about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Lessons: Selected Poems
A Review of Lessons: Selected Poems
by Joel Oppenheimer, Edited by Dennis Maloney, Introduction by David Landrey

Spencer Dew



Joel Oppenheimer (1930-1988) was a poet of the New York School, a member of the Black Mountain College experiment in art and education, and a popular columnist for the Village Voice. He wrote books about the Mets and Marilyn Monroe in addition to his poetry, which, now, has received the “selected” treatment, in a volume that can serve equally as introduction to his oeuvre and as a narrative, in itself, of a poet’s trajectory, thematic concerns maturing in their treatment. One can trace strands of hard-won wisdom across these pages, as well as some strong streaks of resistance, ornery commitment to stay the same as the sands of time rub one raw.

For instance, Oppenheimer sacralizes woman, as holy mother, simultaneous object of sexual longing and agent of maternal love, aware of the multiple problematics in such reliance on objectification, not least of which that desire, as he understands it, remains always unfulfilled, an unreachable itch. “[N]othing is ever / perfect in this world,” he writes, in a particularly powerful passage, for as “one bite is perfect / still it leads / to another.” The nature of existence sabotages the possibility of satiation, which, if true for food, is so much more complexly true when it comes to lust. “[H]oly mother of the / perfect tits,” he prays, uniting opposites in an almost trite nod at yin-yang harmonizing, but always approaching such oppositions along a scale of desire and engagement, perfect tits and bad tits, “holy / mother of the body / which asks. Holy / mother of the body / which denies.” But the poet’s understanding of sexual desire and practice as motivator and metaphor for poetic work—production and function—itself slouches into outright objectification, the language of prayer turning both tantric and flatly crude: “holy mother of / the perfections and / imperfections let / me open you cunt,” for instance. Oppenheimer seems aware of the risks of objectification, but no critique—no awareness of limits—can subvert the force of desire. The only critiques that really matter here, the only theories of desire that help, are those that seek to delineate the dynamic of insatiability. Objectification is a problem not in itself, not because reducing women to objects which can be possessed is, say, politically or ethically wrong, but because, urgently, it’s untrue to imagine an object as able to be possessed. Women are like “mirrors,” in one poem, then, not just because the poet’s desirous gaze reveals something of his own true nature and self, but because “mirrors / keep you from real / objects” and trick you into thinking an object can be touched, when, in fact, “in / mirrors, your / hand slides over / the surface.” That is how desire works here, remaining always beyond touch, but this is also how poetry works, like a mirror, working a kind of magic of illusory proximity and presence (indeed, Oppenheimer connects mirrors to alchemy, to that metaphysical desire to preserve the mercury-quick experience as something frozen and ownable).

The passage of time plays out in other ways in this book, with poems on fatherhood, for instance, and the death of William Carlos Williams, an influence on Oppenheimer’s style. Noted is how desire widens with time, becoming less particular, less discerning. The poet, one piece declares, used to want women who were “crazy and young / now they need to be young only.” Another poem observes that, in the “twenty years almost since / i wrote that poem, nothing / has changed” though, of course, so much has: “i have changed, the cells in / my body twice over, almost / through a third, the object of / my devotion has changed....”

There is more than a touch of lament to these poems, following in part from this Sisyphean model of desire. The voice in these poems looks back on the process of poetry, from all stages of Oppenheimer’s career, with a sense that what poetry gestures toward is always lost and the process, too, is always something of a loss. Words “move in circles . . . no one / gains, no one loses, / save one’s own sense, / one’s own sensibility.” Yet, “like any / old gunfighter,” this poet keeps showing up for the show down, keeps creating, even as that process of creation seems absurd, keeps tossing the dart, even as—in a hilarious poem about Zen—the dart-tossing is only going to work if one gives up all control: “worry about / the fucking bull’s eye and let the / dart take care of itself, for / christ’s sake.”

What’s most liberating in these pages—and perhaps most refreshing, in our current moment—is this surrender in the face of what might otherwise be a bleak theory of art-making. You can’t get what you want, Oppenheimer says, and you can’t always say what you want to say about either what you wanted or how you didn’t get it, but you can, still, somehow, say something, or, at least, someone, reading your pages years later, might find something there and attribute it back to you, and that, if not enough, is still something. Here’s how he puts it:

i meant for these poems to mean things. i had things to say in them. i hope they say those things to you. i don’t mind if they say other things to you, or make it possible for you to say other things; both those responses are legitimate as well as time-hallowed. but i damn sure hope i’ve written these poems in such a way that you can “believe” them; if i say it is snowing, or i am looking at a desirable woman, or it is hard to face breakfast without any teeth, you will understand them at the level at least and move on from there.


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