of whom, and just there, you and I have talked
not without malice while George Oppen lived.

That we should do that, should make mock of his
style of public reading (which he hated),
his unpretentious chuntering monotone
that could not mark when a poem began or ended,
would have dismayed them both. Such vipers, such
English ingrate stingers as they had
taken to their bosoms! How could they
understand how that milk-candid, flowing
bosom it was, that armed and drew the stings?
Too good to be true, such nice Americans – we
had to pink them, that way to pinch ourselves!

Hearing in due course of his mindlessness
(Alzheimer’s, terminal) that Mary could
in the end not cope with, were we not
happy to have them down on our grubbing level?
And on that level, ours, Poetic Justice
I swear made her appearance in a toga.
Alzheimer’s, yes – the diagnosis was
all very well, but surely George’s dealings
with language had for years anticipated,
almost provoked, the visitation? Such
pains as he had been at – in verse, in prose,
in conversation – to subvert, discount,
derange articulation. Destiny
strikes, and for months before he dies
he’s inarticulate. A hideous justice.

I’ve not the energy nor the confidence
for playing God like this with George’s shade,
his fragrant shade my prison. For indeed,
often as I have settled George’s hash
to my own satisfaction, proved him wrong
– my spare and handsome gaoler with the cropped
moustache, so Jewish when one thought of it
yet on a first impression soldierly,
frontiersman even – still he shoots the bolt;
won’t go away, nor let me be, reproachful
as always the dead are, however in life indulgent.

Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell ... ’
               Dells round Brook Cottage must,
and that whole dell itself, defile or vale,
roar when the wind is up, undoubtedly.
Did it, when George was with you? Hard to think so
of him whose scenes for preference were
wind-scoured indeed but wide and open, hills
in and about the city of San Francisco,
or else the flowing and unsteady bosom
of off-shore Maine. That semblance, the frontiersman,
was not unearned by such a small-boat sailor,
no messer-about. Pathfinder, though? Trailblazer?
Never for me, threading the roaring dells
and snapping branches of morose
inspirations, aspirations, habits
held up to the weak light, scowled at. Not a bit
of help to me was George, or George’s writing;
though he achieved his startling poignancies,
I distrusted them, distrust them still.

But hope, such hope he had, such politics
always of hope! Hope is a strenuous business;
I hope the roar of it enlivens your
west-country dell, as a whisper of it mine.

Reminded of Bougainville

for Howard Erskine-Hill

‘The rest is not our business.’ Come the end or
a good deal sooner rest is
our only business. Up to
and battering that
a swarming
intelligence names the names, the
localities. Who is to say when
shearing the boom and in a way we
least expected HMS Coventry shall
recuperate the Malvinas,
les Malouines, into renewed
restiveness and the wasps
of doubt, of self-doubt, of
resolution, of
intelligences swarm?

‘a culture of regressive repetitions ... ’
Brave men and a gallant ship, her
namesake also sank
in World War Two
by bomber aircraft.
Carried aboard were
large mediaeval nails
from the bombed cathedral, formed in
the shape of a cross. She entered
the 1st of May the total exclusion zone;
3rd of May her Lynx
helicopter scored direct hits, totally
with its Sea Skua missiles
destroyed one target.

Sheffield was sunk the 4th of May;
Glasgow out of action
by the 11th. In the last
week of Coventry’s life, the
24th was a good day: three
aircraft down, and later another six.
The 25th, with Broadsword, in exposed
water, shortly after
six in the evening ‘sprang
very brave and determined
at us from behind
the land’ four aircraft, one
persistently with four
bombs, three in the portside,
exploded. Immediate flooding
and fire, very thick black
suffocating smoke. ‘Get the ship ... ’

‘Aye aye sir,’ though
no power, the ship on fire
listing to port some fifty degrees, in fifteen
minutes on her side, in thirty
her keel horizontal a few
feet above sea level. Later
she sank. Many brave deeds ...

‘In the Cathedral Three Great Nails once held
Hearts of Oak until in war they were felled.’
Nineteen dead.

The verse-line is commodious, has to be.
A sea-borne landing launched without
command of the air, a foredoomed operation
or not, as now appears. What is the role
of the term ‘professional’ in the expression:
professional and brave men’? When did we last
hear: ‘the profession of arms’? A stout, outmoded
or not, it appears, conception. Bloody business
is some men’s business decently, as when
Bougainville made the Falklands briefly French
so now, and we may rest in that. It is
always our business, always.


Guy Burgess was like us:
one that would as soon
miss Christmas or the Queen as
the Glorious First of June.

‘The mind of Europe stops’
the ideologies rattle.

Nobody’s easy touch;
Old England’s winding-sheet,
he thought, ought to be sewn
by sail-makers and such

as he was, lewdly drunk,
affronting the consensus
of his frugal party-cell.

Traitor who sold as much
small dirt as he could get,
our patriot sang it well
                   (‘Lest we forget’):

With a hey, jolly Jack, with a hey.

When the dead walked in Larkin’s
heyday, and the living
                   were made of cardboard.

With a bang, with a whimper, the world ends, or

with a yelp ... with a hey ...
lion’s whelp wagging a flag:
Burgess in the Falklands

petulant and self-
aggrandising, in
and not in Europe.

What tool is it pastes a price on
items of merchandise?
Plenty of minds like that;
this is a common market,
trams continue to rattle.

This is the way the mind
of Europe stops, has stopped

with a hey, jolly Jack, with a hey
and hearts of oak come home.

They, to Me

‘Life is over and you are its
  Memorialist. Such peace,
You ought to think, and be pleased.

You are not supposed to make
  More history. It is what
We have insupportably much of. Now lie still.

The frame, or the multiple frames
  Are sprained already. Let
“Already” be your quietus.

It would be nice to say:
  “Go on being yourself.” But
Your selves were so mutably many;

Must sons and grandsons be
  For ever disconcerted
By a new or revised programme?

The self as elder statesman
  Is an acceptable posture.
But, if you please, no sorties!

The lack of any but wary
  Approbation is
Itself a kind of distinction.

You were always in the running;
  Earnest and talented fellows
Cannot say that, so be thankful.

How many, not less haughty
 Than you, have been loved? It is true.
The shame of your need to be loved!

How many of us do you
 In fact recall? Not many;
Obliviousness your helpmeet.

In short you have made your bed
  And now you must loll on it. Patience:
A skill you have not acquired.’

They, to me ... Ah, they!
  In dimity gowns;
Pendulous breasts in bikinis;

Skinny in a black
  Bathing-suit, who now
Heaves herself round on two sticks;

Skeletal in a night-gown: ‘Can’t
  Be first and last, Don, can’t
Be first and last ...’;

And her, incontinent
  In a fragrance of eau-de-cologne:
Mother at sea in Frinton.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences