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Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis

Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis

Bobbie Louise Hawkins

George Oppen, Mary Oppen and a Poem

We were talking about our earliest sexual experiences. How it began I don’t remember, but it seemed inherent to the conversation that it was humorous, a looking-back by three middle-aged plus persons who weren’t stopped short at saying whatever we thought.

Mary Oppen said, “Well, the first time I had sex I just had to have it.” (Mary Oppen had one of those lovely, soft faces, a generous woman.) She said, “Fortunately I met George soon after that.”

George (who had one of those lovely long and bony faces, with just then a grin on it) said, “Yes, I lucked out when I met Mary. She had read that when a man is aroused he must be appeased instantly or his penis would fall off. Of course, the book I had read had a different message. My book said that if you did anything about it it would fall off.”

We were in my barn in Bolinas, sitting in a long narrow room that had once been used for milking cows. Now it was mostly windows, with some old stained glass in the south end that moved a yellow stain across the floor when the sun shone.

The sun was shining.

Mary and George were on their way up the coast to where they kept a small boat moored and had stopped for a cup of tea and a chat.

I love the friends I have who are couples that work and continue to work, both of them looking full size, and the warmth between them an atmosphere. I love the way I feel when I’m with them, it’s as close as one can get to coming home.

George and Mary were like that.

I have kept this poem by George on my wall for twenty years.

The Forms of Love

                          (George Oppen)

Parked in the fields
All night
So many years ago,
We saw
A lake beside us
When the moon rose.
I remember

Leaving that ancient car
Together. I remember
Standing in the white grass
Beside it. We groped
Our way together
Downhill in the bright
Incredible light

Beginning to wonder
Whether it could be lake
Or fog
We saw, our heads
Ringing under the stars we walked
To where it would have wet our feet
Had it been water.

An infinity of statements have been made, and continue to be, (and will be, in all likelihood, forever) about the constructs and theories of poetry, how to read it, how to write it, whether it means something. But none of that conjecture and obsession can write a poem. Poetry, when it is working, is genetic, springs from that place we have never managed to define, like love, like laughter, however much the mind busies itself with owning and inventing the terms.

It springs from the page like a laugh from the belly of an entire roomful of people, at once and in agreement. It springs from itself, intending to be there.

Jack Spicer once said, “A poet thinks he’s the pitcher, but really he’s the catcher.”

But the talkers, mistaken or not, can’t stop. The mind so wants, so needs, to own it all, and will talk endlessly about love, and sex (and poetry) as if they can be contained and explained by thought and attendant verbiage.

We want to believe that the impulses that throw us around, that create our lives and interfere with them, are as simplistic as “topics.”

But really, poor us, lucky us, we’re forever the catchers, caught and subject to our humanity, with our hopes, laughter, love.

And once in a great while, with “our heads ringing under the stars”.

(Another Time...)

We were having dinner in the airport in Buffalo where George was to catch a plane after a reading. The waitress came to take our orders and I was first. I asked for turkey and dressing and thought I was done with it.

She asked, “Soup or salad.”

I said “Salad,” and thought I was done.

She asked, “Before the entrée or with it?”

(?!!) I said “With.”

Enough already.

She asked which salad dressing I wanted and named them.

I answered.

Did I want coffee?


With or after? And had I chosen a dessert?

This all was taking a ludicrous amount of time given that there was a plane to catch.

She turned to George who said, “I want everything she just ordered exactly the way she ordered it.”

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