On Michael O’Brien

August Kleinzahler

Very few significant American poets called as little attention to themselves in their lifetimes as Michael O’Brien, who died last November at the age of 77. Much as with Lorine Niedecker – whose ‘silences’, he wrote, ‘derive from an intellectual conviction that art, like science, demands total concentration on the object of attention’ – his poetry was all about paying attention, in his case to the smallest, most fleeting details in the world at hand. The world in nearly all of O’Brien’s city poetry is Manhattan: the Upper West Side during his years at Columbia; Chelsea, where he lived for decades; the financial district, where he had an office job; and Midtown, where he spent the last decade or so of his working life. These city poems are cinematic, in a flickery, stroboscopic manner that uses unlikely juxtapositions to capture something of the speed and density of urban life:

Mahler ripens in the bookstores
Upstairs a jet is icing the sky
Across Spring Street a man pours ice from a sack
Into a bucket, precise as a drumroll
Down Sixth three buildings glow like ingots

The Morgan darkens, an old tooth
Doors of sound on 42nd Street
Where I sit in the reading room
At the window the sun comes and goes
Like a heart pumping light

This is from ‘The Days’, which appeared in a collection called The Floor and the Breath in 1994. The publisher was Cairn Editions, an imprint O’Brien set up in order to get out his own work and that of his friend Frank Kuenstler; no one else was interested in publishing it.

Kuenstler, an experimental film-maker as well as a poet, was a significant influence: he seems to have encouraged the cinematic qualities in O’Brien’s poetry. Kuenstler’s short film El Atlantis (1973), based around the Third Avenue El, serves as a visual analogue to both poets’ work, with its jump-cuts, densely layered quality and deliberately grainy field of vision, all contributing to a sense of instability, movement, pressure – something approaching synaptic assault, a feeling that may seem familiar to anyone who has spent time in Midtown or Lower Manhattan during working hours. This effect is amplified by the proliferation of reflections and refractions from the windows of the moving trains. Another tendency both poets share, and which lends an instability and juddering quality to their work, is the use of wordplay, especially punning. Words and phrases are subject to disruption, coming apart and regrouping in surprising ways. Here’s Kuenstler from his volume In Which (1994):

In which the big wig. In which a new broom sweeps streets. In which from wench I came. In which rain on rain. In which Lucy Lippard’s slippers. In which nouns, calendars. In which the garter belt & Bible Belt.

Here’s O’Brien from ‘Song & Image’ in the collection Veil, Hard Rain (1986):

You got a kiss like the Grand Concourse
You got a kiss like Chicago
You got a kiss like Chopin the Polish Scarlatti
O baby, don’t you step on my blue dissuade shoes!

Thanks for the candied remarks. Thanks for the losssuit.
‘Thanks for the mammary.’ ‘My sediments.’ ‘Exactly.’
Sex is ephemeral, rabbinical, clockwork.
O, baby, don’t you step on my blue dissuade shoes!

It’s far easier to capture the frenzy and cacophony of city life through the visual arts or music than in poetry. Frank O’Hara is the best-known of those who have tried to represent in poems the random energy of modern New York and its onslaught of undifferentiated information, visual, auditory, psychological, conceptual. O’Brien is far more restrained, even austere, than O’Hara and the rest of the New York School, with none of the reliance on ‘voice’ of, say, O’Hara’s ‘Second Avenue’ (‘I scintillate like a glass of ice’). For O’Brien,

Chambers Street ends in rain. Civic Fame’s gold laurel catches the eye, but the day damps down. The man who lives in Warren Street settles in his duck blind. Four men stand like empties outside the Stanley Employment Agency. A television set left on in a shop tips its huge alphabet into the street. It is not speech but the parts of speech. Likeness joins what was separate, then the unwanted information pours in; a surd, a swarm …

O’Brien’s city poems, begun a century after Whitman and Baudelaire’s pioneering engagement with the overwhelming new fact of the modern city, constitute a significant formal advance in creating poetic structures that can accommodate the torrent of sensory information.

This poet of the city described himself as ‘a hick’. He was born in 1939 in Granville, New York, population 2500, on the Vermont state border. He left in 1956 to go to college in the Bronx. O’Brien is one of a long line of hicks from upstate who made their way to the big city. John Ashbery, whose work O’Brien disapproved of (‘the poetry of programmatic inconsequence’), had arrived in NYC 15 years earlier, from a farm near Lake Ontario.

