George Oppen’s heirs are more numerous than one might suppose. Robert Creeley, Michael Heller, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Michael Palmer, John Taggart, Norman Finkelstein, Elizabeth Robinson, Julie Carr, Pam Rehm, Joseph Massey, and Graham Foust, among others, come to mind as poets who have registered his influence, either amplifying or re-directing it through an investigation of the poem’s rhetorical resources. But to call these poets heirs gives a false impression, for there is and can be no School of Oppen. What poets take from him is a commitment to form that expresses itself in a ruthlessness toward what language can be made to say. As Oppen puts it “Possible/to use/ words provided one treat them/as enemies.”
Christina Davis stakes a strong claim to this tradition and her new book, An Ethic, is written less in the shadow of Oppen than as a kind of posthumous collaboration with him – a dialogue with the older poet’s austere, epistemologically rigorous work. The whole point of Oppen’s poetics is to test the meaning of a single word, a single poem, to work out, as exactly as possible, just how much truth a poem can carry, the way a structural engineer might test a suspension bridge to determine its maximum degree of torque and weight-bearing capacity in a windstorm. For Oppen, it turns out that a poem possesses considerable tensile power, provided one applies the proper degree of estranging torque. In this sense, poetry is a bridge that must also resist being a bridge. Hence, the appearance, on the page, of poems that look both remarkably fragile and severely worked out.
Davis has taken up this difficult regime, but her investigations have less to do with testing the truth of what can be said, then with the desire of the poem to connect, to carry across that unbridged space between loss and memory, absence and presence, you and I, a kernel, a trace, a spark that persists. Oppen’s poetics of ethics is famously founded on what he called “the bright light of shipwreck.” Catastrophe: personal, historical, moral – and the failure of poetry, as well – produces the necessity for a poem that refuses an easy and morally inert subjectivity in order to see the true relations between the self and the world. The Objectivist term for this process, of course, is sincerity. Davis’ sincerity emerges out of personal catastrophe: the death of her beloved father, John. Many of these poems are harrowing disquisitions of the void that appears after the death of a loved one, the long absence and aching desire which persists. They are whittled down cries; spiky confrontations with elegy that honor loss by both admitting and resisting it.
What sets Davis apart from Oppen is the way her poems hover just an inch above heartbreak. The way she manages the lacerations of loss is precise, controlled, and subtle – this is what she takes from Oppen: a ruthlessness toward her own grief and it makes many of these poems, like “An Elegy,” quietly devastating.
Above all, beneath all,
in as many ways
as the spider has
known the wall,
I miss and am
member of you
and of that race the grass
The sonic pattern of this poem achieves an exquisiteness that is in no way precious: the sense of breath and space, the rhyme of “all” with “wall” (as if to say that what was once experienced as unity now suffers a barrier); the spider as a hand, running over that wall, blindly knowing it through touch alone; and finally, the sharp cut of “am/member,” invoking both the call to remembering and its sundering.
This is a strong collection, but not every poem quite hits the mark. “Addendum,” for instance, comes across as somewhat awkward: “Who was it said: ‘AND//is the greatest/miracle’? Praise//be his/her name.” Perhaps Davis has in mind here a particular “him” – William James who, in A Pluralistic Universe, observed that “and” is the word that links everything to everything; it escapes closure; it deifies our efforts to forge a totality. “The word ‘and’ trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes.”
In the moving and completely marvelous “Big Tree Room,” perhaps the central poem in the book, the sense of continuity and rupture is rendered in a series of deceptively transparent meditations on death and re-birth. Their complexity is totally earned:
It is hard to keep remaining whole
as for the leviathan to stay
surfaced is hard.
It is hard, and therefore, a task to keep remaining.
We have not been born
in a while
Though wrenched from context, lines like these are nevertheless delicious with paradox, defying easy parsing. They invite us to face the size of loss, all the while maintaining a faith in language to equip loss with a meaning – to be born, after a while, after the task of grieving. Or is it under the sign of grieving?
An Ethic consists of two parts, the first of which is given over to elegy, while the second looks beyond to the world of ongoing, present-live connections. The hinge joining these two is the knowledge that the dead do not sever us from them the present, but bring us more closely to it. In both sections the questions driving the poems’ urgent predicament is the need to recognize both worlds: the dead and the living. This work of seeing is arduous because it also demands coming to account with loss without recourse to easy forms of consolation. This is what it means to create an ethic.
