They're on now
A review of Geoffrey O'Brien's 'Metropole'
“The struggle’s right, the method obsolete,” writes Geoffrey G. O’Brien in his new long poem Metropole. I can’t help but think of this statement as an initial answer to a question important to so many contemporary poets (and one that Metropole engages formally and thematically throughout): now that Language writing as a new and subversive poetic form has been incorporated to a larger degree into the academic world of important prizes and “essential texts,” and the social and economic power structures it sought to disrupt have grown ever more powerful, what does a satisfactory response to both the “new sentence” (as a poetic form) and late capitalism (as a power structure that poetry might want to trouble) look like? Metropole is, perhaps, O’Brien’s fully elaborated answer; it’s one brilliantly conceived and deserving of generous thought.
In his influential 1987 essay “The New Sentence” Ron Silliman proposes to restore the materiality (or status as a culturally produced construct) of prose writing through a new structure that frustrates and thereby renders conscious its reader’s ability to integrate sentences into higher orders of meaning. Silliman cites and approves of Ferrucio Rossi-Landi’s notion that this kind of integration in prose is generally accomplished through syllogistic leaps.
His proposition relies upon, of course, compositions using the “new sentence”: paragraphs of non sequitur sentences organized, like some poetry, according to quantitative rather than logical principles that remind their consumer of her reading as they constantly solicit and reject syllogistic integration. Instead of a paragraph’s length being a product of its ability to, say, describe a scene or thought, each paragraph will, for example, just contain five sentences. In this kind of writing a measure of meaning(s), often a multiplicity of potential meaning(s), can be achieved between adjacent sentences, but they are purged just as quickly by a third sentence that fails to complete the syllogism. As a reader’s will to integration repeatedly advances, fumbles, and retreats within a paragraph form (that she expects will provide a clear, syllogistic progression) she is left with a distinct experience of the integrative process itself, which, Silliman contends, restores the paragraph’s materiality. I want to quickly stress here that Silliman is thinking about integration at the above sentence level: words, clauses, and grammatical structures that form sentences are not as much under contemplation.
Perhaps it is at the sub-sentence level, then, that it makes sense to begin thinking about O’Brien’s Metropole as a departure from this kind of Language writing text. A quick orientation to the poem: it is a thirty-nine-page prose poem, and there are three paragraphs per page each containing between four and six sentences; superficially, it might resemble a “new sentence” composition. To read it, however, is to realize that Metropole has internalized the disjunctive drama of Silliman’s frustrated syllogisms within the sentence unit and that this drama has evolved from mere obstruction into a type of participatory suspension. The following is a line from the beginning of the poem: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back they’re on now.” This is a fairly simple example of what we can refer to as the “hinge” structure at work in many of the poem’s sentences. I’m going to repeat the line, this time capitalizing the hinge: “The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t COME BACK they’re on now.” The sentence pivots from the scene of a power outage on a subway train to the command to return once the power has come back on through the shared phrase “come back.”
I think it’s interesting to imagine this hinge structure as the formal enactment of a syllogism. If the first clause (“The lights go off in all the subway cars they won’t come back”) is the first proposition and the second clause (“come back they’re on now”) is the second proposition, then the entire sentence becomes the conclusion and the hinge word or phrase becomes the combinatory principle. This is not to say, of course, that the original propositions integrate perfectly into a conclusion with one intended meaning. Rather, the completed syllogism performs the unit of time encompassing the power outage and the imperative to return. It cannot fully combine the contradictory states of the power off and the power on; instead it accumulates and displays them both.
The scene becomes more complex as we consider its articulation. “The lights go off in all the subway cars” sounds like straightforward narration. It moves into “they won’t come back,” which is a projection of the narration’s future state, occurring most likely in either speech or internal thought. “Come back they’re on now,” as I mentioned before, sounds like spoken imperative, inaugurating a mutual point of reference between speaker and implied recipients (fellow train riders as well as, possibly, the reader). As we progress between the contradictory states of the lights off and on, we also move between perspectival possibilities of the scene’s expression. Further, the moment of returning power coincides with the imperative to come back; the transformation is from darkness and isolation to illumination and sociability accomplished by the grammatical progression of “come back” from the object of the verb “will not” to the imperative, from the negation of activity to activity.
What I want to illustrate here is that rather than simply suppressing integration in the manner of “new sentences,” the sentence as syllogism in Metropole is able to suspend the time unit between lights off and on as it cycles through possible articulations of that time. It accumulates a fluid sequence of meanings that seem to crystallize briefly even as they churn in transit. It is participatory, then, in that readerly action, residence, and perhaps even accomplishment remain possible. Integration is still deeply felt as artificial, but the sentence’s form, modeling the progress from alienated darkness to public light, affords the reader an opportunity to sustain the syllogism. She is left, certainly, with a complex unit from which meanings might unpredictably protrude, but she is left with those accumulated meanings as well as their tentatively integrated sum. Through poetic form, then, an imagined (and partially integrated) world is achieved.
