Norman Finkelstein: 'Oppen at Altamont'

From N. Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems, Dos Mad
From N. Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems, Dos Madres Press, 2016


Thrownness he calls it

And indeed “everyone

turned very sharply

into himself or herself.

Kind of a masturbatory



And the music—

something we had never

heard before though surely

it had been heard before

long ago   “the songs…

are no one’s own


                                                                                    Not his, surely not

                                                                                    his.  In red and black

                                                                                    this medieval prince,

                                                                                    troubador of darkness,

                                                                                    self-appointed but

                                                                                    delegated—allow me

                                                                                    to introduce him as he

                                                                                    introduced himself


                                                Easy as

                                                pie?  No!

                                                because it

                                                is witnessed

                                                we witness

                                                ourselves as

                                                he witnesses

                                                himself there

                                                in the cutting



obscured by their long hair they seem

to be mourning

But this is not prophecy

on the massive spike the song




A spike not

a knife though one

may lead inevitably

to the other


                                                                                    For one sees it in their eyes,

                                                                                    their homely faces

                                                                                    The girl cannot stop weeping

                                                                                    and the boy in the cap

                                                                                    looks up at him shaking his head

                                                                                    knowing that something has gone


                                                                                                   terribly wrong



                                                But to what degree

                                                does one withdraw from the stage?

                                                Oppen cancels his reading tour—

                                                “woke up one night in the absolute certainty

                                                that I could not do it…

                                                cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly

                                                with the expansion of voice in Numerous

                                                I cannot make a Chatauqua of it,

                                                cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it,

                                                like a Ginsberg.”


                                                Who appears innocuous

                                                however unleashing

                                                energies comparable

                                                to what we see

                                                on the screen


                                                Who once invited

                                                the Angels to

                                                a Dylan concert, calling

                                                them “our outlaw

                                                brothers of the



                                                                                    The roiling mass

                                                                                    and the naked woman

                                                                                    cannot be otherwise

                                                                                    than a Bacchante

                                                                                    her rounded flesh lifted

                                                                                    up and set back into

                                                                                    the crowd by the Angels

                                                                                    whose chief looks on

                                                                                    at Jagger singing—

                                                                                    products and producers

                                                                                    of such powers


While the meditative man

confirms his failure

his victory in retreat

to “honorably keep

His distance

If he can.”


The populist caught

between the Old and New

past and present


The crowd, the “people”

organized by a vanguard

or newly individuated

always at risk

as power is unleashed


                                                                                    Jagger helpless onstage:

                                                                                    “If we are one

                                                                                    let’s show

                                                                                    we’re all one”


                                                What, what,

                                                we asked each other

                                                on the way to the museum,

                                                were they doing there?

                                                “It was necessary to park
                                                one’s car and walk a mile.

                                                Nobody looked at my wife and me”

                                                Yet how odd they must have seemed

                                                to any of the festive youth

                                                unstoned and thoughtful

                                                there among “the irrigation

                                                canals”   “walking under the high-

                                                tension wires over the brown hills


                                                                                    And Charlie Watts,

                                                                                    backbone of the band,

                                                                                    stares out in reverie,

                                                                                    murmuring of the way

                                                                                    the Angels cleared the path

                                                                                    to the stage


                                                                                    Only much later

                                                                                    are we shown

                                                                                    the biblical painting

                                                                                    the crowd parting

                                                                                    as the bikes roar through


                                                                                    In the computer’s freeze-frame

                                                                                    it seems like Oppen’s

                                                                                    migratory vision

                                                                                    “the wounds untended

                                                                                    and the voices confused”

                                                                                    turned to nightmare


                                                At the press conference in

                                                some uncharted space

                                                between naiveté and cynicism

                                                Jagger speaks of “a sort

                                                of microcosmic society

                                                which sets an example to

                                                the rest of America

                                                as to how one can behave

                                                in large gatherings.”


                                                Yet for Oppen too

                                                “The Students Gather”:

                                                “I too agree

                                                We are able to live

                                                Only because some things have been said”


                                                But who would not hesitate

                                                to speak

                                                knowing all

                                                speech may be corrupted?


                                                To identify death

                                                with a kind of ecstasy

                                                so that the crowd

                                                takes over in a darkness

                                                closely akin to joy


                                                Words lost

                                                in what he knew to be

                                                an endangered, dangerous




                                                Not “the shuffling of a crowd”

                                                nor the ball game’s argument

                                                not even Williams’ crowd

                                                seen as “beautiful,” “venomous”

                                                “deadly, terrifying”


“I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place”




The space of possibility

is always limited:

the past is

because it has been

insofar as we

have been thrown

insofar as we

are fallen

insofar as we

may project ourselves



                                    Always at some point

                                    they are running

                                    from or toward

                                    the helicopters


                                                                                    The Stones and

                                                                                    their entourage

                                                                                    lifted up and away

                                                                                    from disaster


                                    Or the fall of Saigon

                                    reenacted endlessly

                                    in a musical


                                                                                    Troopers playing

                                                                                    the same old songs


Oppen feels the wind

blowing through the century

The Collected Poems arrives—

the Angel of History in a cardigan

at the end of the continent

dissolving into language


                                    And that sickening acceleration

                                    that no poem may stop


                                                                                    No arbitrary freeze-frame

                                                                                    neither the Maysles nor mine

                                                                                    can prevent this passage


                                                                                    Poised to leave

                                                                                    Jagger stares out at us forever


                                                                                    Let him go


                                                                                    The storm kicks up

                                                                                    the credits roll


                                                                                    We almost expect to see them

                                                                                    walking back toward the car



Author’s note on “Oppen at Altamont”: George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont on December 6, 1969; Oppen later wrote about the experience in his sequence Some San Francisco Poems. My poem quotes from the first poem in that sequence, as well as from the poems “Of Being Numerous” and “The Students Gather,” from Oppen’s interview with David Gitin in Ironwood 5, and from his letter to Charles Tomlinson (Oct. 1969) in the Selected Letters. I also draw on images and lines of dialogue from Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles Brothers documentary of the Rolling Stones tour that culminated with the Altamont concert. Additionally, the poem alludes to Heidegger’s philosophy (Oppen read Heidegger closely), specifically his notion of “thrownness.” The poem first appeared in Smartish Pace 16 (April 2009).