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Nathaniel Tarn reviews

Red Sky Café

by Geoffrey O’Brien

92pp. Salt, Cambridge UK, UKL.1844710718 paper.

This review is 900 words
or about 3 printed pages long

Random Notes
on a First Lecture Sauvage
of Geoffrey O'Brien’s

I find it curious that, at a time when readers are alleged to play an ever growing interactive role in the reception of poems, poetry reviews in which the reviewer as reader gives an initial reaction to a book — as opposed to a meditated critical analysis — are as rare as hens’ teeth. Yet I often hear from poets that the former is exactly what they would most like to hear and that they rarely if ever do. Judging from two huge new biographies, Laurent Greisalmer’s on René Char (Paris: Fayard, 2004) and Jean Pierre Martin’s on Henri Michaux (Paris: Gallimard 2003), French poets are, or were, better at providing this than we are. In many ways is not the best review of all a poem in reaction to the reading? Not sure. In any event, you have to reckon that some such reactions will say nothing to the subject her/ himself and that readers uninvolved with either subject or reviewer may well get nothing from the process at all. Nevertheless it seems to me worthwhile, in these very serious times, as a way of playing.

[C: in physics, celeritas is the speed of light.]

The opening poems: Fichte’s consciousness as activity. My ‘transformaction.’ And, in O’B, the action passes back into the actor: prime movement of the magic of these pieces. ‘Until in the exact middle I remembered, Oh, it’s me.’ The reader is brought up against her/ himself by the mirror of the poet’s identical situation.

‘The Dice Players,’ ‘La Menteuse,’ the Perseus Old Age piece... are major poems. A stronger sense of history than most poets own today — buttressed in this book by the harking back to the late 1920s? in turn lined with the continuity of O’B’s preoccupation, obsession with film, radio, pop music of a period. Continuity of this throughout the Opus.

Is it this sense of history and preoccupation in O’B which endows these poems with such a flowing sense of narrative, so that, together with everything else you expect from a poem today, you get such a wonderful and rare gift: a story that you can read as such as if the poem were a novel in micrograms?

Quiet undertow of visionary violence in the two lovely ‘Aubades’ — again from Noir, or elsewhere? Cruelty is delicately present, as in ‘From an Old Engraving.’ Have to recall that O’B happened to live right next door to the Trade Center of 9/11.

‘Prospectus’ like a harp playing from the lowest to the highest note and back, sounding all tragedies, from the era’s to the most archeologically personal. All wars are in the book, all the way down to the present one — but as backdrop mainly.

How often the word ‘pattern’ occurs in these poems. Art, Music. Erudition in the backdrop also: modesty thereof contributes most to unveil it.

‘Postcards’ — My childhood in Paris and the childhood in St. Petersburg I never experienced though it took place at the same time. Children’s games. ‘Little Opera:’ ‘This is a story / about the death of honor:’ How deeply that word ‘honor’ speaks about the gone world of our generation’s affections. Who talks of honor today except the centenarians of WW1 or the execrables of the extreme right?

‘Up in the Old Loft’ — the goddess as abstract expressionist painter?

‘Intercept’ — at first glance OB’s adventure into disjunction? Most probably not: have to re-read several times. Last four stanzas indicate this is a major piece. Fascination of ‘I married the air’ and the ‘ancient female dialect’ — a world model hereabouts?

‘Letty Lane’s Wedding Day.’ It was not this war he was talking about, it was the previous one he comes from. The last in which men dressed to kill. ‘And the room was a night beach awash with loose eyes’...

‘Appartment 33’ — the habit of lists, here beautifully structured.

‘Jungle Moon Men’ — like the history of another world than ours. ‘Until the eternal Now / resume its ancient sovereignty.’ Note the cap. N.

The Cento (1929) the unspoken comment on the unremembered names. I once went thru an anthology of my birth year, 1928, and recognized perhaps two names out of something like a hundred. Ozymandias, King of Kings.

Betty Grable. Never fell for her. Whom did I? Perhaps Theresa Wright? A lover of peaceful intensity.

‘Four Reels, Believed Lost’ — the first movie ever gone to a foreign country.

‘The Green Lady.’ The Dunsinane Lady. ‘by clothing herself in so many varieties of green / you might imagine a wood moved’

So much more. Quiet love unsaid.

A coda which enwombs the beginning of the world, the quietest big bang I recall. In the end, a preference for the isness of is. Which is the poem, the great Now, the only now we have.

O’B is hands down the most elegant poet writing today. Which does not belie Kelly’s ‘one of the smartest, deepest, most rewarding poets we have.’ A book to treasure, as they say, a ‘keeper.’ Lighthouse keeper.

This is gratitude. I wish it were a poem.

— NT. 10.15-17. 05

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