Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Geoffrey G. Robinson - "Experience in Groups"

I was rather struck recently on reading Geoffrey G. O'Brien's poem "Experience in Groups" in the latest issue of The White Review. I'd previously only come across O'Brien through this exchange with Keston Sutherland some several moons ago. But I'm now very keen to explore his work further; in fact, carelessness - actually not solely mine but also that of an online bookseller - with that central G. means that I'm now awaiting not only work by this poet but also by this poet, who it turns out is also a film critic: by such contingencies discoveries are made!

But to return to the poet with the central 'G.', and the text in question. It has a beautiful balance between obscurity, clarity and urgency (though I actually think it most effective when the urgency is underplayed), with the obscurity never residing in the vocabulary. It contains some beautifully long, self-entangling sentences with graciously strained syntax. It's a poem "about" what the internet has done (is doing) to our interpersonal relationships, the meaning of shared experience, and particularly political action and political art, with particular reference to immigration - and specifically to Jonas Dahlberg's proposed memorial to those murdered on Ut√łya by Anders Behring Breivik - but it is also "about" the first person plural pronoun, which is "worn smooth, / Translucent, picked up and discounted." And because of this, and also because "The problem with pronouns is you / Says more and less than wanted, / Frequently all the time.", the best thing to do is hardly include said pronouns in your poem at all (one "us", one "we", one "ours", by my count).

I like the complaint against "reliance on facial recognition", which both protests against technologies of control and against the idea that a first person plural could only apply to those we know in the flesh. Although an increased reliance on facial recognition would almost certainly be preferable to the distance killing of drone strikes in Pakistan: "Mandi Khel, Ghar Laley". The poem is certainly not a Luddite jeremiad - surely most of its readers will need the internet to discover the significance of the places just named? - despite the observation that before mobile phones "what you were unable to do / Determined how and what you did", because of course "what / We can't do now" also "affects / What we try anyway to accomplish". I also like the assonances and internal rhymes, giving a lyric beauty but sometimes teetering on the edge of parodic excess: "an illness of believing / In something still to come, to be done / By all or none, not any // You could state the case for / Becoming more than one of." And I like the reference to The Big Bang Theory, accomplished with a complete absence of pally down-with-the-kids winking: "undecided whether / It totally will have hasn't happened / Yet."

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