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I’ve been listening to George Oppen these past months as I edit an anthology on his work: turning his sharp, carefully measured lines around the clarity of his thought. When I’m really listening to Oppen, I find it difficult to read anything without demanding that each word, each lone phrase, similarly call into question the ground it has just established. As such, it has been a genuine pleasure to encounter George Albon’s Momentary Songs, a work that aims at the mineral fact by testing poetry’s efficacy against the desiccation of the ready-at-hand. I read this collection as a response to Oppen’s oft-cited letter to Charles Tomlinson, in which he writes, “I have come to believe again, perhaps in more rather than less despair, that the only possible hope is in the conversation with one’s peers.” Albon’s burden is to continue this conversation wielding the poem as an instrument of hope, so that “We stripped our bearings but / shine anyway, toward speech, toward care.” (87). In response to Oppen, anchoring his text in necessity rather than blind optimism, Albon cites Bataille’s Inner Experience in a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the clarity and scope of his practice: “Hope is the respect which fatigue grants to the necessity of the world” (57).
What follows is the fragility of a single lyric voice meeting the violence of expendability with the particulars of its attention. Albon’s language is a subtle stratification of potential that, by its own necessity, moves imperceptibly forward; this is especially true of the book’s title section, “Momentary Songs,” in which the empty rhetoric of belligerent sloganeering is answered by fleeting satirical verses. Albon warns us to “Avoid / nihilist faux-disruption unless the / intention is to move life forward”(93), and opts instead to let the life-lived register and deactivate membra disjecta through the intimacy of the moment. We’re left with the mundanity and beauty of a single soul breathing against the pressure of the atmosphere:
Pulse in the temple
an holy other
on bare sill
and so simple
And on the following page:
the bird dove from (27)
These poems occupy the “momentary roost,” the perfect, decrepit suspension of experience, held seemingly still by the strain of hope against the weight of despair.
As such, it would be a mistake to qualify the poet’s movement in terms of “progress,” as if force were met in kind. The language here deactivates “participation” as the “Maker draws in / to make creation...emptying self / of whole and safe” (38). Fatigue and doubt open the poem to the danger of vulnerability, a willed uncertainty producing mobile and plastic iterations for footing, only to promote imbalance as the plates shift. Oppen famously wrote “...the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on.” Albon responds,
...when that bottom is reached
it makes a sound
which is not foundation but a false compartment
nasal bark bursting from clenched mouth
and the truly unprecedented vibration
of the narrowing glare, a thousand
dead wings beating, no life not minimal
at this half-
lidded abyss — (52)
For Albon, the center must shift for potential to exist — hope must escape from the fissures of obsolete aggregates of power:
if I could put it in the center I could survey it panoptically. I
found it wrong. (70)
The challenge is to occupy the stillness of the placeholder in order to speak for what’s to come. Albon writes in “Sunflowers, a Testimony,” at his most moving and challenging, “There is an unexplained evidence about the total sky. / Waiting to deliver, the waiting is what takes place, takes the place.” (77). The stillness of this suspension attests to the aphelion — a perfectly thermal exhaustion, opening to another present: “Meanwhile, a self encounters a parabola. A car passes a wave. A different one comes to take its place. The days fill with hot numbers.” (79)
In Momentary Songs, the ground and the ceiling, imponderables and their transcendence, are enclosed in the intimacy of the room, separated by the “sill” of “level separation, / day and night revolving in suspension / open to tilts of entrance, / the sill is soiled. I got Crossed.” (67). The subject is suspended at the “eyeline,” watching the horizon for something other than “the vagueness of the months-go-by state,” in which “you will continue to think, but there will be subtle differences now that the falling ridges of the present are pressing gently on your temples.” (82). As such, hope makes the placeholder possible, resists the foreclosure of another future by remaining in the light:
Think of something happening in the future while you are looking at a wall. Think of this future to put on it. Walk around and think of this. Even in the knowledge that the future will give you a different thing. (81)
In Momentary Songs, our temporary “roost” is the wall of the page where Albon has projected this possibility. And while the security of such a future is almost certainly in question, through careful scrutiny, we suspend the possibility of this future with him, perched on the decrepit sill, foreclosing the horrors of the actual with the promise of the impossible.
Michael Cross edited the anthology Involuntary Vision: after Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Avenue B, 2003). He publishes Atticus/ Finch Chapbooks (www.atticusfinch.org), and is currently editing a volume of the collected George Oppen Memorial Lectures for the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University. He is pursuing a doctoral degree in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo, where he is studying, particularly, the work of Louis Zukofsky. He is the author of In Felt Treeling (Chax 2008).