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Because the Known and the Unknown Touch | A Reading of Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” In the lines from “Route” that have taken on the aura of defining his essential poetic attitude, Oppen wrote: Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful thing in the world, A limited, limiting clarity I have not and never did have any motive of poetry But to achieve clarity. (193) When one considers Oppen’s beginnings as a poet, however, these lines are especially ironic; for what is remarkable about the poems in Discrete Series is certainly not their clarity per se but, on the contrary, their opacity : the way in which they register perceptual moments that point to our inability to comprehend the world. If the poems in Discrete Series clarify anything, if they are clear about anything, surely it is that not very much is clear. Taken as a whole, they testify to the impenetrability of matter and the material world. Their mode is imagistic and disjunctive; they make no use of propositional statements or philosophical generalizations. They do not, for example, assert, as Oppen will in fact do in “Of Being Numerous ,” that “the world, if it is matter, / Is impenetrable” (164); they merely present this state of affairs. Everything is broken down into its component parts as in a Cubist painting, and there is no attempt at synthesis or at establishing a bridge between the perceptions being registered and the conceptual world of shared human meaning. chapter two because the know n and the u nknow n touch 36 Consider the following lines from Discrete Series as an example: No interval of manner Your body in the sun. You? A solid, this that the dress insisted, Your face unaccented, your mouth a mouth? (28) The woman is not even a woman, let alone a specific person, but rather a “solid,” and this is known only because her dress, in covering her, insists upon the fact. Everything is defamiliarized and estranged, not just the perceptions being registered but the language registering them (“your mouth a mouth?”). The perceptions have become unmoored from a human world of shared values and conventions, and so we are left with questions about the simplest things. Ironically, the lines that immediately precede the statement on clarity in “Route” are drawn from a passage that concludes the same poem from Discrete Series that we have been discussing. In “Route” the lines are as follows: Your elbow on a car-edge Incognito as summer, I wrote. Not you but a girl At least (192–93) And in Discrete Series they read: Pointedly bent, your elbow on a car-edge Incognito as summer Among mechanics. (28) In both poems, the image of the elbow on the car-edge is sharply delineated , but in itself it is unconnected to anything of larger significance. In “Route,” the image is contextualized and made to exemplify the “limited , limiting clarity” of the credo that will then follow; in Discrete Series, however, the image is merely an isolated perception in a world in which there is only “matter in motion” and in which everyone and everything is therefore incognito—that is, without identity. The mechanics at the end of the poem from Discrete Series (and mechanics figure in many Oppen poems) represent the single intrusion of because the know n and the u nknow n touch 37 what one might call symbolism. The world of Discrete Series is a deterministic , mechanistic world, a world in which all causation is hidden. A “discrete series,” Oppen explained to Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1965, is one in which “each term is empirically justified rather than derived from the preceding term”; the example he gave was the numbers of the stops on one of the subway lines in New York City.1 Through experience one can connect the dots (i.e., one remembers which is the next stop), but not through any sort of a priori theory. Given its significance as the title of the sequence, the notion of a discrete series is indicative of a perspective on reality that is consistent with the skepticism of David Hume, who, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, writes: “Beyond the constant conjunction of similar objects, and the consequent inference from one to the other, we have no notion of any necessity, or connexion.”2 Skepticism remains an abiding thread in Oppen’s work, and images of a universe that operates according to “blind” deterministic and mechanistic principles will continue to...


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