Susan Thackrey
A Radical Practice
Oakland and San Francisco: O Books and The Poetry Center, 2001

Helene Cixous suggests that "[t]he border makes up the homeland. It prohibits and gives passage at the same stroke." Aspects of this description are analogous to poetic criticism which investigates a particular poetry's "homeland," in part, through an attempt to clarify the parameters, the borders, of that territory. Whether it is a territory that is foreign to the reader, or as familiar as the much-traveled oeuvre of the poet George Oppen, there is the temptation for the critic to attempt to be unequivocal regarding the work’s meaning and value, but at best this succeeds in only unilaterally delineating its borders. Such practice, which easily devolves into an authority-hungry catechizing, unfortunately, only diminishes an appreciation for the potential expanse of any poetry's "homeland."

However, the most astute poetic criticism illuminates an essential aspect of Cixous's point: that to understand a homeland is not only to attend to its border's prohibitions but also to its free-passages. Thus, to investigate a body of work is to attend not only to the epistemological and ontological arrests, but also to the openings and arrivals which are also constantly occurring at each juncture of the meeting of homeland with otherness. Certainly a poetry as infused with the mercurial perception of appearance, and mercurial appearance of perception, as that of George Oppen's, deserves all the investigative attention to border-flux that Susan Thackrey brings to her Oppen Memorial Lecture, "A Radical Practice," which O Books and The Poetry Center have generously turned into text.

In keeping with Oppen's practice to "simply refus[e] a poetics that was based anywhere other than in this present experience" (11), Thackrey includes in her introduction a direct address to the listening/reading audience, asking that we reflect upon our own experience of moments "when habitual ways of being suddenly disappear" (9). Invoking and involving our presence as audience is only the first of many ways in which Thackrey engages with Oppen's essential view that both the definitions of "to appear", "to seem" and "to suddenly arrive", are constantly at play in an understanding of "appearance" in all of its immediacy and arduous uncertainty. And, as the lecture/text moves from the early poems to the late, Thackrey demonstrates that Oppen's "adherence to actualness" leads him to become only more steadfast in his appreciation that "mind and world always arise together" (56); the poetic act always involves both, and always of necessity presses beyond the borders of preordained expectation, our "network of rigidly defined perceptions" (19). It is an "aris[ing] together" that in fact abjures abstract demarcations or generalities of any sort, including the division between perceived and perceiver. Thackrey explains that, for Oppen, "the literal actuality of the moment of perception and experience does not operate on a perceiver -- that division disappears" (10).

Thackrey uses Oppen's poems and excerpts from his letters to give us both guide to and gauge of the generating effects of this ongoing practice, including its relationship to Oppen's views on symbolism, surrealism, impressionism. She offers much thoughtful scholarship regarding criticism of Oppen's work, as well as regarding his affinity with some of Heidegger's views, particularly that "truth is no longer defined as the congruence of a concept and a thing but as the ongoing disclosure of 'beings' (or 'things' or 'entities', depending upon the translation.)" (33). And she gives particular attention to Oppen's practice in relation to his burgeoning fear of both a "technologically determined world" and a nuclear chain-reaction where "world disappears into mind or mind disappears into world" (43).

We follow from the very early poems where "perception refer[s] to purely sensory perception of an outside, objectifiable world" (20) through Oppen's kinship with the Objectivist perspective of image in which "consciousness and appearance move together. Not a reflection, an action" (39). But Thackrey clarifies Oppen's additional emphasis that "the image is empirically true -- it is really experienced" (56). At once rooted in the actual and vigorously nonconforming, such "experienced" "action" is everywhere implicit in Thackrey's reading of Oppen, and is explicitly emphasized in the title of her text: A Radical Practice. Though, in the title, "practice" operates as a noun, Thackrey's focus upon the act shows her intention to attend exclusively neither to the poems as finished, completed presences, nor to the poet as biographic subject. Rather, Thackrey attempts to re-animate the verb of the work itself, as it occurred, in its actively changing development, and in its current ongoingness, as we might find it appearing to us, and as she found it, and continues to find it.

Thackrey infuses her discussion of Oppen's poems with a sense of the risk and rigor of a poetic practice that demands an "adherence to actualness" when that actualness is understood as "without the certainty, the anchor of completed presence" (36). In so doing, she invites her readers to enter Oppen's poems with a similar willingness to abjure our previous perceptual limitations, whether we imagine them as preset borders or unyielding anchors of belief. In her close reading of Oppen's poems, this critic offers not only a multiplicity of meanings with the exactitude that one would expect, given her intimate contact with the work and her own prowess as a fine poet -- she also articulates the danger of taking close reading analysis as an end, reminding us that any attempt to set distinct and limiting borders around the work is in fact contrary to Oppen's practice and to his intent because "the reverberations of meaning and syntax are supposed to stay active" (61).

At the close of her introduction, Thackrey proposes that Oppen's "refusal of a poetics" based upon personal symbolism, upon intellectual abstractions, "based anywhere other than present experience" has given us "a poetry and a poetics that can be radically trusted." Her choice of adverb suggests not only that this work is unusually trustworthy, beyond what most work can sustain. It also suggests that, in reading Oppen's work, the way in which we trust can change, perhaps must change. We can engage in the 'activity of trust' "radically"; we can find our means and method of trust outside our usual or customary parameters for the act. But another definition of radical also applies: that this trust can 'arise from or go to the root/source'. Thackrey's proposal is both wise and wisely in keeping with Oppen's own poetics: that, through our reading of this work, we can find anew a "radical" form of trust, which is both a departure from what is for us familiar, and a return to what can be for us a root/source. A finer way of reading poetry, I can't imagine.

-- Rusty Morrison