Joel Oppenheimer’s grave was the first I ever visited with an avid interest and knowledge of the individual lying inside. He’s buried in Henniker, New Hampshire on the old road headed east that gets you to the state capitol Concord. So it was with eagerness I picked up Robert Bertholf’s Remembering Joel Oppenheimer and read it straight through. Bertholf provides about as good an introduction for the general reader that any one could ask for. His contemplation of the later years and accompanying poems is particularly worth mention. The commentary covers the range of Oppenheimer’s life from his youth growing up in Yonkers through student days at Black Mountain College studying under Charles Olson on to the end of his life in 1988 while teaching at New England College in Henniker, NH.
Taken as a whole this is not strictly a memoir or a scholarly work. Bertholf opens with an adept biographical account of Oppenheimer which suitably orients the unfamiliar reader with the subject and also provides some critical reflection on individual poems. The central sections of the book present clipped biographical snapshots of Oppenheimer’s life and work, focusing on several personal recollections from the years (1972 onward) when Bertholf was personally as well as professionally acquainted with the poet. The last two pieces in the book, “Ritual in the Late Poetry” and “The Poetics of the Late Poetry” are scholarly papers more or less, the first being an expanded version of what previously appeared in a special section of an issue of Talisman devoted to papers delivered at a conference on Oppenheimer in 1999. The organization of the book into these sections is at times frustrating and confusing. Bertholf gets lost oscillating between telling anecdotes and providing a critical evaluation of the poet and the work. It is difficult not to feel that Bertholf, rather than assemble a readable account of his friendship, has gathered notes towards such a project and published them combined with pre-existing material at hand.
Bertholf states that Lyman Gilmore’s 1999 Don’t Touch the Poet: Life and Times of Joel Oppenheimer was the initial spark that got him working on his own tale of Oppenheimer. He claims his own work is “too non-systematic and unquestioning to qualify as a commentary on [Gilmore’s book]” (Bertholf, 3) yet nonetheless it’s difficult not to imagine Bertholf does find some fault in Gilmore’s depiction of his friend. Gilmore, trained in psychology, casts a good deal of emphasis on giving a psychological reading of Oppenheimer. He leans heavily upon Oppenheimer’s phobias and paranoia along with making much of his drinking years and the effect they had upon his life and work. Bertholf never pities Oppenheimer, or takes to scolding him for past behavior. It is difficult to say the same about Gilmore. Oppenheimer remains a friend for Bertholf and no doubt it was challenging to have him presented as a subject in Gilmore’s analysis. However Bertholf is blinded by his friendship to fully appreciate what Gilmore does reveal and in place of those revelations fails to bring any new revelations of his own. Aside from extensive quotation from Oppenheimer’s “Charles Olson Memorial Lectures” delivered in Buffalo on the 20, 22, 27 of April 1982 there’s little new material here of substantive revelation.
Among the tales Bertholf shares, none beats out Fielding Dawson ending a night long reconciliation with Robert Creeley by pissing on Creeley’s shoes without Creeley objecting, let alone knocking him to the ground. Unfortunately, Bertholf’s writing lacks the energetic spasm of Dawson’s action. There’s open ground between him and his subject, open ground which he never covers or manages to quite recognize. There is a strange absence of personal feeling for Oppenheimer. A significant amount of emotion towards the friendship withheld.
Oppenheimer is a personable poet. A clear, identifiable ‘self’ comes through via his poems that is unmistakably his own. As he says, “i meant for these poems to mean things.” (Preface to Why Not) The bullshit with Oppenheimer was always kept outside of the work, compelling but never marring. His spirit carries the work. There are many sides to quarrel with and there’s much to love. The Oppenheimer oeuvre exemplifies a life given to the page and deserves more attention than is garnered in the current state of affairs where the general prevailing outlook declares the poem should not be committed to an identifiable life of action in the physical world. Bertholf is to be cheered for the considerable work he has done to giving Oppenheimer the attention he deserves.
When it comes to poets the best reflections are poems and Oppenheimer has his fair share of testimonials. In closing, I offer a bit of one from a poem by Richard Blevins:
Our host is a poet so memorable
It is impossible for him
To have been a student of the great poet’s
Or to have gone up to any mountain’s college,
Beyond the brilliant courses he skiis
In his talking.
The new poem
In each of the seventy books tells the same story
Of the poet’s cancer, the irony
Of the simple government
Directions for eating his medicine—
Every line break
Here is a poet’s portrait of Oppenheimer. If he sounds of interest the reader might consider taking a look at Bertholf’s book, but please do read the work as well. A collected later poems (edited by Bertholf) is in print and several of his earlier volumes are readily available. All are heartily recommended.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in the library at the University of San Francisco. He has published poems and chapbooks with Auguste Press, Blue Book, Chain, Mirage#4 period(ical), Pompom, Red Ant Press, and Snag Press.