What does it mean to be caught in a system of repetitions, and how can such a system create space for the possibility of change? This is one of the issues at stake in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s newest book of poetry, People on Sunday, which takes its name from a 1930 Curt and Robert Siodmak silent film about a group of Berliner “non-actors” cavorting on their day off. O’Brien has taken the premise of the film, which is partially a study in the ways in which our attempts to produce human connections are inevitably cut short by the work-driven processes that dictate modern lives, and drawn out its themes as the scaffolding of his poems. Sunday is re-cast from the traditional day of rest into a thinly-veiled extension of the capitalist workweek—a controlled illusion of repose so that the clock can be reset back to Monday. What is typically seen as a momentary break from the cycle of work is revealed to be equally mediated by the strictures of the other six days of the week by dint of its sheer existence within a system of time that does not permit Sunday to be anything else but.
Alongside this concept of cyclical inescapability is the counter-project to re-think a stagnant history by turning cycles and repetitions into processes that continually produce opportunities for change. It’s a form for O’Brien to reflect on the various economic and political upheavals of the past two years—in Berkeley and Oakland, on Wall Street, across Europe, in Egypt—whose aftermaths have not always managed to produce the wide-scale changes, or even lingering effects, that their participants originally hoped for. Amidst the general argument that the Occupy movement “failed,” O’Brien has written a book that takes for its subject the notion of opportunity passed over, which threatens to become not just a single missed instance but opportunity that will be continually passed over—a permanent dream deferred. In these moments, we really feel the claustrophobia of cycles—not just the temporal cycle of the daily 9-5 grind, but a historical cycle of futile political repetitions.
But rather than submitting to hopelessness, the book instead points to the danger of complacency with that hopelessness and the danger of the belief that, in their insularity, the cycles of history have already set their own immutable ending. O’Brien’s post-Occupy present is not pessimistic; instead, the recursive nature of things becomes a form that permits continual ends and beginnings, and thus continually produces new opportunities for change. Crucially, it’s not “beginnings and ends,” which, by placing the end at the end, creates, well, an end. It is instead a regenerative work, in which repetitions become iterations and thus move forward rather than lapsing into stagnation. It at first might seem paradoxical to talk about cycles and definitive ends simultaneously, but the idea here is that by remaining closed off, the cycle has produced its own “end” even as it continually repeats—in the same way that the workweek does not permit the possibility of any sort of leisure except leisure as it is dictated on Sunday, which is itself a component of the workweek. O’Brien thus sets about finding ways to break into this cycle through the very structure of People on Sunday, in search of a conduit permitting the possibility of change amidst the unstoppable force of time and its repetitions (days, seasons, revolutions).
Just as crucial to this idea of cycles is an insistence on immediacy, on words like “here” and “now” that point to not just specific spatial and temporal points, but the ones that are purportedly the most relevant to us. But it is a complex set of “here’s” and “now’s” that do not seem to be at all limited to “here” and “now.” The persistent use of these terms instead reveals the reproducibility and repetition of such ostensibly imminent and fleeting moments. The poem “People on Sunday (1930),” for instance, begins
Now they really are involved, drinking
Coffee with the elms behind them. […]
This “now” compels us to imagine an anterior moment, when the subjects where comparatively less involved than they currently are. It asks that we step into the temporal logic of the poem that is creating this history of drinking coffee. But “now” is also a set moment in history, the contextual 1930’s Berlin of the Siodmak film. This latter “now” draws attention to the fact that it is not now at all; it has lost its meaning except as a recalled context. At the same time, there is the “now” of the point in the film in which the event described happens, a “now” that can be re-played again and again. This leads to the “now” of the speaker, whose “now” refers to the moment of viewing and composition; O’Brien has said that he wrote the poem in real time while watching the film, so “now” for the poem’s speaker points to a palpable overlay of the film’s time and the poem’s time.
This word thus presents us with a slew of imminences, each with more or less abstract referents, none of them truly referential to our own “now” except through the connection that the word itself connotes to whatever “now” we may be currently experiencing. Yet we tend to conceive of “now” along the lines of Augustine, as a diminishing dot wedged between what has passed and what is about to happen. In other words, “now” is something that, when we talk about it, usually is already over, even as the very utterance of “now” asks us to create a temporal space in which action can happen. This is where the idea of recurrence comes in. What are the implications of having multiple presents that endure beyond their allotted “presents” via repetition?
Permanence and ephemerality collide throughout People on Sunday. One of the ways in which O’Brien works through this relation is through the salvaging power of art. In “D’Haussonville,” O’Brien describes Ingres’s painting as bestowing the promise of the continual renewal of its subject, along the lines of Keats’s Grecian Urn:
[…] It is 1845
Forever when the painting is completed
Though she herself is no longer
twenty-four or anatomically
Incorrect as he has made her.
Time becomes subject to not the procession of days and years, but to the work itself. This is the latent power of O’Brien’s poetic present: it can recall not just 1845, but all 1845’s, evoking not just a particular moment in time but the series of moments that the work has given rise to. The same logic is applied to Strauss’s music in the book’s opening poem, “Four Last Songs”:
And there are many versions
Of Four Last Songs and of this one,
As many as there are people
Who’ve made and played them.
Repetition here is key for the work’s endurance, and the “many versions” of Four Last Songs points to the fact that even art is not temporally isolated but exists as a series of “now’s” in which it is viewed, played, re-played, and heard. Art, then, like time, is not something that happened, but something that happens.
