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

Ending.

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

Foundered.

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."

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Title Burton Hatlen: On "Image of the Engine" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Burton Hatlen Criticism Target George Oppen
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 25 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication George Oppen: Man and Poet
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