I’d like, in a bit, to continue thinking about this quote as it compromises and enriches what is probably the other most salient formal feature of Metropole: its streaming iambism (that is, every sentence in the poem is nearly perfectly iambic). First, though, some preliminary thoughts about other meanings of the poem’s prosody. This sentence announces many of them: “Chased around the room at night, the cars of conversation seeking refuge on TV, ideas become impossible to know as anything but raw materials added to a pulse.” O’Brien’s recuperation of iambics in the contemporary and prosaic world of the Western Metropole occupies both the music of tradition and the tradition of colonialism and oppression (“raw materials added to a pulse”). It inhabits both the prosody of Romantic lyricism and the incessant, mnemonic drone of capitalist production and standardization that “chases” conversation into television shows and subsumes ideas within commercial possibilities. The point is, again, that the poem doesn’t make a choice; instead, it models and acknowledges readerly potentialities.
So let’s look again at the scene in the subway car. When the hinge (“come back”) modulates from the object of a statement (“They won’t come back”) to spoken imperative (“come back they’re on now”), the accentual stress alters from iamb to spondee, compromising metrical continuity and providing the reader with the option of either preserving the machinelike drone (that both resulted in the scene’s darkness and also is, remember, the rhythm of iambic song) or asserting speech by the next clause’s human interlocutor. In a very helpful discussion between Keston Sutherland and O’Brien in The Claudius App, Sutherland elaborates his own relationship with a similar kind of action:
The decoupling of enjambment from the verse line in “Metropole” makes for a special indeterminacy, as I experience it. I must decide where the break should fall — a test of pleasure and scruple — so that enjambment can be preserved, but also to keep audible the unique forms of terminal stress that are only ever heard in the first and last words in a verse line … One of the most complex tests of metrical discipline — the one that most often forces enjambment into sentences, promoting them from metrical units in prose to verses — is the occurrence of syllables that I would naturally stress if I were speaking, but that the streaming iambism dictates must not be stressed.
I find this idea particularly interesting because it not only details the attention required to maintain the poem’s prosody (an attention that will likely keep the reader focused on the text’s materiality), but also identifies a site in which readerly choice is essential. When spoken stresses are different from stresses intended by the iambism, the task becomes whether and when to privilege meter over semantic coherence. Sutherland goes on to relate his experience of reconciling such an instance by breaking the sentence into two sets of iambic trimeter, resolving a metrical ambiguity but creating the potential for increased semantic ambiguity. If one chooses to order the scene according to meter, then meaning is distorted (acknowledging, perhaps, the pervertive capacity of colonial violence and capitalist commodification). Vice versa and the rhythm falters, the song ceases.
The poem, though, will offer other chances to make this choice and rereading allows the bestowment of alternate privilege: first I read it prioritizing meter, then I read it prioritizing sense made from a pronunciation based in speech. Importantly, one choice isn’t, in the end, any better than the other and the presence of both options amounts to a kind of pedagogical equality with the poem: it can teach me, I can teach it. Again, the relationship between reader and text thus described is very different from both the “fully referential” prose that Silliman challenges and the “new sentence” compositions that he proposes. Referential prose instructs the reader. “New sentences” frustrate the reader and teach her to mind materiality. Grammatically in these instances, the text is the teaching subject and the reader is the object being taught.
By contrast, the pedagogical equality of Metropole that I’m imagining above manages to also manifest itself grammatically in the poem’s “hinge” syntax. I’m again going to capitalize the “hinge” word: “Let the messed-up sheets record a CHILDISHNESS retains its virtues.” Childishness, the object of the first clause, morphs into the subject of the second. Anthropomorphized sheets demean the narrator as “childish” in a world in which things (in this case sheets) objectify the condition of a human speaker. At the moment of the “hinge,” at the moment (if we resume the analogy of this structure to a syllogism) of the combinatory principle, subjectivity is celebrated and wrested back from the commodification that would make us all into objects. That is, as Metropole sustains and accumulates the world’s variety, a utopian chance at individuality occurs at our point of participation and indefinite integration. The text finally offers a glimmer of liberation.
How, then, does Metropole envision the state of contemporary poetics? The world is now perhaps too chaotic for disjunction and non sequitur to seem revolutionary. Instead, prose that neither fully integrates nor fully obstructs is proposed as a way in which readerly effort, participation and instruction might do more than simply enforce textual materiality. They might also create a site in which poetic form can offer a creative and subjective refuge from capitalist uniformity. The text that wants to transcend art and enter the realm of the historical (the “new sentence” desire to reformulate prose on a national (global) scale, moving from an aesthetic object to a historical one) now appears an impossibility if not also a naïve sacrifice of the more intimate freedoms participatory art can afford us. Additionally, the dialogue of historical forms proposed by avant “new sentence” restoration of external verse traditions to experimental prose is more fully elaborated by a form (iambic prose) explicitly defined by this irresolvable dialogue than one (“new sentences”) sporadically informed by it. Where “new sentence” composition employs formal duality toward seductively disjunctive ends, Metropole intentionally renders a conversation about the historical deployment of traditional forms. Again, the emphasis for O’Brien is on communication and analysis; the world seems mutable and beguiling enough on its own.
As a closing I’d like to quickly consider the very short lyric “To Be Read in Either Direction” that precedes Metropole. As the title indicates, “To Be Read In Either Direction” can be read coherently beginning with the first line and reading down or beginning with the last line and reading up; the action is similar to the hinge syntax in Metropole that moves fluidly between clauses. If we continue the analogy of the syllogism to “To Be Read In Either Direction” then the first proposition would be reading the poem forward and the second proposition would be reading the poem backward. The conclusion and the combinatory principle become one and the same site: the poem in its entirety. That is, to engage the poem is to reside in the moment of combination, in a moment of duality that, by its very nature, is impossible to objectify.