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On "Image of the Engine"


George Oppen
from "Oppen on His Poems," An Interview with L.S. Dembo

D. The "Image of the Engine" seemed to me to be a very charming poem, the first section in any case. "Likely as not a ruined head gasket/Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft." And you talk about the operation of this creaky engine, and then you conclude, quite spectacularly, "There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,/A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension."

O. The question is the image of man as a machine. That has been said before, but I think the poem works anyway. It's just the image of man as a machine, with a ghost, the ghost in the machine, that's the phrase. It's the image of man as a machine, and it asks the question, Does one believe, then, just because one can believe? Does one believe just because one is almost forced to believe--in the case of the motor too, is my point. I am a fairly passionate mechanic, but I think anyone will experience that. When the motor finally starts, it's different, it's itself, and it's very different from a lump of steel. Some old-timers used to refuse to feel that about a motor. I remember a fisherman who described--when I was a kid--he had finally gone out on a power fishing boat. "Well, she--yeah, it had a motor, I guess, it had a big lump of steel in it somewhere, a big lump of iron in it somewhere." He was consciously refusing to see a motor. Well, I was using that fact to alter a little bit that phrase about the image of man as a machine. I was saying maybe the image of a machine can hardly be held even in quite that way.

D. Well, that's very interesting. I had been reading the poem completely differently. What baffled me was that I had been reading the engine as an image of the mind, the way the mind works, and the mind really doesn't work well. It works, but it's a blundering machine, the "flywheel blundering/Against compression," for example. That's why it seemed to me that when there was knowledge and comprehension at the end, which all of your poetry denies, I was a little surprised.

O. Well, shall we imagine, then, just because we can imagine it? It's a rather wistful line. Remember Yeats chained to a dying animal? I'm describing the same thing in different terms. A body, and it may be breaking down; it's just a machine. One is tied to this machine. I mean it's implied all the time in the metaphor there. The motor may have something wrong with it, and if it stops, it becomes rather an exact metaphor of a man dying and of the thing blundering, the cough in the manifold. Almost too good, maybe.

D. Then where does the knowledge and compression come in? That's what I'm interested in.

O. Then it finally stops. The man finally dies, the motor finally stops. Shall one imagine then, shall one? In the case of the motor, obviously, one shall not. I mean one knows it isn't true. In the case of the man, just the question, shall one imagine just because one can imagine? There's no reason to believe it, except that one can, or except that there's this impulse to believe. That's really what I meant to say. Even in the case of a motor there's this impulse to feel that. It's difficult to believe in death. I'm just saying that. I didn't try to settle the question. I wouldn't dream of trying to settle the question. If asked the direct question, does one live after death? I would say, I don't know.

D. That's what I didn't understand. It's the knowledge and comprehension of death, not the meaning of life?

O. No, is there a soul which exists, is there a mind which exists, as knowledge, as comprehension? I'm describing the Christian view which suddenly achieves knowledge, comprehension.

D. A soul, a spirit?

O. A spirit that sees eternity, that sees infinity, that knows. The direct question I wouldn't try to answer, except as against occult stories. I would say the evidence is preponderantly that, on the event of death, changes do take place. I doubt very much if people find jewels for their relatives and so on, which seems an inadequate change. But the other question I just wasn't trying to answer.

D. The poem is so simple yet so elusive, I didn't really quite know what to make of it.

O. I suppose I was tempted by a conceit there. . . . And I'm not sure that, if someone asked me, I would say I wasn't clear of conceits or allegories. But the roots of a tree as compared to a child, the metaphor, the conceit just worked out in my mind so compellingly in this motor, I'm really doing a little injustice to myself there. The motor really is the same experience as this experience. I used it for that, not for the cleverness of the conceit.

from George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


Ming-Qian Ma

Accordingly, the forward movement implicit in direct seeing is brought to a halt. It is no accident, perhaps, that in Oppen's Collected Poems the frequent use of images of navigation both on land and at sea fails to bring the poet out of his physical and emotional estrangement. For the engine of the poet's transportation is depicted, as in "Image of the Engine," as sick if not dying ("Likely as not a ruined head gasket / Spitting at every power stroke . . . / Is Stopped, with the last slow cough"), marked primarily by "stops" (#1), "mortality" (#2), "ending and foundering" (#3), and "sinking" (#4) (CP 18-20). Hence the image of the poet as a stranded vessel, as he identifies himself in "Confession," in a tone full of pain: "I am an old ship / and leaky" (CP 252).

from "A 'Seeing' Through Refraction: The Rear-View Mirror Image in George Oppen's Collected Poems." SAGETRIEB 10.1-2.


