Burton Hatlen

Burton Hatlen: On "To my wash-stand"

In the attempt to show what a "poetics of absence" might look like in practice, I turn now to some specific poems by Zukofsky. My principal exhibit is the well-known "To My Wash-stand" (All, pp. 59-60). This poem, written in 1932, antedates the writing of Bottom by at least twenty years. Yet as early as this poem we can already see Zukofsky passing through a poetics of presence, into something quite different. The poem begins by invoking one of those homely but potentially numinous "things" that so richly populate the poetry of Williams and Zukofsky's other immediate predecessors:


            To my wash-stand

in which I wash

            my left hand

and my right hand


            To my wash-stand

whose base is Greek

            whose shaft

is marble and is fluted


            To my wash-stand

whose wash-bowl

            is an oval

in a square


            To my wash-stand

whose square is marble

            and inscribes two

smaller ovals to left and right for soap


These opening lines immediately locate us in a world of "presence," by establishing at the center of our attention a concrete object (the wash-stand), the poet himself as "seer," and an everyday action (the poet is washing his hands). Why make a poem out of such mundane materials? If this were a Williams poem we would have a simple answer. Williams relishes such everyday objects and actions because for him everything is numinous. Yet this poem does something else (or something more) than simply salute a numinous object. For Zukofsky asks us not only to look at the objects and actions here at issue but also to recognize how strange and wonderful it is that, as he washes his hands, he is also composing (in his head, presumably) a poem about washing his hands. We have here, we might say, two levels of existence, which I shall call the "given" and the "gratuitous." The given is what is simply there: objects like wash-stands, actions like washing one's hands, etc. The gratuitous includes actions like "decorating" a wash-stand or making up a poem. What is the relationship between the given and the gratuitous? And since (more particularly) all words are gratuitous, what is the relationship between words and things? These are the questions which this poem asks.

In the poem we sense the gratuitous pulling against the given almost immediately, as the words of the poem assert themselves as no less solid and if anything even more present than the wash-stand. In Williams's poetry the syntactic dislocations result from an attempt to keep the words close to the surface of things, but Zukofsky's dislocations instead force our attention onto the surface of his words. One half of the reader’s brain wants to read the opening line as a quasi-title—as in "To a Skylark," etc. But by the time that the "To . . . " construction has been repeated four times, the conventional poetic associations of the phrase begin to dissolve, and we hear a manic chant that might go on forever. The sensory details that we are here offered also evoke some dissonant echoes. Is it somehow important that the poet washes his left hand before his right hand? Is some sort of ritual going on here? If not, doesn't the pedantic distinction—"my left hand / and my right hand"—seem a little mannered, even mocking? And if so, who is being mocked? In the second stanza a mocking note seems more audible still, as the poet pretends to locate this object within history: the base of the wash-stand "is Greek," and in fact the wash-stand would appear to be a truncated column ("marble," "fluted"). Now the gratuitous manifests itself not only in the poet's apparently absurd decision to write a poem about washing his hands, but in the wash-stand itself: someone, not the poet, has decided to conceal the function of the wash-stand behind a purely gratuitous and indeed quite absurd stylistic gesture, by disguising the wash-stand as a piece of a column from a Greek temple. (The poet recognizes the absurdity of the gesture. But is his own poem any less absurd?) Not only is the wash-stand no less a gratuitous gesture than Zukofsky's poem, but it is also in some ways a specifically verbal gesture: for the "square " of the "marble" "inscribes"—i.e., etches, writes into itself—the "two / smaller ovals . . . for soap." In the third and fourth stanzas the note of mockery audible in the allusion to the Greek column fades, but the wash-stand itself now seems to break up into a more or less cubist cluster of abstract shapes—specifically, squares and ovals-within-squares. Even this early in the poem, then, we begin to suspect that something other than a simple celebration of the being-there of an object is here going on. If the poet wants to celebrate the givenness of things, he also wants to affirm the gratuitous, the play of the mind over the surface of things, the endless self-invention of language. Can the poem bring the given and the gratuitous into an intelligible relationship? To find out we must plunge on.

The next section of the poem quickly complicates matters by introducing a new variable, the imagination:


            Comes a song of

water from the right faucet and the left

            my left and my

right hand mixing hot and cold.


