Green and Gray (Magill's Literary Annual 2008)
As part of the New California Poetry series, Green and Gray adds to the remarkable variety that has exemplified the series since its inception in 2000. While there were no volumes in the series published in 2001, in every other year since 2000 the series has published three collections each year. Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s first collection, The Guns and Flags Project, was published in 2002. This volume also was part of the New California Poetry series, which is run under the editorship of Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient, Brenda Hillman, and Forrest Gander. In addition to Green and Gray, the other two volumes published in the series during 2007 are Steve Willard’s Harm and Ron Silliman’s The Age of Huts (Compleat). Over the years, the series has published such noteworthy poets as Fanny Howe, Mark Levine, Carol Snow, and Harryette Mullen. Each in their own way, these poets have proven themselves to be fresh and stimulating poetic voices for the twenty-first century. It is high praise indeed to be included in such a select group of bold poets and, therefore, the reader should approach O’Brien’s new collection with anticipation.
O’Brien gained recognition for his meditative first collection. For this volume, he was compared to such American poetic giants as Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. While the poems of The Guns and Flags Project are dense creations in the tradition of the Language poets, they are richly rewarding for the patient and careful reader. The collection was considered fresh and brilliant by most contemporary critics, but it was also spoken of by more traditional critics and readers of poetry as being no more than mere fuzzy gibberish. O’Brien has been widely published in such respected poetry outlets as The American Poetry Review, The Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, River City Review, and The Iowa Review. There is a restless quality to many of his poems. For Green and Gray, the poet has continued to conjure up challenging poems that can be described as everyday images having been plucked from sources that can be found right under everyone’s proverbial noses.
O’Brien opens the collection with the poem “Some Versions Of,” made up of seventeen three-line stanzas (kown as tercets). The opening stanza states, “There is no reason a poem would begin/ with reference to the territory/ with refrains to be used by all sides.” With this intriguing beginning, O’Brien commences to unravel common everyday associations; the presumed logic is turned upside down. One stanza blends into the next as with “Invincible a shining example/ of immediate environs of damage and/ its image there is no reason a poem// Would begin the woods are white and black/ green leaves blue at certain hours or/ the woods differed a poem beginning.” Things that may be normally taken for granted must be reevaluated. O’Brien points to what someone may assume exists and what is truly therethese are quite possibly at odds. Nothing is all white or all black or all anything but rather many things rolled into one. The poem ends with “Would be gone by not having come/ would come to be used by all sides/ would begin with reference to refrains.” Poems serve as a version of the world, a version that has been chosen by the poet. The question can be asked whether there is a truly good reason for a poem to take one direction over another. Humans by their very nature distort the world around them. O’Brien employs a conversational style in his poems as he describes the absurdity that exists at every turn.
There is a dark humor that permeates Green and Gray. As a poet, O’Brien understands the difficulty of describing even a version of the world that has the ring of authenticity. The world can be looked at as an onion having an endless number of layers, which have been further distorted by the way humans live. While there is an inherent pessimism in this view of the world, O’Brien cannot be described as a pessimist. He has not given up on the building of poems, the building of alternate angles on reality....
(The entire section is 1699 words.)
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