The organization in later collected poems volumes is logical, but it reduces the tension between the terseness of the words and their sparing distribution. Just as depression-era society called for new groupings and new understandings of old groupings, the ambiguity of these pages lies in the problem of deciding how the individual words, pages, and poems constitute themselves as a group (or series) and what the ramifications of those arrangements might be for the silence and space that the words implicate.
Written during the Great Depression, just after Oppen had returned from France to New York, Discrete Series addresses the "bad times," in which anonymous "cars pass" and a syntactically and semantically disconnected "man sells post-cards" (32). Oppen's careful minimalism makes the poem's general sense, or specific referents, difficult to pin down. Even a seemingly straightforward "T" has been variously understood as a subway sign, a Pierre Bonnard nude, or a T-shape sign showing the direction of an elevator. Whether "T" refers to one, all, or none of these, it certainly also refers to the poems themselves, as they emerge from the white space under the right arm of the fancy T of the opening word of the book—"THE." This detail exemplifies the type of crafted ambiguity that caused Oppen to be, from the beginning, both obscure and appreciated.
Oppen brings daily life into the poem without subsuming it in his own thoughts: The tug never ceases to be a tug; the car remains a car. The intensity of the poetry lies in the performative assertion of the importance of objects, as well as the poem's corollary that words are objects. Oppen refuses to accede to simple metaphorical, symbolic, or grammatical strategies, which makes the poetry difficult to read. Despite its impenetrability, Discrete Series was well received, winning an important review from William Carlos WILLIAMS. The work's reception was also helped by a preface provided by Ezra pound (whose acquaintance Oppen had made in France), in which he compared Oppen to Williams and referred to him as "a serious craftsman" (vi).
Beginning with a parody of languid conversation typical of the writing of Henry James, Oppen takes readers away from the prudish gentility of a drawing room. He brings them out "past the window-glass" onto the "world, weather-swept, with which / one shares the century." The confusing phrases of genteel conversation and description that continually interject themselves into one another give way first to a sweeping alliteration and then, on the next page, to a whole new start: "1 / White." Oppen alludes to the previous ways of writing but rejects them in favor of a new beginning—a numbering that begins over again and a blank page of "White."
The "White" refers not only to a new page (turning over a new leaf) but also begins a description: "White. From the / Under arm of T // The red globe." The "T" of these lines refers to a type of contemporary elevator signal comprised of one white and one red light bulb under the bars of a T-shaped figure. The indicated direction of the elevator depended on which light was illuminated. By referring to the two bulbs, Oppen begins a movement from the vague rhetoric of "weather-swept" centuries to the cold, hard question of whether we are going up or down. The elevator signal is a symbol for the whole building and for the culture that created it, a figure for the uncertainty and hope of that culture.
Although the opening is striking, it is in the closing movement that Oppen's care and skill with words is at its most evident. Here, in what the older Collected Poems calls "Drawing," the relation between the layout of the words and the taut economy of meaning is most closely expressed through the triple wordplay on "the / Paper, turned" (35). The verb turned answers the apparently rhetorical question of the previous page, "what will / Bring us back to / Shore," in a threefold manner.
First the paper turns like a winch, providing an alternative winding motion to the "rope" that coils "on the steel deck" as it pulls the barge to shore. The paper, in this case standing metonymically for the poem, turns (that is, it skillfully fashions language) around the "tug" and "two barges" and the "shore" and, instead of pulling one to the other, contains the "entire volume," reuniting them once again. Second the paper is "turned" in the same way that wood is turned on a lathe by a craftsperson to produce a beautiful object. Third, moving the onus from the author to the reader (who turns the pages), the word is a per
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