            Comes a flow which

if I have called a song

            is a song

entirely in my head


The calculated placement of the verb at the beginning of the fifth stanza, made possible in part by a self-conscious subject-verb inversion, forces us to revise all the syntactic expectations we have been operating on up to this point in the poem. The "To . . . " phrase, we now discover, was not (or not entirely) an indication that the poem is addressed to the wash-stand; rather the first four stanzas now become a giant prepositional construction modifying the verb "comes." This deliberate, almost Miltonic toying with our syntactic expectations helps to keep our attention on the linguistic surface of the poem. But the verb "comes," while reversing our assumptions about the syntactic role of the opening "To . . . " phrases, paradoxically confirms our sense that we have been listening to some sort of invocation. The muse has been summoned, and she does not refuse: "comes a song of / water." ("Veni, creator acqua"?) Yet is it not strange that the muse should come, not to the poet, but to his wash-stand? That it, not he, should sing? Initially, the word "song" gives off a re-assuring aura. We are, it would seem, still in a world of presence, where things sing to us the song of themselves. But immediately Zukofsky splits the song into two distinct melodic lines, one from each faucet, one played by the right hand and the other by the left hand, one hot and one cold. By thus disassembling his own metaphor, the poet implicitly admits that he has momentarily allowed the gratuitous—specifically, the metaphor-making powers of the imagination—to take over the poem, thereby obscuring the simple givenness of the water, the wash-stand, etc. Accordingly, in the sixth stanza the poet allows the "song" to become merely a "flow," as he now grants that the song has sounded only in his own head. But in momentarily metamorphising the world within his imagination, has the poet perhaps admitted that the imagination is all we've got? Is it possible that "things" manifest themselves to us only as an obstinate multiplicity? Can it be that we know nothing except the gratuitous play of our own minds? Is the dream of "presence," of an immediate experience of the givenness of things, merely a dream and a delusion? And is this poem on the verge of becoming a meditation on the power of the imagination to create meaning in an otherwise empty universe?

Yet if the poem has at this point come to a recognition of the ultimate impossibility of a grasping "things" in their immediacy, Zukofsky also adroitly avoids the symbolist temptation a well, as we can see in the next two dizzying stanzas:


            a song out of imagining

modillions descried above

            my head a frieze

of stone completing what no longer


            is my wash-stand

since its marble has completed

            my getting up each morning

my washing before going to bed


In these lines Zukofsky loads double and triple functions onto virtually every word, to undermine the distinction between the given and the gratuitous, between "things"' and the imagination, between the outer and the inner. Should we, for example, read "imagining" as an adjective that modifies "modillions"? If so these lines would be ascribing to the modillions themselves the ability to imagine, and the song would be coming "out of" the modillions. (A modillion, my American Heritage dictionary tells me, is "an ornamental bracket used in series under the cornice of the Corinthian, Composite, or Roman Ionic orders.") Or should we read "imagining" as a gerund, with "modillions" as its direct object? Now the song would come "out of" the poet's imagination, as he envisions a set of (imaginary) modillions ranged above his head. (In this reading, the poet has in his imagination extended the truncated column of the wash-stand on up to the ceiling, and has added at the top a cornice supported by modillions.) Or should we read an implied period after "imagining"? Now "out of" would mean "beyond," and we would have "a song / entirely in my head / // , a song [beyond] imagining." All these readings are possible. In fact, Zukofsky seems to twist his syntax just enough so that we are unable to establish one of these readings as "right" and the others as "wrong." As a result, three things seem to be happening here. First, the poet's mind has imaginatively transformed a wash-stand in his rented room into a column in a Greek temple. That is, the poet has created a "song" by moving at the same time inward into, the imagination and upward (for the modillions are "above" his head) into a visionary realm. Yet at the same time the modillions (not imaginary now) are themselves singing. And at the same time yet again, a song from beyond all possible ranges of the imagination can be heard echoing behind the scenes.

