Friday, January 4, 2008

The New Materials

I'm sitting among a big pile of new books and movies, trying to unearth the ones that I need for work, and thought I'd drop a note to account for just one new/forthcoming collection that I picked up at MLA. It's a happy new year indeed when I get to say that finally -- finally! -- one can purchase a gorgeous, one-volume edition of George Oppen's Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers. Stephen Cope has done a bang-up job of putting the volume into order, annotating the entries, and clearing up the confusions of having the Daybooks appear piecemeal in a half-dozen journals over the last decade.

So much wonderful stuff in here, I can't begin to note it all here. One passage that caught my eye: Oppen writes what amounts to almost an essay on the social efficacy of the Black Arts Movement in Daybook II ("the pipe-stem daybook"). It is a rare (for the fragmentary, meditative daybooks) sustained analysis, that is by turns knowing and slightly aloof (i.e. the same combination one can find in "Of Being Numerous" - an intent combination of the knowledge of art's inadequacy for doing social work with a conviction that one should not stop). Enamored by Oppen's ethical tact and precision, as one probably should be, I think it is easy to overlook how his actual wisdom occasional becomes a tone of wisdom, and how that can shade into grandiosity. That is not a fault -- rather I mean for it to get at how he manages to be vatic and witty all in the same cutting aphorism.

Writing on pop art, or possibly continuing his discussion of Leroi Jones, Oppen summarizes: "Like a bull in a china shop: it is striking for a while. After that, the china shop becomes a bull pen, and the bull is an ordinary bull" (1o3).

An astonishingly accurate, yet brusque, image for the exhaustion of avant gardes; but an image that leaves open the question of what we are to do with the bull.

Add more china? Or let the still heavy force free?