Oppen thought of his fourth collection of poems, Of Being Numerous, as poetry written from the perspective of “the language of New York”—an expression of the forces and energies available in a huge city. He described the poems as “intellectual and philosophic,” in contrast to those of his collection that followed, Seascape: Needle’s Eye (1972), which concentrated on the terrain around San Francisco and which he thought of as “atmospheric.” Consequently, the poems in Of Being Numerous tend to be introspective, probing the poet’s responses to various phenomena. The poem that begins, “I cannot even now/ Altogether disengage myself,” characteristically is set in the poet’s mind, the opening “I” and the reinforcing “myself” locating the poem in the realm of immediate consciousness.
Oppen’s meditations here have been triggered by recurring thoughts of his experiences on the battlefields of World War II. Yet the nature of combat, however, is less his subject matter than are his comrades, people he knew only briefly but with the emotional fusion possible under very intense experiences. The most vivid image of the poem follows Oppen’s declaration of his condition of mind, as he recalls men in “emplacements, in mess tents,/ In hospitals and sheds” who “hid in the gullies/ Of blasted roads in a ruined country.”
In the second section of the poem, Oppen considers the philosophic consequences of the action he has recalled. Placing his thoughts in an interrogatory mode to show how he has been permanently shaped by his participation and by his continuing reflection on it, Oppen asks, “How forget that?” and moves into the present. His eye on the streets of the city has led him to group the anonymous crowds into something distant he calls “The People.” His curiosity about individuals prohibits him from distancing himself from humanity, even when he is confronted with a mass of cars moving down “walled avenues.” The crucial issue is that it is the individual whose actions “echo like history,” but the nature of anonymous singularity—only rarely broken by some intense circumstance—places the poet in a position, as the last line states, “in which one cannot speak.” The lack of resolution, the open-ended quality of the conclusion, carries the poem onward into time, its queries unresolved but ever-present.