Somewhere up there with the modillions (perhaps supported by them?) is, we next learn, a "frieze of stone" which "completes" what "no longer // is my wash-stand." The key word here is "completes." The frieze "completes" the wash-stand first of all by carrying the truncated column all the way to the ceiling. But two additional meanings of "completes" are also pertinent here. "To complete" may mean "to bring to perfection"; it can also mean "to end, to conclude." The (imaginary? real? at this point we don't know) frieze has brought the wash-stand to a state of ideal perfection, but in the process has also obliterated it: it is "no longer" the poet's wash-stand but something else—what, we do not know. And just as the "frieze" "completes" the wash-stand, so too it also "completes" (brings to perfection, but also ends, effaces) the poet's daily ritual of getting up and going to bed. But the pronoun "its" turns out to be slippery. Does the pronoun refer to the frieze or to "what used to be my wash-stand"? The wash-stand itself, we should note, also "completes" the poet's life by bracketing it: the ritual of the wash-stand begins and completes each day. Yet it is not the "real" wash-stand but "what used to be the wash-stand," the wash-stand that the gratuitous gesture of the imagination has effaced, which so punctuates the poet's day. What is the effect of all these syntactic and lexical slips and slides? Primarily to completely confound any neat division of the world into the inner and the outer, the imaginary and the real. The "song," by the end of the eighth stanza, is neither "in " the wash-stand nor in the poet's head; rather it is at once everywhere and nowhere.

The breakdown of outer/inner distinctions in the central stanzas of this poem in turn prepares us for the pivotal moment of the poem, in which we plunge into a world in which the outer is inner, and vice versa:


            my look into a mirror

to glimpse half an oval

            as if its half

were half-oval in my head    and the


            climates of many

inscriptions human heads shapes'

            horses' elephants' (tusks) others'

scratched in marble tile


            so my wash-stand

in one particular breaking of the

            tile at which I have

looked and looked


            has opposed to my head

the inscription of a head

            whose coinage is the

coinage of the poor


The sudden introduction of a mirror at this point (we've heard nothing about it previously) changes all the terms within the poem. Are mirrors "given" or "gratuitous"? Is an image in a mirror "real" or "symbolic"? There are no answers to these questions, and this is why the reflected image of the wash-stand—not the wash-stand in itself (which has, indeed, now disappeared) nor the poet's imaginative transformation of it—can serve to resolve the polarities in the poem. Looking into the mirror where he might plausibly expect to see his own head, the poet sees instead half of the oval of the wash-bowl, as if the wash-bowl (or half of it!) were "in" his head, or perhaps has even replaced his head. And in the mirror too he discovers—not now as imagined by the poet's mind but rather as simply given to his eyes—the "frieze" he had longed for to "complete" the wash-stand, as he sees "inscriptions" of human heads et al. "scratched in marble tile." "Things" have now clearly begun to speak. The marble tiles on (or around?) the wash- stand are etched with signs, messages, words. Once the outer/inner distinction has been broken down, everything here becomes language. The wash-stand itself can now become another mirror, as it gives back to the poet an image of a head that both reflects the poet's own head and is irreducibly alien; for in the end it is simply there, a crack in the tile. The gap in the tile opens up the impenetrable surface of things, so that the tile becomes in effect a word. But as the wash-stand disappears into language, so too the poet disappears into his own act of attention. Everything becomes "inscription " (from scribo, scribere, to write in to) and "coinage" ("the process of making coins," and "a system of metal currency," says my dictionary, but also "the invention of new words"). "Coinage" also implies value, but the coinage here at issue is the "coinage of the poor," to whom value comes not as money but in the pure good of seeing, as Zukofsky emphasizes in the concluding stanzas of this poem :


