To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Norman Finkelstein: “Oppen at Altamont”

From N. Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems, Dos Madres Press, 2016

Thrownness he calls it
And indeed “everyone
turned very sharply
into himself or herself.
Kind of a masturbatory

And the music—
something we had never
heard before though surely
it had been heard before
long ago   the songs…
are no one’s own

                                                                                    Not his, surely not
                                                                                    his.  In red and black
                                                                                    this medieval prince,
                                                                                    troubador of darkness,
                                                                                    self-appointed but
                                                                                    delegated—allow me
                                                                                    to introduce him as he
                                                                                    introduced himself

                                                Easy as
                                                pie?  No!
                                                because it
                                                is witnessed
                                                we witness
                                                ourselves as
                                                he witnesses
                                                himself there
                                                in the cutting

obscured by their long hair they seem
to be mourning
But this is not prophecy
on the massive spike the song

A spike not
a knife though one
may lead inevitably
to the other

                                                                 For one sees it in their eyes,
                                                                 their homely faces
                                                                 The girl cannot stop weeping
                                                                 and the boy in the cap
                                                                 looks up at him shaking his head
                                                                 knowing that something has gone
                                                                               terribly wrong
                                         But to what degree
                                         does one withdraw from the stage?
                                         Oppen cancels his reading tour—
                                         “woke up one night in the absolute certainty
                                         that I could not do it…
                                         cannot, cannot, perhaps particularly
                                         with the expansion of voice in Numerous
                                         I cannot make a Chatauqua of it,
                                         cannot put myself so thoroughly INTO it,
                                         like a Ginsberg.”

                                         Who appears innocuous
                                         however unleashing
                                         energies comparable
                                         to what we see
                                         on the screen

                                         Who once invited
                                         the Angels to
                                         a Dylan concert, calling
                                         them “our outlaw
                                         brothers of the

                                                                             The roiling mass
                                                                             and the naked woman
                                                                             cannot be otherwise
                                                                             than a Bacchante
                                                                             her rounded flesh lifted
                                                                             up and set back into
                                                                             the crowd by the Angels
                                                                             whose chief looks on
                                                                             at Jagger singing—
                                                                             products and producers
                                                                             of such powers

While the meditative man
confirms his failure
his victory in retreat
to “honorably keep
His distance
If he can.”

The populist caught
between the Old and New
past and present

The crowd, the “people”
organized by a vanguard
or newly individuated
always at risk
as power is unleashed

                                                                             Jagger helpless onstage:
                                                                             “If we are one
                                                                             let’s show
                                                                             we’re all one”

                                       What, what,
                                       we asked each other
                                       on the way to the museum,
                                       were they doing there?
                                       “It was necessary to park                                                                             
                                       one’s car and walk a mile.
                                       Nobody looked at my wife and me”
                                       Yet how odd they must have seemed
                                       to any of the festive youth
                                       unstoned and thoughtful
                                       there among “the irrigation
                                       canals   walking under the high-
                                       tension wires over the brown hills

                                                                       And Charlie Watts,
                                                                       backbone of the band,
                                                                       stares out in reverie,
                                                                       murmuring of the way
                                                                       the Angels cleared the path
                                                                       to the stage

                                                                       Only much later
                                                                       are we shown
                                                                       the biblical painting
                                                                       the crowd parting
                                                                       as the bikes roar through

                                                                       In the computer’s freeze-frame
                                                                       it seems like Oppen’s
                                                                       migratory vision
                                                                       “the wounds untended
                                                                       and the voices confused”
                                                                       turned to nightmare

                                                At the press conference in
                                                some uncharted space
                                                between naiveté and cynicism
                                                Jagger speaks of “a sort
                                                of microcosmic society
                                                which sets an example to
                                                the rest of America
                                                as to how one can behave
                                                in large gatherings.”

                                                 Yet for Oppen too
                                                “The Students Gather”:
                                                “I too agree
                                                We are able to live
                                                Only because some things have been said”

                                                But who would not hesitate
                                                to speak
                                                knowing all
                                                speech may be corrupted?

                                                To identify death
                                                with a kind of ecstasy
                                                so that the crowd
                                                takes over in a darkness
                                                closely akin to joy

                                                Words lost
                                                in what he knew to be
                                                an endangered, dangerous

                                                Not “the shuffling of a crowd”
                                                nor the ball game’s argument
                                                not even Williams’ crowd
                                                seen as “beautiful,” “venomous”
                                                “deadly, terrifying”

“I know, of course I know, I can enter no other place”


The space of possibility
is always limited:
the past is
because it has been
insofar as we
have been thrown
insofar as we
are fallen
insofar as we
may project ourselves

                                    Always at some point
                                    they are running
                                    from or toward
                                    the helicopters

                                                                                    The Stones and
                                                                                    their entourage
                                                                                    lifted up and away
                                                                                    from disaster

                                    Or the fall of Saigon
                                    reenacted endlessly
                                    in a musical

                                                                                    Troopers playing
                                                                                    the same old songs

Oppen feels the wind
blowing through the century
The Collected Poems arrives—
the Angel of History in a cardigan
at the end of the continent
dissolving into language

                                    And that sickening acceleration
                                    that no poem may stop

                                                                   No arbitrary freeze-frame
                                                                   neither the Maysles nor mine
                                                                   can prevent this passage

                                                                   Poised to leave
                                                                   Jagger stares out at us forever

                                                                   Let him go

                                                                   The storm kicks up
                                                                   the credits roll

                                                                   We almost expect to see them
                                                                   walking back toward the car

 A note on “Oppen at Altamont”: George and Mary Oppen attended the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont on December 6, 1969; Oppen later wrote about the experience in his sequence Some San Francisco Poems. My poem quotes from the first poem in that sequence, as well as from the poems “Of Being Numerous” and “The Students Gather,” from Oppen’s interview with David Gitin in Ironwood 5, and from his letter to Charles Tomlinson (Oct. 1969) in the Selected Letters. I also draw on images and lines of dialogue from Gimme Shelter (1970), the Maysles Brothers documentary of the Rolling Stones tour that culminated with the Altamont concert. Additionally, the poem alludes to Heidegger’s philosophy (Oppen read Heidegger closely), specifically his notion of “thrownness.” The poem first appeared in Smartish Pace 16 (April 2009).

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