The Guns and Flags Project
Geoffrey G. O'Brien
University of California Press ($16.95)
by Steve Healey
A cloud of anonymity shrouds The Guns and Flags Project, the first book of poems by Geoffrey G. O'Brien. Granted, there's a pretty slick author photo on the inside flap, but even here he tucks sheepishly into his own shadows, letting the cloud looming on his shoulder take the focal point. Below that photo you'll find a bio that offers nothing but a few journal acknowledgements. On the back cover you'll find, shockingly, not a single blurb from the literary elite (although the editors of the impressive New California Poetry series-Cal Bedient, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman-may constitute a less obvious Holy Trinity of official sanctioning). Finally, the entire cover design conveys an austere remove with its understated arrangement of line and muted color (think: Ralph Lauren meets Mark Rothko).
More importantly, of course, is what you'll find in the poems, and here too, a stark, impersonal tone prevails, as in titles from "The Premiere of Reappearance" to "Winter Rose." In fact, the typical O'Brien poem sort of avoids point of view altogether, almost never clinging to the easy intimacies of you or I, usually flowing seamlessly through a series of indefinite vantages. Point of view becomes movement itself, allowing all things macro and micro their democratic right to be seen and heard, at least for a moment. There is a speaker here-indeed, this book's magic is how it turns so much variety and blur into a singular, convincing voice-it's just that he seems to have no qualities, or just not the specific, personal-ad litany of faux-individualism we expect from the modern consumer self (e.g. "I like Pepsi and Britney's bellybutton").
You might guess that The Guns and Flags Project favors a distilled, elemental language-the lexical primary colors (including frequent references to primary colors themselves), like this sampling of key words from a poem called "Thoughts of a Judge": clouds, days, fell, leaves, space, ideas, teeth, glass, dying, calmly, country, be. O'Brien gives himself a limited palette: simple nouns, few extravagant qualifiers, and the most transparent verbs, the favorite being be. Add to this lack a lack of peppy rhetorical devices, and it's a wonder these poems can move at all. But move they do, hugely and thickly as slow tornadoes emerging from the unconscious. The only way to survive is to surrender to the spiraling swirl, to be it, and O'Brien encourages this with absurdly long sentences brimming with comma splices and other run-on fun. This pace builds momentum in mostly longish poems that spill over two or more pages, and even a one pager like "Constantly So Near" gives a smaller-scale taste of that paradoxically simple and complex flavor. Notice how quickly the I is abandoned for the not-I:
I thought the thinking of going to sleep
thrown on like a coverlet of flame
which urges the body beneath it
to a sultry kind of ownerlessness
in which the famous obedience of limbs
submits like the non-public aspect of flame
to being only the yellow ash
of some almost glimpsed but yielded thing
in a space not quite lashed by experience
but still lent to the losing of it
or a just-missed train whose passage hangs
about the station in a great veil of dust
refusing to speak of any children
only looming now fast now slow as windows
or the holes in the lace of the new mourners
while the tracks are not rising up to meet it.
The dust an ash the passage a form of flame
or just being alone over the hours
descending so blithely where they appoint you
governor of irregular black buildings.
By line three the speaker becomes a generic body who surrenders to "ownerlessness," a loss of personal control guiding him on a strange tour of himself as "yellow ash," then as "a just-missed train," and finally, morphed into the second person, as "governor of irregular black buildings." Like most poems in The Guns and Flags Project, this one can be read as a song of despair about a self suffocating in a world that worships the material and entices us to purchase so many false selves. So that final line resonates with our political impotence, the futility of so-called individual freedom.
But there's a redemptive and joyful strain running through O'Brien's poems, this perhaps even more foregrounded than that encroaching darkness. The speaker in "Constantly So Near" is also travelling a mystical path, learning how to be humble, grateful, awestruck, receptive to what is real in the face of buzzing desire. Life happens not in personal satisfaction, this poem suggests, but in transformation through metaphor-not in attachment, but in the mysterious fluidity between the I and not-I. Mostly what I hear in "governor of irregular black buildings" is the playful possibility of an alternative politics whereby choice is an imaginative act with reverence for the unknown and the strange.
If O'Brien's poems have a sameness of diction and rhythm that verges on monotonous and impersonal, it's the same sameness of heartbeat and breath, prayer and meditation. It's a poetry that asks for patient attention, and gives back all the void's abundance.