Thibodaux, David. Joel Oppenheimer: An Introduction. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1986.
"CACTI" JOEL OPPENHEIMER (1985) Joel oppenheimer's "Cacti" appeared in New Spaces: Poems 1978-1983 (1985), with other poems about the changes occurring in his life. Oppenheimer and his second wife, Helen, were divorced in 1976, and by the time this poem was written he was then writing his final newspaper columns for the Village Voice. He had refined his poetics so that the discursive voice of his early poems was reduced to focus on specific topics, then to explorations of aspects of the topic. He had learned well the lessons of black mountain poetics about open form and projecting the content of the poems through its form. His poetic lines had become shorter and organized with sophisticated rhythms. He was looking around for a new lover, a new place to live, and a new imaginative place for his poetry.
"Cacti" takes pace in Oppenheimer's apartment in the West Village of Manhattan and is on one level a meditation about the cacti in the apartment. He looks up information about them in a book and sees their great power for lending meaning to his life. Then he proposes a relationship with the cacti. He finds love once a month; the cacti get water once a month. He, like them, is "planted / in sandy dirt / insecurely," but then in the clear self-consciousness of his discursive mode and avoidance of artifice in language, he explains that "it is all / a conceit / of course." He has survived, as the cacti have survived, but now he is learning that he has lost "all the flowering plants" (women, sexual pleasures) of his life because of his neglect, and he is then reduced to the leafless thick skin of the cacti.
The "puntia rufida" grows even when he is away and not caring for it; it puts out "bright green" shoots in defiance of his neglect. There are other cacti in the group, including "euphorbia," which gives him hope to keep living: Confronting its "terrifying beauty," he feels that they are "equal / as we face each other." He knows the kind of "terrible beauty" of which William Butler Yeats wrote. He is learning how to live in his circumstances, and he is not complaining about his lot in life; even though he is growing "older," he is growing "stronger." Toward the end of the poem, he enlarges the "conceit" to a statement about hurting people who demand too much of him and "eat / too ravenously." He has already learned that New York City "is not nature" but is "grime," and now, in the common experience of man/cacti, he will be friendly only to those who see the beauty in his age as he sees beauty in the cacti. Dylan Thomas created an elaborate metaphor of the "green fuse" that drives flowers and people; Oppenheimer finds a commonality with the cacti in his apartment, which he projects in the short lines and intricate rhythms. The form of the poem enforces the sense of the poem—both plant and poet living forward in a hostile climate.
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