In thinking about Oppen and his place among his contemporaries, inevitable comparisons suggest themselves between his work and that of artists like Rothko and Newman, or Samuel Beckett, all devotees of silence and absence, and each of whom treated intimately with trauma, with the ghosts of history and the unspeakability of the disaster.
But another context suggests itself as well, somewhat lower down on the distribution chain of cultural production, but one no less compelling. I’m thinking here of the remarkable series of films made in the late 50s by director Budd Boetticher, writer Burt Kennedy, and actor Randolph Scott. The so-called Ranown Westerns (named for the production company of Scott and Harry Brown), as distinctive in their mythic tropology and aesthetic minimalism (a result of the starvation budget the studio gave them) as John Ford’s are in their robust expansiveness, tell the same obsessive story over and over again. Scott plays a man of constant sorrow, a traumatized crusader seeking to avenge or regain dignity for the dead, usually his never-seen wife (the consummate ghost figure), who’s been murdered by either Indians or outlaws.
The spareness and austerity of Scott’s presence – he seems to be made of nothing but wood, sweat and leather – and the starkness of the landscape around California’s Mt. Whitney, where each of the films is set, offer an intriguing set of apposite tropes to place alongside Oppen’s stripped down poems, which themselves enact a similar drama of trauma, austerity, and painful recall. Above all, Oppen’s poems carry the weight of the pledge: the vow taken by the Good Man to right a wrong. Maybe this is just my own sentimental investment in a certain redemptive model of heroic masculinity, but it’s a reading I find highly attractive nonetheless.
It seems pretty unlikely that Oppen ever saw these films, since their initial release run coincided with his time in Mexico. I can’t imagine they ever enjoyed any retrospectives in the San Francisco theaters of the 70s (where I got my own film education at places like the Castro and the Surf), but they may have shown up on late night TV. What unites Oppen and Boetticher (I can hear Menand saying this with his tight-lipped smile of ironic bemusement) is, of course, the Cold War. What else?
But having said this – acknowledging the cultural rescue script of the imperiled feminine and the virtues of civilization she embodies – doesn’t begin to answer to the fullness of the aesthetic experience that both Oppen’s poems and Boetticher’s films provide. Really, they both seem rooted in the war. For each, the ghost is the scene of writing. In dealing with disaster, with remnants, with haunting, with promises, they show how the consequence of fulfilling a promise may require an act of violence. That is the price of culture. Boetticher, I think, endorsed this view without qualms, for that is obviously the genre convention of Western. But Oppen, who dealt with life as it is, never made peace with that. Still, he would agree with Scott's character in Ride Lonesome, when he says, "there are some things a man can't ride around."