Geoffrey G. O'Brien's subjunctive 'dividuals
'Experience in Groups'
Groups as period style
O’Brien’s “groups” are not Jonathan Edwards’s congregation or assembly. Nor are they the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie “crowds” of Gustave Le Bon, who argued there was no culture in social movements (only unconscious religious structures), though we do get “crowds” akin to the “clouds” of Charles Baudelaire, Constantin Guy, and Walter Benjamin. Nor are they Marxist “masses” or “unions,” or the twentieth-century “association” or “league” (Women’s, of Nations). The book’s title invokes all manner of social media groups and the Kleinian British psychoanalyst W. R. Bion. The invocation sets up a frame that warrants investigation in relation to the poetry, so please bear with this review’s top-heavy theoretical armature. Bion observed that in the group therapy setting, individuals would look outside to some leader, an autarchic one other than the therapist himself: “the group is engaged in sustaining, placating, soothing, flattering, and deferring to its most ill member, who is now the leader.” In an essay entitled “Group Dynamics,” Bion writes:
The adult must establish contact with the emotional life of the group in which he lives … the failure to meet the demands of this task is revealed in his regression. The belief that a group exists, as distinct from an aggregate of individuals, is an essential part of this regression, as are also the characteristics with which the supposed group is endowed by the individual. Substance is given to the phantasy that the group exists by the fact that the regression involves the individual in a loss of his ‘individual distinctiveness,’ indistinguishable from depersonalization, and therefore obscures observation that the aggregation is of individuals.
This regressive state of living in groups is also implicitly a study of fascism. This tendency for self-effacement towards an autarchic leader is the dark flipside of the need for charismatic idols as the continuation of pagan god-worship that sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin described in his 1957 book about the cinema, entitled Stars. O’Brien’s Experience in Groups combines Bion’s understanding of group psychology with Morin’s media sociology to offer a poetics of discernment informed by the lessons of contemporary revolutionary movements and probes the false promises of the latest technologies of perception.
O’Brien registers these dangers, insisting on the individuals who make up groups even as he offers litanies of names. Spaced as equally as prison bars (a theme we’ll attend to later), each individual letter on the cover of the book is subsumed in the title but also has the potential for other groupings — as in a Sunday-morning crossword puzzle — the most noticeable being a vertical RIP, announcing the book’s elegiac mode; on the back, two EYEs in the author’s full name “look back” at you, one vertical and another turning on the pivot of its Y. The book-object is simultaneously anthropomorphized and elegized, remaining an opaque textual surface like a tombstone rather than a window. The “care” (as O’Brien writes in the acknowledgements) given to the cover, designed by Jeff Clark, raises the notion that we can learn from studying a book’s cover (while still forestalling judgment), fittingly for a poetics obsessed with the ways we currently read superficies and faces.
But it is a different idea of the individual, one that lies at the heart of the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements, that energizes the present in which enumeration and remembrance of individuals strengthen community and political engagement. In an oblique take on such chants, O’Brien associates names with dates all within the month of March, allowing the names to activate that month’s inherent call to action: “March 1st” and “March 4th” (heard as march first and march forth). These verses record how such associations literally shape our notion of time, of the meaning of preparing for spring and the cruelest month, for instance. Invoking Deleuze’s notion of the “Dividual,” and in particular his application of it to Eisensteinian montage sequences that show a series of faces sublimated into a new collective entity, Frederick Jameson recalls “a truly revolutionary collective experience” possible in the 1960s, he says, that “is not a faceless and anonymous crowd or ‘mass’ but, rather, a new level of being.” “Individuality is not effaced but completed by collectivity,” he writes, but this notion has been obscured by “desperate individualisms of all kinds.” O’Brien’s verses partake in resurrecting the possibility of forming such a revolutionary group without losing the individual within a temporally synchronized collectivity that hears the call of March.