Many of O’Brien’s poems could be characterised as pastoral. This is ‘East Branch’:

a bird like two stones struck together
(bird of reproof) through leaf-shimmer
a moth-spot of white light sky washed
an intense blue by yesterday’s rain, no vein of opal

near the spring a red leaf-coloured frog the size of an eye

The eye/mind is still made to jump around unpredictably, each poem operating on an elaborate set of tiny hinges (spacing, pauses, juxtaposition, enjambment), turning one’s attention first here, then there. The shorter nature poetry conveys the sense of words emerging from silence and disappearing back into it. Many of them, particularly those written after 2007, have a spectral quality.

Delicacy of observation, oblique precision and subtlety of movement, word by word, syllable by syllable, are the hallmarks of these poems, informed by the masters of Japanese short forms (the waka, tanka and haiku). Around 1970 O’Brien had met the translator of Japanese poetry Hiroaki Sato (see the LRB of 21 January 2016), and their collaborations on a number of translations inflected his style:

dusk, Ninth Avenue, face
bathed in cellophane glow, cowboy
Narcissus, at his tasks

As well as the Japanese, O’Brien was influenced by the minimalist modernism of W.C. Williams and his successors, particularly the Objectivist and Black Mountain poets. But before all that – thanks to a year abroad in Paris while studying at Fordham – there was his important early encounter with 19th-century French poetry, with its extreme transitions and discontinuity; he was strongly influenced by the associative flaring and synesthesia of the Symbolists, and by Surrealism, with its dreamlike logic and unpredictability, its mingling of disparate images. In 1960, Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry (Olson, Duncan, Creeley et al), hit him like a bolt of lightning. Up until then he had been under the sway of the 1957 anthology New Poets of England and America, full of Lowell, Wilbur, Larkin, Hughes – all members of an academic, rather conservative, literary canon. Then, in the mid-1960s, he became friendly with George Oppen, around the time Oppen began writing again after a long silence. ‘I was still reading, or trying to read The Mills of the Kavanaughs,’ O’Brien later wrote. ‘Oppen pointed a way out.’ Sato seems to have been the final piece in the puzzle.

After 2000, when Zoland Books published Sills: Selected Poems, O’Brien’s most significant collection, he enjoyed support from solid, if small, publishers. Flood Editions of Chicago published his last three collections, Sleeping and Waking (2007), Avenue (2012) and To the River (2017), which alternates city and nature poems with remarkable effect. This is from ‘Subways’:

tips his newspaper
gently back &
forth as if he were
fanning his heart

Finally, there are pure lyrics, which go beyond locality to cover more terrain than many of the more purely imagistic pieces. This is ‘The Loom’:

The snow’s turned dross

The city’s gloss wears thin
As a Bible’s onion-skin

Or needle’s eye

Her body
Is a kind of mirror writing

There
In its cockpit of air

Its ration book of days

Two sons
Two ways

Out

Cold quickens the ear
The lungs fill and fill

The will
Rests

At 25 below
Each step’s like rosin on a bow

‘The Loom’, a poem of return, is reminiscent – in its sparseness, the way it does its work and sits on the page, the ground it covers – of Oppen’s best poetry. The two met during a propitious time for each of them. Oppen and his wife, Mary, were just back from Mexico, George at work again and curious about what was going on. O’Brien at that point was part of an Upper West Side art collective centred on Columbia that called itself the Eventorium and included Kuenstler, Michael Benedikt, Serge Gavronsky and Rachel Blau (DuPlessis). There were open readings in a loft every Sunday and later a magazine and press, which published five books, including O’Brien’s The Summer Poems (1967). O’Brien’s mature work was still a couple of decades away and there was little of Oppen’s influence evident in the poetry he wrote during their friendship. But Oppen taught O’Brien a great deal, lessons he took to heart. Later, he described what he had learned:

A kind of plain-spokenness about inner things. Not to simplify. To know as precisely as you could just how complicated things are, and not to make them either more or less so.

Patience. That there are things you can’t rush.

‘Paradise of the real’. That it was here, if anywhere … How resonant that word ‘real’, was for Oppen, for Duncan, for Jack Spicer.

That there was no part of one’s life that couldn’t be part of one’s poem.

Clarity. That clarity was possible.

That you could employ prose or verse as needed.

That writing poems was a serious business. Not that you had to be a bloody owl, but that it mattered.