Academic journal article Chicago Review

Walk-Out: Rereading George Oppen

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Walk-Out: Rereading George Oppen

Article excerpt

To be read posthumously It will as a matter of fact happen And it is a big fact It is a big fact which will happen for very small reasons.

- George Oppen

But what kind of poetry do you understand with one reading that you go on using and remembering all your life? I mean the poetry that's most important to me is poetry that's been important to me for most of my life. I want to go back to it, and I find new things in it.

- Mary Oppen

On March 13, 1983 George Oppen walked out of a reading by Edmond Jabes at Fort Mason, San Francisco. The question I wish to investigate is why he should have done so. An immediately plausible possibility is health. At the time of the reading Oppen was seventy-three and would die, one year later, of Alzheimer's disease. Rosmarie Waldrop, Jabes' primary English translator and one of the presenters at the reading, recalls that the poet's wife, Mary Oppen, requested they be introduced to Jabes prior to the reading for fear he would not be up to the entirety of the event. I do not deny the plausibility of this possibility. Oppen may have been easily tired, may in fact have been dying, but health speculation is no more certain or encompassing than any other speculation.

If not health, then what? If not health, then one would have to assume that Jabes' work somehow prompted the leave-taking of the other poet. Further: that something about the work proved to be so disquieting as to be unendurable. My investigation concerns that something.

The selections for the reading were determined by Jabes' presenters, Rosmarie Waldrop and Jerome Rothenberg. They begin with the very first pages of The Book of Questions, including all of "At the Threshold of the Book," jump to part five of "And You Shall Be in the Book," continue through parts of "The Book of the Living" to sections from The Book of Yukel and Return to the Book. The reading concludes with "Drawn Curtains" from the first part of the latter title. The penultimate lines are: "('Death will get the better of me. God can only help me in the void.' - Reb Zeilin)."

I was not present at the reading. The above account is based on a videotape from the American Poetry Archives of San Francisco State University. George Oppen's departure is not recorded on the videotape. The camera remains fixed throughout on Jabes and his presenters. In addition to Waldrop and Rothenberg, there was a third presenter, Michael Palmer, who provided an introduction. Palmer was aware of Oppen's departure but could not give an exact time. Rothenberg was not aware that Oppen had left. Waldrop remembers that the Oppens were gone by the intermission.

The question of why the walk-out took place is displaced by the question of when. When conditions why.

My assumption is that Jabes' work somehow prompted the other poet's leave-taking, that something about the work proved to be so disquieting as to be unendurable. The answer to why is conditioned by the answer to when. I was not present at the reading, and there is no consensus among those facing the audience. Whichever moment might be chosen as decisive has to remain speculative.

The moment I would nonetheless designate as the moment occurs almost exactly halfway through the reading. The moment I would mark with red is at the beginning of section three/part two of "The Book of the Living," which makes up the final pages of the first volume of The Book of Questions. The moment of this moment is one line: "The light of Israel is a scream to the infinite" (164). There is the possibility that this was the beginning of the moment which culminates one page later with a statement attributed to Reb Rouel: "The Jewish soul is the fragile casket of a scream."

George Oppen didn't scream, he walked out. He did so at the sound of the word "Israel," at the characterization of what that word stands for as an ambivalent spirituality. He did so at the sound of the phrase "the Jewish soul," at the characterization of what that phrase stands for as an ambivalent spirituality. …

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