            . . . a head

            whose coinage is the

coinage of the poor


            observant in waiting

in their getting up mornings

            and in their waiting

going to bed


            carefully attentive

to what they have

            and to what they do not



when a flow of water

            doubled in narrow folds

occasions invertible counterpoints

            over a head          and


            and age in a wash-stand

and in their own heads


Having met the "Other" in the head that accident has inscribed upon a wash-stand title, the poet now finds himself also within a community. "I" gives way to "they," a "they" that by implication includes the poet himself, since he has within the poem already performed all the actions here ascribed to "the poor." The impacted syntactic ambiguities of the middle sections of the poem diminish in these concluding stanzas, but the syntax still takes at least one or two unexpected twists. Should we read "observant" and "attentive" as modifying "the poor" or as modifying "a head"? Both possibilities again seem plausible, even necessary. The poor are attentive to their wash-stands—they have the time for such ritual observances. But this attention does not go unreciprocated, for the inscriptions carved into the wash-stand also observe patiently and attentively the comings and goings of the poor. Again the inner/outer distinction has been eradicated. The two places are, it seems, inter-changeable—or rather there is only one place, the place of inscription, which is also the place of meeting. At this meeting place there comes into being a community that includes poets and wash-stands and all the rest of us too, if we will only admit to our utter poverty, admit that we have nothing, neither a self nor a world—for at that moment all is returned to us, and we find ourselves in a world that is both "given" and "gratuitous," both inescapably there when we open our eyes and a free and utterly arbitrary event. (In this respect Carroll Terrell's suggestion that "To My Wash-stand" offers a kind of "Zen insight" seems to me accurate.) For only the poor themselves and the things that populate their world know how poor and rich we are, what we do and do not have when the "flow of water" surges from the faucet, not now a "song" but still a column of sorts ("doubled in narrow folds," as—apparently—the cold and the warm streams run together, to create for the first time a whole) and still able to occasion "invertible" ("to invert" means both "to turn inside out" and "to turn upside down," and Zukofsky has here done both, by demonstrating that the high and the low, the inner and the outer can be flipped ad infinitum) "counterpoints" (because we can if we know how to listen still hear a song, two—maybe more—melodic lines interweaving to create an unexpected harmony, counterpoints both within the head and within the wash-stand and between the two). And now in the final lines of his poem, having defined language as the place of meeting, and having collapsed all false dichotomies of outer and inner, "things" "and the imagination, the given and the gratuitous into the event of meaning/meeting, Zukofsky can graciously allow the "head" to assume once again the illusion of autonomy. Now the counterpoints ascend once again, into a "higher" realm: they are "over a head." (The poet's head? But is it perhaps safe at this point to raise the possibility that "head" can also be read as a pun? Is there not probably a toilet in this bathroom too?) Yet if the counterpoints are in one sense "overhead," above the concrete historical moment, the "age" that poet and wash-stand must share, in another sense the counterpoints are in the wash-stand and in the heads of the poor. (Again we should note the syntactic ambiguities: the phrases "in a wash-stand" and "in their own heads" modify both "counterpoints" and "age.") And in the end these counterpoints enact themselves—can enact themselves—in the only place where heads and wash-stands meet, the place of language.

Where, then, in the end, has "To My Wash-stand" gotten us to? The fact that this question asserts itself might first be underscored. Zukofsky has not given us a "verbal icon," a static object. Rather the poem acts upon us. Specifically, it seeks to lead us to a point where we will see the world in a new way. In seeking to bring the reader to a new kind of awareness, "To My Wash-stand" locates itself within a long tradition of meditative poetry that includes such august texts as "Lycidas," Marvell's "The Garden," "Tintem Abbey," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Among School Children." In all of these poems, the poetic persona finds himself in some way out of harmony with the scene before him, and in all of these poems the poet seeks a way of resolving this disharmony. In all of them, finally, the poet ultimately counsels himself (and indirectly counsels us) to see the gap between self and world not simply as a wound but as a potential source of new strengths. The American poets of presence (Pound, Williams, Reznikoff, and company) reject what they see as the overtones of resignation in this meditative tradition. Instead they demand a total interpenetration of self and world. Zukofsky, rejecting both these options, here offers a third option. Like the great poets of the meditative tradition, and unlike the American poets of presence, Zukofsky recognizes a gap between the self and the world. (In this respect his late-blooming admiration for Wallace Stevens comes as no surprise.) But rather than simply dramatizing this gap or trying to find in it a source of spiritual and imaginative strength, Zukofsky has in "To My Wash-stand" allowed self and world to "deconstruct" (if I may shift for a moment to a currently fashionable vocabulary) one another. The poem begins with the poet washing his hands, but by the end he has disappeared, becoming merely a limit point, an occasion for the verbal events that enact themselves before us. Yet the world too has dissolved by the end of the poem, leaving a few inscriptions, a few ever vanishing "traces," which we and the poet together try to read. The "wholeness" of the world, the "thingness" of things, the autonomy of the knowing "subject"—all these are, by the end of the poem, present only in their absence. Yet as the poem deliberately disassembles these various metaphysical presences, the inscriptions that we find ourselves reading do "show" ( to revert to a Wittgensteinian vocabulary) what they cannot "say," do point toward these absent modes of "wholeness." The moment of recognition that this poem seeks to carry us toward is thus truly radical, and absolutely of our century: namely, a recognition that self and world are both only limit points, and that between the two is the only space where we can meet, the space of language.