The groups of names that emerge in O’Brien’s poems through the placing together of individuals that also stand for collectivities, with musicians (and lyric poets) as a model, arguably inform this very “new level of being,” which Jameson nostalgically recalls as preferable to the endlessly divisive and commodified individualisms of the present. Helpful, too, are Deleuze’s two uses of the term “Dividual” in two distinct spheres of influence: the political and the medial. He defines it as 1) that quality which reduces embodied humans into controllable data representations in modern technologies and 2) “what the Middle Ages called the ‘signifiable complex’ of a proposition, distinct from the state of things … What produces the unity of the affect at each instant is the virtual conjunction assured by the expression, face or proposition.” Experience in Groups proposes that our best bet is to act as though we are living in these Middle Ages, wherein Dividuals — the “virtual conjunction” of the “signifiable complex,” even “While neon paints the face collective / Excitement, a temporary form” (48) — must be spared from effacement by the state (of things) and by the State. This is the closest thing to optimism we can expect at this juncture: that which appears in O’Brien’s poems alternately as “the middle period” or a “middle/distance.”
These “groups” exist in the poet’s sensory awareness of his surroundings, of his own face and its expressive effects, and the fiction that period style (including the attribution of “groups” to our particular time period) makes of it. In this context, the anachronism of the “crowd” has accreted affect that conveys ingenuity that seems to free the speaker:
Statistically speaking. Now the middle
Period where we know what’s happening
But not what will, the heart of a crowd
Is everywhere. I hit the fiction,
Walking around, intervening in
Assaults, giving faulty statements
About the weather in the air (37).
The speaker more correctly diagnoses bird sounds that filter “Into the ear I slowly admit / Is mine,” distancing himself again from the possibility of the prophetic or romantic to slowly come back to one’s more immediate senses. Tactics for engaging in the long run exist at the level of unstandardized gestures, respond rather than fatally react. The speaker of “My Complaint” laments “The standardized spelling greetings / Require of a face” (119) and finds solace in the eerie irony of the pharmaceutical age’s failures, proclaiming “no remedy yet for having / A reflection.” And yet that reflection ends up an existential obligation, implicit in the “you,” to recognize the way one mimics the problem:
Often I feel fine, another
Issue. My face a tell and if
You can’t see it you’re the mirror
In the room, already fading fast (112)
In “The Middle/Distance,” a long, free-verse quintet at the beginning of Experience in Groups, the speaker reflects on his expectations of encounter in allusion to different kinds of revolution:
I’d thought meeting others
Would feel like rewinding
Or clearing a space but it was
Mistaking the blocks ahead
For festival, accepting that
The sun was work passing
Up the days, elusive gestures
Only patience could explain (16)
Perception is an important function in the “production of space,” and Henri Lefebvre has warned against naively imagining the popular festival as revolution, suggesting that it is instead a consumption of space, one of many end points “of a temporal sequence starting in the workplace.” “[I]n the spatial practice of neo-capitalism (complete with air transport), representations of space facilitate the manipulation of representational spaces (sun, sea, festival, waste, expense).” He argues a genealogy of Poesis that goes beyond the arts and that entails an immanent social creativity. In O’Brien’s lines, both “rewinding” and the mistaken “festival” tip their hats to the notion of false revolutions. His exploration is subtle and attentive to precursors. The re- of the anticipated rewinding, as well as that of the “re-real” (119), is double-edged at least: it has echoes of the nostalgic “play it again” found in a phrase like “Make America Great Again,” but it is also more agential, scanning for a feeling in “meeting others” of a renewed commitment to the cultural revolution of the Civil Rights movement, or “clearing a space” in fast-forward, bringing Occupy to mind. Yet here we get quieter and slower revolutions and the “work” of calibrating perception, necessitating patience.
The foregone conclusions that this world is not enough, does not have enough natural resources, and must be at war with itself are constantly in question. Enjambments such as, “The sun was work passing / Up the days,” make full use of the English language’s prepositional verbs, meanings both spatial and idiomatic. The sun’s natural movement likened to the deity of late capitalism, work, is also a kind of dispossession, a privilege of nature to resist. The metaphor seems counterintuitive and contradictory, appropriate for a pathetic fallacy, since the sun serves as a model, but also one guiltily privileged like someone who naps during the day. In “Sonnets,” “Naps, like everything, are a resource / Not yet shared by all” (40). Choosing not to work, not to “seize the day,” is to resist being convoked into the commodification of leisure time, but it is also a privilege. “Valentine Avenue,” named after a street located in the Bronx, takes up historical and metaphorical blackouts, likening the current state of wealth distribution to “moving / Objects during blackouts in history” and the “Distribution of night and day, / The uneven distribution of resources” (52). The even distribution might be possible if we had a universal basic income that kept humans in a harmonious orbital suspension as heavenly bodies. Now that would be revolutionary.
