Experience in Groups

By Geoffrey G. O'Brien


Wave Books
April 2018

Reviewed by Steven Felicelli


I consider that group mental life is essential to the full life of the individual . . .
                                                                                         -Wilfred Bion, Experiences in Groups

In lines that are somehow halting and headlong, intransitive and in transit, Geoffrey G. O'Brien has practiced his craft as master enjamber of the both/and era. Even the cover of his latest collection, Experience in Groups, is enjambed. From The Guns and Flags Project (2002) through Green and Gray (2007), Metropole (2011), and People on Sunday (2013), O'Brien has modified his mode of civil immanence in which thesis and antithesis verge and every clause is transient, provisional, in medias res

Experience in Groups feels fully fledgling in this respect. It is his most accessible book to date (relatively speaking) and his most politically conscious since Guns and Flags. Though even in the interim, O'Brien has been deeply concerned with the "elsewhere of suffering," endeavoring to de-realize the divide and practicing what he preaches to the voiceless incarcerated at San Quentin (and among student protesters at Berkeley). Yet he remains conscious of what George Oppen calls "the opposite peril, that of overstating art's ability to intervene in material conditions . . .": "When poetry neither ignores immiseration nor purports to solve it, I think it can teach a nonspecific care for the actual world and contribute purposeless language to the world . . ."

The above quote is indicative of O'Brien's mode of absorptive, paraphrastic allusion ("purposeless language"). Aside from a Coleridge/Marianne Moore mash-up, most of the ghosts are transubstantiated into a key (para)phrase or solitary word. Whitman's 29th bather makes an appearance, as do Williams's "plums in the fridge" and Stevens's "What will suffice?" becomes the more practical "What can be done?"—answered with a direct specter of Marx ("labor theory of value"). Throughout his work, we discern echoes of cummings ("Dooms"), Kinnell ("lastness"), Berryman ("We must not say so"), and various other voices of the past century. The Moderns (and their Romantic forebears) still loom large for an American imagination and so it's no surprise that O'Brien's language is conditioned by and responsive to their preoccupations – though his use of language is rigorously post-.

The most prominent preoccupation in O'Brien's entire oeuvre, however, is his fascination with/by the cyclical movement of time—specifically months. They are the standard unit of measurement in O'Brien's poetry and the passing into, out of, and through months comprises the seasonal, existential merry-go-round of:

                            . . . a cycle
Without content or conclusion.

This annular/lunar lyricism of each month curving/waning into the next approaches its quintessence in "Elegy" (perhaps his most breathtaking poem to date). Therein, months emerge and recede in their yearly recurrence, conjuring or snuffing each other at various intervals, contexts, speeds. 

You could blame November initially,
Only to have December remind you
Ends touch beginnings.

As for that gap between self and group, subject and object, poetry and experience:

Across which thought
Makes faulty bridges.

O'Brien strives to remain tethered to or at least in the gravitational pull of a lived reality where being-in-the-world is more than the inscribed concept. He knows his "purposeless language" must be one "Crusoe and Friday invent together and speak as equals, and it can't pretend England and the slave trade don't exist." Neither can it "shit higher than its arse" (as Wittgenstein put it) and so "What can be done?" is a crucially complex question that needs to be asked again and again in every sphere (linguistic, socio-political, aesthetic, et al.). 

We live in a particularly dark time in which Adorno's prohibition of lyrical poetry reemerges, but the poet of Experience in Groups reminds us that "Now" is:

                                 . . . the middle
Period where we know what's happening
But not what will . . .

What poetry, irrespective of subject/style, does or does not do to its reader is unquantifiable. How does one behave (or vote) after reading Diving into the Wreck or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, for instance? How do we, if we have both read Harryette Mullen, interact with each other (differently)? What collateral damage or endowment occurs to my neural circuitry via these close readings of O'Brien's poems and what subtle effect might it have on every (group) encounter and decision in my life hereafter? Some, at the very least, though what or how or when it registers is likely to remain beyond me. (Poetry is not a cause and effect proposition.) All I/we can determine in the indeterminacy of this semiotic field we move through from day one to day zero is that:                     

all signs point