But it is difficult to extricate the present from the past. “Now” might be a call to action for the sake of what is to be experienced, but as we have seen, the call to “now” is often already too late. In People on Sunday, there appears a sense that “now” is irrevocably over, never to return—pointing again to the slippery, ungraspable, evanescent nature of the present and thus the palpable futility of such utterances. In the poem “Tales of Unrest” O’Brien evokes the defeatist attitudes surrounding Occupy through the idea of a missed moment of communality:
Declaring it’s over and you
Didn’t do enough if
You is I […]
These lines point to a present that is defined by the failure of its past, the aftermath of what is definitively “over.” It’s a marked departure from the permanence promised via repetition. We get the sense not just of finality, but of having approached and then receded from a point where things could have been different, as appears in “People on Sunday (1930)”:
[…] She almost got lost
And that is almost crucial […]
“Almost” here is tantamount to “didn’t happen,” but with the frustrating knowledge that things were painfully close to happening. The same sentiment appears in “Entheogen,” which talks about the idea of paradise as “the plan for imagining/ A future of returns”:
Sort of like how I nearly came to your thing
How I should have come
And you should have had it in Oakland.
We can imagine the alternative turn of events offered up by these lines, but we also feel the slippage of these missed moments against the reality of what did happen. The past, while unalterable, is also inherently a field of missed potentials fraught with regret.
But it is in this realm of missed potentials, of what could have happened, that the language of a better future becomes possible. In his essay “On Lyric Poetry and Society” Theodor Adorno comments on two verses from Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Night Song,” about the moment before falling asleep: “Only wait, soon/ you too shall rest.” Adorno says of these verses that “The note of peacefulness attests to the fact that peace cannot be achieved without the dream disintegrating.” Adorno is speaking of a lyrical subject that has distanced himself from the rest of society in order to express “the dream of a world in which things would be different,” thereby giving back to society that very dream of itself.
Not only does O’Brien do something very similar in the way that he continually invites us into new “nows” that may or may not lead to anything (but could), but he also uses the recurring metaphor of falling asleep to symbolize the idea of an end. This imagery first appears in “Four Last Songs.” Before turning to O’Brien’s poem, though, it is worth pointing to a stanza of “Beim Schlafengehen,” or “Going to Sleep,” the third “Last Song” (written by Hermann Hesse) and the one O’Brien refers to in his poem. It translates:
Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.
This sounds a lot like what we would expect of Sunday, but it is not the Sunday that we get in O’Brien’s book. It is not the Sunday we get in the Siodmak film either, with the exception of one young woman who literally spends all of Sunday asleep in bed while her lover goes to the beach with some friends. O’Brien depicts her in “People on Sunday (1930)”:
That and whether she’s even gotten out
Of bed or whether her shoes are still
By spending her day off sleeping in, the woman in the film seems to enact an arguably more genuine Sunday than her fellow non-actors, while at the same time she has left her position of existence and agency (the shoes she should fill) empty. As Adorno crucially points out, Goethe’s poem is not about sleep itself but “the brief moment before one falls asleep.” So too is “Beim Schlafengehen”; the true pleasure is in the anticipation of sleep rather than in sleep. It is an imaginative act that gives rise to the language. In the lines above, the abrupt enjambment landing on the word “Unoccupied” recalls a moment when physical bodies stood in the way of economic injustice and institutionalized violence, and bluntly implies that such a moment has long vanished. It is a lament that instead of envisioning a better future, we have since fallen asleep. In a way, the automatic, sedating nature of Sunday has taken us over.
“Now,” then, must be something like a hyperbola, a process of anticipation that never quite finishes in the way that the present does. Adorno’s analysis of Goethe and how language must remain in a moment prior to the one it is anticipating resonates with O’Brien’s notion of repetition in “Four Last Songs”:
Pluralized because going to sleep
Keeps redoing the translation
Without fully having done […]
Lastness here, then, is not really last at all; the ability to play and re-play (or do and re-do) means that we are able to imagine, contemplate, and intervene without going to sleep ourselves.
In contrast, just as the experience of listening to Strauss’s song about sleep (and death, since death is the final sleep) produces a series of non-final endings at the beginning of People on Sunday, the collection is bracketed at the end with “The Flagstad Recording,” which refers to soprano Kirsten Flagstad’s premiering of Four Last Songs in 1950. It thus denotes an isolated, singular performance in the history of “many versions” of Strauss’s arrangement, but by placing the premier at the end of his collection, O’Brien revitalizes the cycle of playing and re-playing just at the moment when language has threatened to cease:
[…] the world
Premier of an anticipation
Of an accompaniment that isn’t
Paraphrase so much as the last
Chance at exhausted debut.
There are, therefore, many “last chances” to resuscitate many exhausted debuts (even if those debuts are themselves about endings), just as there are many “now’s” even after other ones have passed. This seems to be a model for a political praxis: what was the start of a movement should not cease to start and re-start. The figurative end of the weekend and the beginning of the workweek need not be something we approach with a lackadaisical satisfaction (the satisfaction that actions don’t make a difference or have an impact); instead, such moments draw out the temporal possibility of constantly refreshing and making anew, in the hope that we can maintain the constant opportunity offered by “now.” That is the only way to move forward and that what is to be gained, which is what O’Brien is getting at when he says “If you want to live again/ Put the prefix where the suffix goes.”