Concepts like the clocks, and the biblical and Greek allusions to a “flood” and “Sirens,” appearing “out of range” in this middle distance, reemerge out of undecided origin and purpose at a liberatory distance, allowing an opacity to remain in the delay of interpretation. The speaker ponders and performs affectionate re-possession, rather than dispossession:
In the flood. And turned back
Out of fondness for
Sirens moving out of range,
Fireworks of whatever season,
Applause behind its door —
What a cry across the lake is
To those over there. (21)
These signifiers invoke indexical sound severed from origins, removed from their contexts but bearing a trace. The speaker entertains aspirations for escaping to “the open” before turning back “Out of fondness for // Sirens” (21), a decision that risks sentimentality on two related fronts, and I’m not sure gets away with it for two reasons (what would be the risk otherwise?):
1) This kind of sentimentality spells doom in the context of the Homeric tradition, but here turning back is a privilege for one to whom the sirens of police cars do not sing.
2) The decision to “turn back” is appropriate, though not auspicious, for an Orphic lyric when the streets have become hell and the other might be lost as a result of this sentimentality.
Midair in the “Middle/Distance” of the Middle Ages
In “The Middle/Distance,” the speaker hones his self-knowledge, interrogating assumptions of what it means to participate in a political community before allowing himself any aspiration for the future. Each stanza records the narrow spaces created in oscillation between a kind of heroic, Whitmanian, if now abashed, “old mania, really, / For affectionate dispossession” (16) and a bewildered stocktaking. Time is a “Triptych of the tenses each // Tense acting alone is / Independently in concert” (80).
With these discerning quintets, O’Brien, whom I know to be obsessed with form’s inextricable connection with politics, can be said to have (re-)appropriated the quintet as a “squintet,” using odd-numbered lines as uneven sight, or what we can see between perspective lines that forego classical perspective and don’t quite meet at the horizon. The speaker, otherwise ambivalent, insists emphatically in almost all stressed monosyllables as if walking himself in step-by-step, watchfully:
Not that I’d gone but if
I had in some way then yes,
I’d meet them there, squinting.
The long and short of it is
The streets appear re-real
And with those words I spun
Around, involved as others (19)
The “squintet” is a way of seeing as making “re-real,” rather than new, when participation, whether “real” or virtual, is nonetheless limited to “Effects of the screen” (18). This collection takes up much of the vocabulary and obsessions of O’Brien’s previous book, People on Sunday, such as technologies of perception and the interrelation of leisure time and labor. That book presaged current waves of support for fascism. This book puts those themes to timely use, shaped by O’Brien’s interest in how inherited language and innovations upon it help us see the present possibilities more clearly, as well as ways forward. In order to do so, he mines metaphors from seductive technologies that make a claim to the real — sirens, photography, moving image, and social media — to inform the contemporary lyric subject’s engagement with the virtual in/of the civic. The technology of the quintet (in a group with Plath’s “Daddy”), like squinting, allows for a narrow depth of field, so that all the tenses coexist on the same retinal plane of the imagination.
This updated lyric subject and “squintet” poetics can be read, too, in O’Brien’s “Sonnets So Far.” I’ll call the speaker of “Sonnets So Far” Geoffrey, as he teaches at San Quentin Prison University Project as O’Brien does. Like the speaker of “The Middle/Distance,” Geoffrey wants to keep his tenses simultaneously in play, his verbs in three tenses with serial comma pauses. This strategy intertwines the Dividual body with itself in the previously mentioned triptych but also into successive actions that occur in groups, sometimes in absurdly bathetic ways:
I awoke, because the service cart
Hit me as it passed, was passing, will (45)
The effect is slowing down foregone conclusions and emphasizing the necessary “will” of any construction of a future in English but also allowing each tense to transform into the other like cinematic frames, with both simultaneity of tenses and continuity of action. These mundane acts are part of a larger picture. The sonnet is a frame that holds memory, the imagination, the dream, and quotation together, as the cinema screen, “the frame of frames,” holds together “parts which do not have the same denominator of distance, relief or light … the frame ensures a deterritorialisation of the image” and with that, its movement. The combined tenses create movement, but any one of them alone slows down the “service cart,” a minor feat of willpower in the face of the inevitability and stability, in the deterritorialized space of the airplane, of Geoffrey and his specific identity. Many of this poem’s “faces,” or proper names, stand in for those dead from police violence of recent years and thus come as stills. Geoffrey embodies a position in front of a frame but as with nesting dolls finds himself inside another one:
Tony Robinson, shot five times
In Madison last night. I stare
At his image until I see the non-
Motion of his face as his fate
Then back out to the ongoing
The “sh” in “non- / Motion” silences the more mobile “s” and cutting hiss sound of the “c” in “face” and ends in the voiceless plosive or dental stop, the stable and conflictual cross of the “t” in “fate.”