Eric Mottram: On "Exodus"

The wary spacing, the run-on and hesitant pacing of syntax, and the sense of arguing positions, with himself as much as others, in Oppen's poetic forms is an explorer's poetics, remote from the cheapening fixed metrics of dogma so familiar during the past four decades. Systematic order forced him into exile, and the poets he admired (Reznikoff, Rakosi, Zukofsky, Bunting) by and large could not speak to the people. "Gift: the Gifted" ends with a possible miracle of change in the "myopic" horizons of the popular:

among the people

they have never spoken to therefore run away


into everything the gift


the treasure is


flight my



"Miracle" in this poem and in "Exodus" (Seascape: Needle's Eye) implies a future in which our children have learned the democratic potentialities. Children are the constant gift to the world, a possible hope; and behind them, the constancy of love, whose example throughout the poems, is--if one may say it so bluntly, but without the least sentimentality--George and Mary Oppen, a ground base to all the inventions.

Donald Davie: On "Exodus"

Granted that Oppen does not discard rhetoric for non-rhetoric (which last is an impossibility), but rejects an old rhetoric for a newer one, we have to admire what the new rhetoric permits him to do. In the first place it opens up for him, as it sometimes did for Williams, an extraordinary directness and gentleness in intimacy. . . .

Indeed, in the world that Oppen charts about him as he thinks of approaching his end, so hedged about as it is with apprehension and misgivings, this particular tone embodies so much of what he can still feel grateful for and sanguine about, that the newer rhetoric justifies itself on this count alone. And it is quite true that the older rhetoric cannot compass this tone of voice. It speaks again on the last page of this slim but substantial collection, in a poem called "Exodus":

[Davie quotes the poem]

I would call that (though the word may give offence) elegant as well as touching. And I would say indeed that the elegance and the touchingness depend upon each other.

Paul Lake: On "Exodus"

Now let us see what significance Oppen chooses to emphasize in his treatment of that unique moment in history when Moses led the tribes of Hebrews out of pharaonic Egypt into the "one-way time" of recorded history:

Were the adults        We dreamed to each other Miracle of the children The brilliant children         Miracle

Of their brilliance         Miracle of

In a real sense, this poem emphasizes a pre-Mosaic, more ancient aspect of the historical event; it is the "miracle of," the "brilliance" of, and the childish innocence surrounding the event to which Oppen directs our attention in the poem, and this accords with what Eliade describes as the "archaic" mythical conception of time held by the Semitic tribes of the ancient Near East. As Eliade says of this more primitive conception of events which stresses the miraculous rather than the historically accurate,

It matters little if the formulas and images through which the primitive expresses "reality" seem childish and even absurd to us. It is the profound meaning of primitive behavior that is revelatory: this behavior is governed by belief in an absolute reality opposed to the profane world of "unrealities. . . ."

For Oppen, the world of events, of historical time, is the "profane world" of unrealities; time and again he opposes the "miracle" of childish innocence to, this profane world of artifacts and empire.

David McAleavey: On "(In Alsace) from "Route""

The force of the long prose section (#5) of "Route," detailing the sufferings of resistance fighters in Alsace, which culminates with a story of suicide, comes from just such a non-reflexive consciousness, although in this case the imagined absence of self-awareness is a result of a heightened consciousness rather than of a reduction into a sea-anemone's dream-life. This is to say, the experience of awareness remains a form of consciousness. But the heightened consciousness Oppen looks for is not limited by the endless game of involuted rationality. Oppen's prose is spare and emotional, void of repetition or extravagance; it seems almost unfair to excerpt from it. Nonetheless the following paragraphs tell of the route one Alsatian chose instead of going into hiding, which might have resulted in the destruction of his family:

There was an escape from that dilemma, as, in a way, there always is. Pierre told me of a man who, receiving the notification that he was to report to the German army, called a celebration and farewell at his home. Nothing was said at that party that was not jovial. They drank and sang. At the proper time, the host got his bicycle and waved goodbye. The house stood at the top of a hill and, still waving and calling farewells, he rode with great energy and as fast as he could down the hill, and, at the bottom, drove into a tree.

It must be hard to do. Probably easier in an automobile. There is, in an automobile, a considerable time during which you cannot change your mind. Riding a bicycle, since in those woods it is impossible that the tree should be a redwood, it must be necessary to continue aiming at the tree right up to the moment of impact. Undoubtedly difficult to do. And, of course, the children had no father. Thereafter.