Davis prefaces her collection with a quote from Oppen’s legendary Daybooks: “An ethic an ethic: ethos …/what other words can be found? Awe perhaps.” But Davis excludes what follows, for Oppen goes on to conclude that awe “is not ethical.” What to make of this? For one thing, it seems to me that Oppen here is insisting on the clearest possible definition of his terms, a process of continual refinement evidenced in both his poems and his journals and letters. To confuse awe, an essentially theological category of affect, with ethics, which must, among other things, adjudicate the precise differences and relations between things, would be to submit to a kind of heresy or distortion. Yet there’s a suggestion in Oppen that perhaps awe is what produces ethics, that it’s an enabling condition. For awe is also a measurement: it marks the distance as well as the nearness between the perceiving subject and the other. It is as much a witnessing of that distance as it is the experience of undergoing the humility it imposes.
The greatest philosopher of ethics in the 20th Century, Emmanuel Levinas, asserts that ethical relations do not derive from first principles based on preserving the rational pursuit of self-interest. It is far more radical than that, he claims, based rather on proximity and the demands the other’s immediate presence places on me before any codification of law or custom. Ethics, then, is a form of hospitality: a welcoming of the stranger as guest. The poem as an ethic is the primary mode of acknowledging what Levinas calls the “there is” (il y a ), that which, even after the witnessing “I” has been subtracted, remains, demanding attention.
In his essay on Levinas, “Should Poetry be Ethical or Otherwise?,” Gerald Bruns makes a “distinction between language as kerygma and language as contact, where the one predicates something of something (this as that) while the other is an event of sensibility or proximity in which the visible is no longer an object of consciousness … but is an impingement or obsession.” The poems in An Ethic move back and forth between these two nodes, shuttling from proclamation to touch as if to say the one is the other, only by touch may I proclaim you.
The book begins and ends with poems entitled “An Ethic.” Both are magnificent. The first begins:
There is no this or that world.
One is not more or less
admitted. Into the entirety
One is invited
and to the entirety
The line breaks are the syntax, as someone said of Milton. Each pause, each hovering, with an air of omen or premonition, freighted with enormous silence, marks the care by which the poem proceeds and defines the very insistence of each instant that must answer to the call of an ethic. The final poem closes with a quote from Thoreau: “What do you see?//One/world at a/time.” This may be the only real ethic – to see this world as it is. Here and now.
Throughout An Ethic, Davis maintains a deep humility before the visible, the tangible, its wreck and its promise. This humility is the sign of an extraordinary openness and vulnerability, a willingness to be porous to the currents of the moment, the heart, the earth. This is tricky business, because unlike Oppen, who was a hard-headed materialist, Davis, finally, carries an ecstatic, Emersonian outlook. She wants to be overwhelmed, to be carried away in the flood. For the spiritual landscape these poems move in is deeply sensuous. Their apparent modesty is deceptive and should not be mistaken for a lack of scope. “Flock” exemplifies this. It smallness does not prevent it from being called masterful.
But she was glad to be looking
and them not
always to arrive
Here all the promise of living is contained in awkward grammar (“them/not always”) and a spilling of line breaks; the delay of each one’s arrival is the lived moment of the poem – messianic, that is, always on the way, never quite arriving, an acknowledgement that the future is always the horizon we speed toward even as we know it full well to be bounded by finitude. The future is always about possibility, including the possibility of the loss of possibility. This is one reason we have poetry.
Davis’ previous work, Forth a Raven, was infused with a fierce spiritual longing that threatened at times to overwhelm its slender architecture. What she has taken from Oppen is a stringency; a steely quality to temper the ardor. The yearning for connection that marks her earlier work has become more palpable due to loss and grief. These poems are utterly urgent and often harrowing in their immediacy, in the demands they make on us to listen, to become present. Davis does not title her book “Ethics,” but An Ethic: a particular, deeply individual set of relations and of seeing grounded in the singular opening up to the approach of the Other, even when, or especially when, the Other is a ghost. What an ethic requires is a response, a turning toward the other, not out of rational first principles, but because a call has been issued and it cannot be ignored. Ethics then is always an event of the impossible – a wholly new response generated to the unforeseen. This is the poem. This is the second life it gives us.