At the impasse, jumping frames from one sonnet-length stanza into another creates a gap through which to see the page; this seriality becomes a mechanism for recording and elegizing. It is also a protest of the hierarchy of frames in this particular dialectic, where the black body of the letters is always subsumed into white space. The lyric sings in the interstices of that particular silence. O’Brien’s serial sonnet (indebted to Ted Berrigan) works against the dialectical and teleological, as Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Rites for Cousin Vit,” and as Terrance Hayes has done in his American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018). In that book, the perfectly reproduced repetition of the title in the singular, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” as the title of each sonnet underscores the book’s insistence on those sonnets’ potential for reconfiguration and has the effect of making the first line more important than the last. The first lines form new sonnets in the book’s “Table of Contents,” which appears at the end. O’Brien, too, resists the promise of closure in any single sonnet, by making each sonnet part of a larger sonnet cycle (or “group”) without the break of a title.
The return of the passing service cart and its cyclicality awakens Geoffrey and signals the virtual space of the dream that allows him to access the haunting and “dread” at the heart of the national majority subconscious:
How sad what having does and is gone
Into a world of light, that sometime
Did me seek, just about every day
In fact. If calendar days be lit
Solid subjunctive there, why then
My days are burning flags to which
The nation adds some extra light each spring,
Light I fell asleep with on, a child (45)
In the sonnet preceding this one in the cycle, O’Brien writes of a San Quentin prison tutee Vick, who must write a paper about Harryette Mullen’s “Dim Lady,” modeled after Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130,” a poem whose speaker praises his beloved in understated terms, and, in Mullen’s version, uses pet names and similes mediated by food chains and brands such as Red Lobster and Twinkies. Perhaps it is Geoffrey’s dreaming hunger and subconscious knowledge of the food coming down the aisle that conjure Vick and Mullen’s “Dim Lady.” Mullen’s rewriting reminds the reader of the history of that sonnet, including the scholarship that has suggested the dim lady is a black woman, and O’Brien finds himself “mis-re- / Visiting” (44) — as close as that flawed, iterative process will allow him to share a virtual moment of failed projection — with Vick, who could be his equivalent of a “Dim Lady,” currently behind bars. Referencing Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” O’Brien juxtaposes the light of every day that greets him — “a world of light” — to one that now runs from him.
‘Here on the right side of the wrong life’ (33)
Looking to refresh English in the age of the service cart and “affectionate dispossession,” O’Brien writes, “If calendar days be lit,” self-consciously smoothing over his code-switching, which normally destabilizes language, by pointing to its grammatical status as “Solid subjunctive.” Poetry such as the Shakespearean “If music be the food of love, play on” joins African-American Vernacular English. What he points out is that such constructions are more readily associated with AAVE and coded as grammatically wrong. It’s a clever move, but the move to authenticate, himself or the switch, is still awkward and uncomfortable — which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the risk. He points to a much larger debate about authentication that I will not enter into here. Code-switches occur throughout the book and are one way of forming groups. But O’Brien is a formalist, precisely because it allows him these shifts of position and for fugitive shared modes of expression between newly hopelessly incommensurable identitarian politics in the US.
Form finds O’Brien in a group with Hayes in their contemporaneous exploration of the American sonnet and shared political preoccupations. Subject-position-wise, he finds himself in a group with Charles Simic, whose “To the One Tunneling” is from the position of a suburban white man next to his beloved, unable to sleep or dream while he thinks of the one trying to escape from prison. Geoffrey physically moves freely into and out of the prison but he sees this privilege as a responsibility, and moves with the pen (not the sword, not the gun, not the blade) that he smuggles out of the pen.
