The bad poems by great poets seldom feature in critical discussions. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps a reluctance to speak ill of revered figures. Or simply an inability to agree on what makes a poem bad. When bathos, for instance, is openly pursued as a desirable poetic attribute by the Flarfistas, then all bets are off. But long before Flarf, the traditional notion of what constituted aesthetic value had undergone an important sea change. Nevertheless, great poets do write bad poems. Which suggests to me a topic ripe for expansion.
Case in point: George Oppen's "The Zulu Girl." As far as I can tell, this poem has escaped commentary by the major critics. Peter Nicholls' George Oppen and The Fate of Modernism is silent on it. Likewise, Michael Davidson sees fit not to annotate it in his otherwise exemplary notes to the New Collected Poems. Apparently it did not enjoy serial publication, nor is there any reference to the photographic source Oppen used. It’s possible that Mike Heller or Rachel Blau DuPlessis have taken notice of it, or that someone mentions it in the Man and Poet volume. But it’s also understandable why none of them would. It’s an embarrassment.
The Zulu Girl
Naked, the soft
Small hollow in the flesh
Near the arm pit, the tendons
Presenting the gentle breasts
So boldly, tipped
With her intimate
That touched, would touch her
In the wild grasses.
“Zulu Girl” appears in 1965’s This in Which. What interests me here, aside from the obvious thing to say, namely, that it’s a somewhat classy version of National Geographic porn, is the tone. Oppen’s gaze and his commitment to a minimalist reduction are exactly the same as any other person or object he might treat. Yet one can’t help but feel that this is a case of Objectivist sincerity being badly abused. There’s a distinct uneasiness reading about the poet as he imagines himself touching this unnamed woman’s breasts and her vivid response. The tone invites the reader to place the poem in a quasi-anthropological/"Family of Man" context – an artifact of the Cold War. But the intent seems purely salacious. You have to wonder what Mary made of this poem.
Oppen has a thing for women’s tendons. In section 32, “Of Being Numerous,” he writes:
And the beauty of women, the perfect tendons
Under the skin
When he touches on the erotic, most of the time, it is delicately, discreetly. Mary’s hips are praised in Discrete Series – “she lies, hip high” – and comes in elsewhere, here and there, for ardent, if muted, veneration. But Oppen does not permit himself to write of her naked beauty or her sexuality openly. If he ever did, we do not have those poems. And I rather suspect he did not. Instead the poem of the erotic gaze is reserved for the photograph of a semi-nude African woman. A colonial subject, the double other, subjected to the male gaze.
“In the wild grasses.” The phrase, and the whole mood of “Zulu Girl,” call to mind “Psalm, which also appears in This in Which. "Psalm" is most frequently commented on as a poem that achieves a kind of Heideggerian Gelassenheit, an opening of the field. But it can equally be read as an erotic poem – “the wild deer bedding down … the soft lips/Nuzzle.” And in that context, what to make of “The small nouns/Crying faith” – if not an erotic paroxysm? Maybe “Zulu Girl,” as awkward as it is, should really be read as “Psalm’s” companion piece: a poem in which ontology’s exterior is the erotic body?
P.S. -- This just in. Harold Schimmel's essay from "Man and Poet," "(On) Discrete Series" (makes you nostalgic for the days when parentheses in titles were all the rage, almost ...), wittily connects the Zulu breasts, if I may be permitted to refer to them that way, to the section from DS beginning:
White, From the
Under arm of T
The red globe.
In a rather Benjaminian way, by which inorganic objects modernistically and perversely teem with erotic contours and potential, Schimmel suggests we read "the red globe" as a nipple. So perhaps we can also read breast for "tendon" in GO's repressed lexicon of the erotic. I'm just saying.