left me a little uneasy, for example the major sequence that opens Of Being Numerous, which contains some absolute gems, pearls, but its being a sequence of 40 short pieces stretching over 25 pages rather suggests you should be able to see the connections at once (and the notes, and Oppen’s own comments, don’t always help towards this) and you can feel a little inadequate, and so much “modern poetry” does this to you –

but there’s some cracking stuff here, so let me tell you now: don’t be put off. Get this:

It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President. 
A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.

“An event as ordinary as a President.” Wow!

But after all this, I’ve forgotten to mention the warmth. And I don’t get it from every poem but I get it lots, and the only way I can describe what I mean is to quote another poem entire, which to me sums up the humanity that is in Oppen’s best poems, and probably in all of them, but I’m still getting to know him. This is “The Men of Sheepshead”. One could go on about the knowledge and empathy in this poem, the calm assurance of it, or how the world is these things, the mauls, the piers, the tenons, the rules of thumb and cams and levers. Or you could take another angle and try and find some way of accounting for how “Speaking of things” works, and why it is placed the way it is; or you could write an essay about “self-contained”. Or then again, how the joining, the dovetailing, apparently about wood, could and probably is about people, too. Or you could let the poem speak for itself:

< <<

Eric -- we used to call him Eric --
And Charlie Weber: I knew them well,
Men of another century. And still at Sheepshead
If a man carries pliers
Or maul down these rambling piers he is a man who fetches
Power into the afternoon      
                                    Speaking of things
End-for-end, butted to each other,
Dove-tailed, tenoned, doweled – Who is not at home
Among these men? who make a home
Of half truth, rules of thumb
Of cam and lever and whose docks and piers
Extend into the sea so self-contained.

This review was previously published in The North