In People on Sunday, poet and Professor Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s most recent collection of poems, society’s role in formally structuring the time and space of our lived experience is subjected to critical analysis. Principally, O’Brien investigates how the form and function of our material environments—office and home—demarcate our lives into the fixed categories—work and leisure—of society’s symbolic order. Though People on Sunday is resolutely within the poetic tradition, its meanings at times feel closer to those of Weber or Durkheim. In it, O’Brien investigates the ties that bind us to our inherited world and the possibilities art, among other conceptual spaces, offers for transcendence.
O’Brien’s work dissects the means by which Time has been enlisted in the project of fragmenting and segmenting our lives into the abstract dichotomies of work and leisure. Work is, well, work. Leisure is traditionally presented as a time of self-actualization, but is too often one of the cessation of anxiety, ambition, productivity. Our weekend “self-indulgence” is in this reading a bas-relief set against our weekday work, the weekend serving as a time when workers refresh the vitality they’ll need for the labor of the upcoming week. Space, too, is examined in its function of staging the dramas of work and leisure. Consider the ways in which the various public and private spaces we inhabit (the apartment, the office, the bar, the place of worship) immerse us in the roles we enact.
O’Brien’s verse is active, urgent. His poems move at the speed of perception, arriving on the page before their thoughts can fully calcify—the turns in his poems trace out the seemingly indeterminate trajectories of lived experience, one-dimensional curves that wander about but reveal no higher structure. We see in it the process by which the symbols of a space begin to form an order, the process by which thought alters under the pressure of a given environment’s conditions.
In an early poem, “D’Haussonville,” O’Brien’s text follows his eye as it scans Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville:
And the body offered for inspection/ Tries to master this overlit house/ By pointing up specific parts/ One hand at the neck pulse while/ The other wraps or reprises the waist. None of which should be visible/ In the mirror but is, nor should/ Flowers grow up out of the dark/ Of the back but they do, for centuries/ Now without getting any larger./ It doesn’t help that the right arm around/ Her waist seems to grow from her torso… that the left arm’s elbow drives/ Up from the resting hand / Intent on ending in a hand of its own… by indicating it exists in space.
In encountering the portrait of the “Comtesse D’Haussonville,” O’Brien explores a different kind of space—that of the painting—which, like any space in the cityscape that O’Brien might critique, plays with the juxtaposition of symbols to affect the thoughts and feelings of its viewer. Consider the creative freedom this conceptual space privileges O’Brien himself: in his rendition of the scrawl of Ingres’ monadic brushstrokes, which closely follows the emerging conveyance of the portrait’s human form and even its less explicable expressions, in his transcription of the portrait of the Comtesse into the concept, form and language of his poem, O’Brien’s mastery is made evident. As the poem analyzes and performs the movement of those details, O’Brien’s poem is simultaneously a mirror of Ingres’ painting as well as a process of perception itself. O’Brien’s poem interprets the painting in an impressed upon voice, which in its leaps of connection line to line—searching and epiphanic—evoke the intuitive, wandering thought of internal dialogue. We can hear O’Brien thinking to himself as he attempts to uncover higher structures of meaning teased by the painting’s most suggestive gestures, calling our attention to the formative feeling of an initial experience, an unexpected encounter. The ambiguity of Ingres’ brushstrokes and composition invites O’Brien to engage its world with the idiosyncrasies of his own attention. His skillful reading narrows its expansive surface into a specific field of interpretive meaning, and yet never presumes to lay claim to the essential experience of the portrait. Nor does the portrait presume to determine the reality of O’Brien’s encounter. What is glimpsed in the painting opens up more flexibly, allowing us greater creative vantages than those permitted by our rigid, everyday surroundings and routines.
People on Sunday does suggest there may be a degree of freedom inherent in our perception, a potentiality inherent in the act of observation to transcend the conditioning structures of work and recreation. O’Brien is interested in spaces that put us in a position to perform a creative role within a space, whether they be in the fleet verse of a poem or the Neo-Classical precision of a painting. In his treatment of these spaces, O’Brien’s concern is with, not the interpretation as result, but rather the interpretation as process, the activity of the symbolic encounter, and the essential interpretability of any such phenomenological event. In the book’s telling, a work of art can be, as a place of work or house of worship cannot be, a symbolic structure purely unto itself. The painting invites us to control its structure of meaning through the act of interpretation. Its symbols are open. Any encounter with such an ambiguous object provokes us to problem solve the enigmas of its form, its intentions, its style. It both affects us and calls us to our own attention. It displays us to ourselves. This analysis, in the broad assortment of subject matter treated in this collection, reaches O’Brien’s analysis outwards to question how we might encounter the world of lived experience — the office, the work week, the sporting event — with a comparable consciousness of their symbolic activity and interpretability.
One might suspect that People on Sunday reads like traditional critical theory, which couldn’t be further from the truth. O’Brien is a master of verse who deploys imagery to map prismatic meanings into finely wrought events. In “From Honey to Ashes,” we read:
a painting/Of the burning of a book whose content is/Disputed: colors, lights, fragments… Distances…Grant the fading premises in every sense.
In this montage of images, “a painting of a burning book whose content is disputed” is broken into the particulate colors and lights of its appearance. Here, the stanza’s enjambment and barrage of imagery mirrors the withering movement of immolation; the multitudes of concepts in the image of a burning book are broken down into their material components. The book’s infinitive “burning” creates a sense of time in which the line is overtaken by the urgency of its subject’s conflagration. This urgency is exacerbated in the rapid shifts of conceptual register—we move from “painting” to “book” to “fragments.” Meaning viscerally courses through these lines. There is an intense negotiation between the literal and the figurative. No material can sustain the premise of its materiality. As admixtures of colors and lights signal fire, as fire and paper form an archetype of censorship, their material emerges into a new conceptual space. The conceptual spaces within which O’Brien’s poems operate are this vast—the spectacle we view is the deconstruction of these media themselves, and perhaps of our own readings.
People on Sunday considers the general act of observation, but, as a collection of poems, it also investigates the artist’s manipulation of space and time. It illustrates, in the subjects it treats and in its own formal treatment, the dual nature of perception and artistic creation: the ways in which form can be simultaneously coercive and liberating. Industry has created a rigorously designed language and landscape that strives to determine our movement through this deluge. People on Sunday insists that the perceptivity, receptivity, and conceptual generativity demanded by creative spaces permit us means by which to transcend this existential and phenomenological thralldom.
About the reviewer:
James Eidson’s work has appeared in Sixth Finch, H_NGM_N, Forklift Ohio, Ampersand Review, Whiskey Island, and others. His reviews have appeared in MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Word Riot, and others. He is an associate editor for Ghost Proposal and lives in Chicago.