The act of courage--which is another way of talking about the issues Oppen has been dealing with--is an act in which self is put out of consideration. But what gives it courage is not its selflessness but its devotion to an ideal. Even more to the point, perhaps, is the fact that Oppen too fears not-being. This passage has especial significance for him because it manifests that fear and dramatizes circumstances under which at least one man was able to free himself from it. Whenever possible Oppen sees his job as poet to be to loosen the hold of fear and guilt.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Image of the Engine"

In a five-part poem called "Image of the Engine," that appears in The Materials of 1962, we find these lines:

Also he has set the world

In their hearts. From lumps, chunks.

I can think of no better description of Oppen's characteristic prosody, his way of proceeding through a given poetic structure. If Williams' is a metric of action, the creation of a field of force in which the presence of the moment is made manifest, Oppen's "discrete series" of lines remains disjunctive, discriminatory, abrupt--a movement of fits and starts, "From lumps, chunks." Ellipsis, riddle, radical condensation, abstraction, equivocal syntax, and the fragmentation of semantic units--all these pull against the coalescence of sound, often extremely delicate, and the hammering of words into the firm structure of the line. Oppen wants us to pause on every word, to try to understand how and why just these words could possibly coexist in the same text, so far removed are his "connections" from those of ordinary discourse. The text itself is thus called into question even as the poet "sets the world/In our hearts."

Burton Hatlen: On "Image of the Engine"

"Image of the Engine" is the longest poem in The Materials. Before the poem is over, the engine of the title will become something rather like a "symbol." But in the first part of the poem Oppen offers us an image of the engine itself.

[. . . .]

The engine here described falls loosely into the category of "tool," insofar as it is an instrument which human beings have created; and tools, as we have already seen, generally have a positive meaning for Oppen. But this particular engine seems to be a tool gone wrong. First, it has no discernible function: at no point in the poem do we learn what kind of engine is here at issue or what purpose it serves. Second, this engine does not, as a proper tool should, mediate between human intentionality and inchoate matter. Rather this engine seems to have decided that it is an end in itself: it is "a machine involved with itself, a concentrated/Hot lump of a machine." Third, this engine is not only self obsessed but also, as words like "frenzy" and "blundering" imply, stupid; and in its stupidity it is knocking itself apart. This self-enclosed machine claims for itself the attributes of a living creature; and we may feel at least a momentary inclination to grant this claim as, watching the engine "die," we imagine something like a "soul" emerging from the machine at the moment of "death." But the syntactic twist in the last lines of this section remind us that any such meanings which we discover in the silence of the engine are projected by us upon the "cooling steel." Only by such an imaginative projection of our own intentionality into the machine can we find in the blind self-destruction of the machine some "spiritual" recompense, some kind "of knowledge and of comprehension." But the syntax of the lines, wavering as they do between the declarative and the interrogative, leave unresolved the question of in what way (if any) our imaginings are "true."

In Part Two we immediately learn the "meaning" of the engine:

Endlessly, endlessly,

The definition of mortality


The image of the engine


That stops.

The engine, it would seem, represents human life as seen from the viewpoint of mechanistic materialism. From such a viewpoint, the body is no more than an engine that, eventually, stops. The inevitable counterpart of such a mechanistic materialism is a "spiritualism" which sees the machine as inhabited by a "soul"--a "ghost in the machine," in Gilbert Ryle's phrase. But now Oppen rejects both mechanistic materialism and its "spiritualist" counterpart:

We cannot live on that.

I know that no one would live out

Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending

With his life.

The alternative both to mechanistic materialism and to spiritualism, it here becomes clear, is what might be called a "collective humanism"--i.e., what Oppen would call "populism." We go on living only because we know that the "world"--here primarily the human community--will live on after us. And by rooting ourselves in this community, we make of ourselves something more than engines that stop. (But in paraphrasing Oppen's lives, I rob them of most of their power. For the simple psychological truth of Oppen's statement--none of us would "live out thirty years, fifty years" if we knew that the world would end with our lives--is at least as important as the philosophical and political overtones I have here emphasized.) After thus defining for us the inadequacies of mechanistic materialism, Oppen returns to the engine itself:

The machine stares out,

Stares out

With all its eyes


Thru the glass

With the ripple in it, past the sill

Which is dusty--If there is someone

In the garden!

