“Can this be New Rochelle?” George asked J—. “I lived in a house on the water, near the harbor, in a small village.” J— replied, “What village? What harbor?” —Mary Oppen
This is true: the work before you is still the work ahead of me. It is not George Oppen, but something other than what that figure stands for. It is an alchemy of memory, both actual and “false.” (I say “false” because it is not false—I have felt a stranger breathing down my neck, in a wind, a we, descending, as our gifts remain above us, ungrasped.)
It started simply. I wanted only to use “another’s” words to cull memory—not to express it, but to excavate. It quickly became something else, or many things. Though I tried, I could never control it. Every move I made had multiple repercussions, often damaging, always damaging—it was a Spicerian game of chess, the enemy pieces themselves laughing, threatening to end the game.
It started like this: On the first day of Spring I was sitting haphazardly before Oppen’s “Disasters.” I wrote the line “In the notorious violence of birds” and crossed it out. I then wrote the line “Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble,” and wrote many more lines after it until I lost my breath and my hands (not my own) were shaking. I called it a wolf assay. I called the poem “My Own Private Idaho.”
The next day came, and then the day after, and then a week passed, then a month, and the next Spring became many Springs later. During this period, I continued to revise the poem, taking a line out here, replacing another there, drastically altering a section of stanzas and then rewriting them more or less as they were before, and so on, over and over. I would send out my newest revisions to friends—sometimes several a day—until all of them eventually stopped responding or commenting. I could never get it right—it still isn’t. Here is one of the earliest versions of the opening stanza (I don’t expect you, Oppen, to respond either):
Pieces of the past rising from Joseph.
an overturned Weremart cart
—Weremart, spelled as I have remembered it. I had come to associate this place—a supermarket in Caldwell where housewives shop—with wolves, the root of a savage becoming, so present in what lurks behind Idaho: were, Old English for “man,” a cognate of Irish fear (Oppen: wolf walks in my footprints fear fear). But it was not until I started this essay that I realized Weremart was actually, and had always been, spelled Waremart.
Oppen: Remember Yeats chained to a dying animal? … The animal’s bare eyes in the woods—that’s no joke.
The poem continues:
In Idaho wolf hides in mother
and her hair unfolds beneath the metal
of her helmet, and there’s something about
where a past and your pulse separate
into two kinds of machine:
the clunky and the jammed
the ghosts and the guns that don’t work
when they don’t have oil in the barrels
and they don’t have soldiers in the fields.
Apparently I had worried a lot over these stanzas. A few versions later they had been changed to:
in Idaho where there is
something about this separation
of the pulse with a past
as clunky and jammed as
a gun that don’t work
when it don’t have oil in its barrel
or a hunter’s arm to cradle.
Dear killed hunter,
I made you up and
A variability of image: the heavy handed, politicized elements (helmet, oil barrel, soldiers) were just that: images. (Had I lost the finger with which one silently points to a soldier?) Yet in the second version these images’ context was only replaced by another context, one which evokes my father (who had been a soldier in Vietnam, but who I remember as the hunter who shot himself in the cab of his truck many years before I started the poem).
This version continues its address to the hunter:
now I’m asking you a question
noone ever answered for me:
how come pop tastes so good?
In the field behind the school
you were vacated from my body.
In a secret cab of the Chevy.
In a cemetery where
present events defy us
and the past rests its corpses.
In a later version, the poem continues:
Oh floating wolfy,
your teats are metal and when
I was teething my gums
were so dry; now
all our ghosts can’t evoke
an art that doesn’t evoke
suspicion in this farmer’s daughter
fingering the seems of
the future, the crow’s
feet that stretch from the past.
My first gesture was to write toward primitive memory, toward “wolf” and “Idaho,” using—with usura—the Oppen I have inherited in the overpriced editions so widely available. It was to cling our disparate pieces together, to put them into a constellation. Yet the force of the bringing together—my force—was too much, too suffocating. Somehow, despite or because of myself, it has remained insistent, and continues to be—
Oppen: I am sick with a poet’s / vanity legislators // of the unacknowledged.
Yet in retelling the story of the poem’s process, I cannot not be aware of the inadequacy of my very I. This essay has been dismantled, demolished, its shells placed in new orders, yet it is never right—just as the poem was never right—we circle around the constellation of a presence, the broken constellation of a broken presence, but there is no final stroke to close the circle—
Oppen: What I couldn’t write I scratched out.
So I start over. Scratch that.
So he starts over, moving forward. It is Oppen’s poem now:
In an ocean confusing all our ghosts
can’t evoke an art that doesn’t evoke
Suspicion in this, father, fingering the seams
of the future—The crow drags its telephone
lines from the unacknowledged, a world so dreary
to which we descend
who have become strangers in this wind
As the revision continued, does it not seem as if he were trying to revert the language of the poem back to its sources? Compare the lines above to “Disasters:”
of the unacknowledged
world it is dreary
and be a stranger how
shall we descend
who have become strangers in this wind
Perhaps this is the question: Is there an Idaho to be found below Oppen’s language? He had led myself in equal measures of belief and doubt to find this Idaho, to bring it forth and place it at the side of whatever George Oppens may exist—
But that’s not quite right. Yes, there was faith, there was doubt, but we cannot now place this beside any Oppen or thing. Instead, does it not seem that he was attempting to condense “our” language—already “others’”—to a different state of otherness? Or, in other words, wasn’t he merely trying to rewrite “Disasters” through us, and in the process squeeze us out of the poem—to further other the poem’s already absent author?
Oppen: One sees a man in his place, which excludes us, as travelers through it.
But we cannot let our story end there, in that space of both confirmation and negation. Backtrack a bit, to an earlier version of the poem which continues with an address to “Disasters” itself:
So, Dreary, do we descend
as strangers through this wind
or through the radios in our sitting rooms—
My own room, where I assay, is
we, an ancestral disorder,
the promised gift after all
stories end in good and
Can these “impossible dimensions” be true? Or,
Can this be true: When he started the poem on the first day of Spring, he was living next door to the hotel where the Falstaff scenes in Gus Van Sant’s film were shot—a fact he hadn’t realized at the time. When he first saw My Own Private Idaho it made—against dis-aster: “the breaking apart of constellations”—a deep impression. In the film, Mike Waters, the narcoleptic street hustler played by River Phoenix, searches for his estranged mother in an attempt to recover his past out of the vagaries of memory. His search takes him between Portland, various parts of Idaho, all the way to Italy, and back to the streets of Portland. Throughout the film, as Waters’ narcolepsy overcomes him and he passes out, grainy Super 8 footage of rolling cloudscapes, a decrepit house falling from the sky, demolishing itself through its own weight, and images of a young mother with her infant on the porch of that very house, are spliced into each other as he sleeps. Seen only in narcoleptic fits of dream, after falling with a thud in moments of extreme duress—Oppen in the foxhole, blasted, dreaming of his mother, or the wolf that hides under her helmet—we see Idaho, this ungraspable, private scape, in whose arms we never wake. In this same manner, our search—from line to line, body to body—can never recover that impossible thing: the impossible poem. The last stanza of “My Own Private Idaho,” through all its years it remains unchanged, continues:
To what this is ancestral
is the past surrounding us in Idaho:
a wolf formed from clay
hands stuffing mouths full of fur.