The last line of the sonnet quoted above foreshadows (while pointing out the minimization of shadows) the sonnet cycle’s false resolution and the necessity of remaining attentive to the unruliness and possibility for reconfiguration of what we have long defined as groups. In a country so afraid of the dark that the flags must burn to keep it light, these lines suggest, daylight savings time is just more evidence of fear. The speaker, in an unusual moment of childhood memory, admits a fear of the dark, that early irrational fear that preceded any adult justifications used to put people in jail or shoot them. The solution to this fear is night lights. Why be more afraid of the dark than of the anarchy of the burning flags/sun and the (garden) varieties it grows? Why be afraid of either? The child is innocent, perhaps; it is the adults who suggest leaving the light on:
Where me is not anyone so much
As the color of the direct object
Under America’s lighting conditions (48)
Throughout this review, I have stayed in the philosophical-aesthetic space of “The Middle/Distance,” which I am treating as O’Brien’s ars poetica, and with O’Brien’s numerous signifiable complexes, which are quite complex. In these lines, again, there is a mistake in the framing or the color correction; squinting would provide one necessary corrective for the individual, but changing the lighting conditions shared by all is an even greater help to discernment.
But there is also the title poem, which appears in three parts of the book such that it is divided without being conquered — we do not know whether it is the same poem or different poems, whether they are individual or form a group. Many of the poems in the book have single, monolithic stanzas, but the three poems entitled “Experience in Groups” in the collection, dispersed roughly at beginning, middle, and end, start to break apart with tercets in the first and last and remain more solid in octets in the middle. The tercets feel like picket signs, each stanza “A host of the temporary, taking / The short view of a long century / Already ending, leaving, left behind” (7).
What seem like multiple speakers behind these “signs” wishfully think through universal, intimatepositions; for instance, Williams’s plums in the icebox. The difference is that we have a voice reminding and remodeling behavior from the point of view of the positions not taken:
But be calm, as calm as
Small green plums in the fridge
At the end of August. If only one’s left
Be easy instead (7)
Here our affective faces take a cue from the “calm” plums themselves, as well as the “easy” one looking into the darkness of the icebox, framed by the unfiltered light of August.
Such “tactics” of reordering groups through lyric sloganeering appear in such détournement as:
It was just a time of matter (122)
The day is order out of slightly. (15)
and a whole litany of hijacked clichés in “After England,” pruned like blooms allowed to grow another season and perhaps proliferate. These rather cute, transposed double takes put emphasis on words of understatement, on the “just” and “slight” that is an American tick, of softening and creeping, taking a mile when given an inch. What would it be to be given a mile and take an inch? What would it mean to stand still in the “time of matter” or find order in “slightly” rather than the way it now means to be American: incarceration, police states, police violence, surveillance, climate change denial, and the other structural impositions upon the Dividual. Within the one nation, “indivisible,” there are many groups, some for whom the experience is: “Things are worse than they are” (7). And what if the “The garden purpose of all varieties” (114) could be purpose enough to justify equal rights and even a universal basic income?
The etymology of “experience” is to come out of risk, emerging from a perilous trial or proof. Experience in Groups is an experiment in diagnosing proclivities and seeking affiliations based on poetry, where each single experience remains individual and each “face a tell” as a persona sings. I’ll leave you with O’Brien’s own words for the bittersweetness of finishing in this virtual era that has no word limit but rather capitalist time, taking solace that there is much more to say about these poems and curious what other readers will see in their crosswords. O’Brien suggests that what is possible of resistance in the space of reading poetry is the gaining of new, shared experiences. “What is language is a new needed” (124), he writes. The questioning of language is turned into a proposition about the necessity of continually facing what moves us into a freedom beyond both our bare necessities and our perceived limitations. It is also a warning against preconceived and received ways of dividing groups that foreclose even the possibilities of mutual recognition.
Having to stop before being done,
That and how experience remains
A new language. The fragility
Of bonds, face value of headway.
VR and its evangelists
Appareling the face,
Making recognition disappear (120)
1. Bion wrote essays on group dynamics and started publishing them in the journal Human Relations in 1948, under the title “Experiences in Groups.” The essays were then collected in the book Experiences in Groups and Other Papers in 1961.
5. Frederic Jameson, Brecht and Method (New York: Verso, 1998), 10.
6. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter1992): 3–7.
7. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 105.
8. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992), 58.
9. Lefebvre, Production of Space, 59.
10. Gavin Grindon, “Revolutionary Romanticism: Henri Lefebvre’s Revolution-as-Festival,” Third Text 27, no. 2, (2013): 208–20.
11. Deleuze, Cinema 1, 14–15.