Outside, and so beautiful.

Now for the first time we see the engine within a context: it seems to be inside a building which is in turn in a garden. And the implacable, frenzied engine of part one now seems almost pathetic. The "if" clause is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand, the machine seems to "stare out" in the hope of seeing someone (someone human that is) in the garden outside. But at the same time it is this very observer in the garden who seems to anthropomorphize the engine, ascribing to it "eyes" and the power to "stare." Both meanings of the "if" clause, however, emphasize the dependency of the engine on the human world. The machine, and the individual human being as well, find their meaning, indeed their very existence, only in and through the "other." Alone both we as solitary human beings and the things into which we infuse our intentions are mere machines that stop. But as we and our tools enter into relationship with the "other," and implicitly with a world that extends beyond our lives, the terms of our existence begin to undergo a profound change, giving birth to a sudden beauty.

In parts three and four, Oppen confronts the ultimate fragility of the human community itself:

What ends

Is that.

           Even companionship


If we search for an antecedent for the "that" of the second line the most likely possibility would seem to be the meeting between human and machine in the previous section. However, the "that' in question seems designed to be as ambiguous as possible. In fact everything ends, including the "companionship" which alone makes us something more than machines. But even as we confront this bleak truth another voice intervenes:

'I want to ask if you remember

When we were happy! As tho all travels


Ended untold, all embarkations


The single quotation mark suggests that someone else (Mary perhaps?) is here addressing the poet, with a poignant question that simultaneously affirms human collectivity ("we" are united by our memories) and implies that whatever was valuable in life has a ready ended. But the quotation remains unclosed, and thus the voice of the other seems to dissolve back into the poet's own voice ruminating on the possibility of total failure, all tales untold and all ships sunk. Part four extends this line of thinking by invoking an image whose implications should be immediately clear to us, the image of shipwreck:

On that water

Grey with morning

The gull will fold its wings

And sit. And with its two eyes

There as much as anything

Can watch a ship and all its hallways

And all companions sink.

The machine of part one which offends our humanity in its mindless, mechanical frenzy, here finds its counterpart in another kind of otherness: a nature no less mindless and inhuman than the machine. The sea, here as throughout The Materials, defines the irreducible, impassable boundaries of the human world. The sea personifies itself in the gull which stares on indifferent, wings folded, as both the human community (the "companions") and the things that humans create (the "ship and all its hallways") slip beneath the water. All voyages do ultimately "founder." The world may not end with our lives, but it will eventually end. What, then, can give purpose and value to human life?

In part four, Oppen finds in the very failure of our "embarkations" a new ground for human community, and thus a new way of postulating a "world": "Also he has set the world/In their hearts"--thus part four begins. The "world" here may have theological overtones--the "world and the flesh" as opposed to "heaven." But I suspect that "world" here carries no invidious inflection, and so we should consider another possible reading of the line. If the "world" is "set" in our "hearts," Oppen may here be implying, then world-making is an activity that will go on, even though all our embarkations "founder." Such, in any event, seems to be the point of the succeeding lines:

From lumps, chunks,


We are locked out: like children, seeking love

At last among each other. With their first full strength

The young go search for it,


Native in the native air,

The "lumps" and "chunks" of the world--the rocks and bricks which we have encountered in other poems, the dumb and blind engine of this poem--drive us back upon our humanity, and force us to seek love "among each other." The love we thus create, Oppen proceeds to make clear, offers no permanent solution to our dilemma:

But even in the beautiful bony children

Who arise in the morning have left behind

Them worn and squalid toys in the trash


Which is a grimy death of love. The lost

Glitter of the stores!

The streets of stores!

Crossed by the streets of stores

And every crevice of the city leaking

Rubble: concrete, conduit, pipe, a crumbling

Rubble of our roots . . .

Our hunger for love enmeshes us among the things of the human world--the tawdry toys we learn as children to love, the stores where these stores are sold, the rubble (and here we are again among the lumps and chunks, the rocks and brick, on which our humanity runs aground) of the decaying city. The children who search for love seek to leave behind these toys, but in this very act they also experience the death of love. So in the very moment we "embark," we have already "foundered," and this win not be the last of our mishaps:

                        But they will find

In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:

Earth, water, the tremendous

Surface, the heart thundering

Absolute desire.

Thus "Image of the Engine" concludes. The loss of our toys, the rubble in our streets, merely augur the ultimate shipwreck, death itself. But in the very moment of shipwreck, the hunger of the heart, a hunger for "the world," surges up. In these concluding lines of the poem, the engine returns, but now the alien machine into which we have projected our humanity is absorbed back into the human. No longer an image of the merely mechanical that stands over against the human community, the engine now becomes the symbol of the human heart itself, both "mechanical" and "natural," both "individual" and "collective," as it thunders out the beat that makes us all members one of another, and joins us to the sometimes inhuman world we have created, in the beat of "absolute desire."

George Oppen (An Interview with L.S. Dembo): On "Image of the Engine"

D. The "Image of the Engine" seemed to me to be a very charming poem, the first section in any case. "Likely as not a ruined head gasket/Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft." And you talk about the operation of this creaky engine, and then you conclude, quite spectacularly, "There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,/A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension."

O. The question is the image of man as a machine. That has been said before, but I think the poem works anyway. It's just the image of man as a machine, with a ghost, the ghost in the machine, that's the phrase. It's the image of man as a machine, and it asks the question, Does one believe, then, just because one can believe? Does one believe just because one is almost forced to believe--in the case of the motor too, is my point. I am a fairly passionate mechanic, but I think anyone will experience that. When the motor finally starts, it's different, it's itself, and it's very different from a lump of steel. Some old-timers used to refuse to feel that about a motor. I remember a fisherman who described--when I was a kid--he had finally gone out on a power fishing boat. "Well, she--yeah, it had a motor, I guess, it had a big lump of steel in it somewhere, a big lump of iron in it somewhere." He was consciously refusing to see a motor. Well, I was using that fact to alter a little bit that phrase about the image of man as a machine. I was saying maybe the image of a machine can hardly be held even in quite that way.

D. Well, that's very interesting. I had been reading the poem completely differently. What baffled me was that I had been reading the engine as an image of the mind, the way the mind works, and the mind really doesn't work well. It works, but it's a blundering machine, the "flywheel blundering/Against compression," for example. That's why it seemed to me that when there was knowledge and comprehension at the end, which all of your poetry denies, I was a little surprised.

O. Well, shall we imagine, then, just because we can imagine it? It's a rather wistful line. Remember Yeats chained to a dying animal? I'm describing the same thing in different terms. A body, and it may be breaking down; it's just a machine. One is tied to this machine. I mean it's implied all the time in the metaphor there. The motor may have something wrong with it, and if it stops, it becomes rather an exact metaphor of a man dying and of the thing blundering, the cough in the manifold. Almost too good, maybe.

D. Then where does the knowledge and compression come in? That's what I'm interested in.

O. Then it finally stops. The man finally dies, the motor finally stops. Shall one imagine then, shall one? In the case of the motor, obviously, one shall not. I mean one knows it isn't true. In the case of the man, just the question, shall one imagine just because one can imagine? There's no reason to believe it, except that one can, or except that there's this impulse to believe. That's really what I meant to say. Even in the case of a motor there's this impulse to feel that. It's difficult to believe in death. I'm just saying that. I didn't try to settle the question. I wouldn't dream of trying to settle the question. If asked the direct question, does one live after death? I would say, I don't know.

D. That's what I didn't understand. It's the knowledge and comprehension of death, not the meaning of life?

O. No, is there a soul which exists, is there a mind which exists, as knowledge, as comprehension? I'm describing the Christian view which suddenly achieves knowledge, comprehension.

D. A soul, a spirit?

O. A spirit that sees eternity, that sees infinity, that knows. The direct question I wouldn't try to answer, except as against occult stories. I would say the evidence is preponderantly that, on the event of death, changes do take place. I doubt very much if people find jewels for their relatives and so on, which seems an inadequate change. But the other question I just wasn't trying to answer.

D. The poem is so simple yet so elusive, I didn't really quite know what to make of it.

O. I suppose I was tempted by a conceit there. . . . And I'm not sure that, if someone asked me, I would say I wasn't clear of conceits or allegories. But the roots of a tree as compared to a child, the metaphor, the conceit just worked out in my mind so compellingly in this motor, I'm really doing a little injustice to myself there. The motor really is the same experience as this experience. I used it for that, not for the cleverness of the conceit.