Burton Hatlen

"Image of the Engine" is the longest poem in The Materials. Before the poem is over, the engine of the title will become something rather like a "symbol." But in the first part of the poem Oppen offers us an image of the engine itself.

[. . . .]

The engine here described falls loosely into the category of "tool," insofar as it is an instrument which human beings have created; and tools, as we have already seen, generally have a positive meaning for Oppen. But this particular engine seems to be a tool gone wrong. First, it has no discernible function: at no point in the poem do we learn what kind of engine is here at issue or what purpose it serves. Second, this engine does not, as a proper tool should, mediate between human intentionality and inchoate matter. Rather this engine seems to have decided that it is an end in itself: it is "a machine involved with itself, a concentrated/Hot lump of a machine." Third, this engine is not only self obsessed but also, as words like "frenzy" and "blundering" imply, stupid; and in its stupidity it is knocking itself apart. This self-enclosed machine claims for itself the attributes of a living creature; and we may feel at least a momentary inclination to grant this claim as, watching the engine "die," we imagine something like a "soul" emerging from the machine at the moment of "death." But the syntactic twist in the last lines of this section remind us that any such meanings which we discover in the silence of the engine are projected by us upon the "cooling steel." Only by such an imaginative projection of our own intentionality into the machine can we find in the blind self-destruction of the machine some "spiritual" recompense, some kind "of knowledge and of comprehension." But the syntax of the lines, wavering as they do between the declarative and the interrogative, leave unresolved the question of in what way (if any) our imaginings are "true."

In Part Two we immediately learn the "meaning" of the engine:

Endlessly, endlessly,
The definition of mortality

The image of the engine

That stops.

The engine, it would seem, represents human life as seen from the viewpoint of mechanistic materialism. From such a viewpoint, the body is no more than an engine that, eventually, stops. The inevitable counterpart of such a mechanistic materialism is a "spiritualism" which sees the machine as inhabited by a "soul"--a "ghost in the machine," in Gilbert Ryle's phrase. But now Oppen rejects both mechanistic materialism and its "spiritualist" counterpart:

We cannot live on that.
I know that no one would live out
Thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending
With his life.

The alternative both to mechanistic materialism and to spiritualism, it here becomes clear, is what might be called a "collective humanism"--i.e., what Oppen would call "populism." We go on living only because we know that the "world"--here primarily the human community--will live on after us. And by rooting ourselves in this community, we make of ourselves something more than engines that stop. (But in paraphrasing Oppen's lives, I rob them of most of their power. For the simple psychological truth of Oppen's statement--none of us would "live out thirty years, fifty years" if we knew that the world would end with our lives--is at least as important as the philosophical and political overtones I have here emphasized.) After thus defining for us the inadequacies of mechanistic materialism, Oppen returns to the engine itself:

The machine stares out,
Stares out
With all its eyes

Thru the glass
With the ripple in it, past the sill
Which is dusty--If there is someone
In the garden!
Outside, and so beautiful.

Now for the first time we see the engine within a context: it seems to be inside a building which is in turn in a garden. And the implacable, frenzied engine of part one now seems almost pathetic. The "if" clause is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand, the machine seems to "stare out" in the hope of seeing someone (someone human that is) in the garden outside. But at the same time it is this very observer in the garden who seems to anthropomorphize the engine, ascribing to it "eyes" and the power to "stare." Both meanings of the "if" clause, however, emphasize the dependency of the engine on the human world. The machine, and the individual human being as well, find their meaning, indeed their very existence, only in and through the "other." Alone both we as solitary human beings and the things into which we infuse our intentions are mere machines that stop. But as we and our tools enter into relationship with the "other," and implicitly with a world that extends beyond our lives, the terms of our existence begin to undergo a profound change, giving birth to a sudden beauty.

In parts three and four, Oppen confronts the ultimate fragility of the human community itself:

What ends
Is that.
           Even companionship
Ending.

If we search for an antecedent for the "that" of the second line the most likely possibility would seem to be the meeting between human and machine in the previous section. However, the "that' in question seems designed to be as ambiguous as possible. In fact everything ends, including the "companionship" which alone makes us something more than machines. But even as we confront this bleak truth another voice intervenes:

'I want to ask if you remember
When we were happy! As tho all travels

Ended untold, all embarkations
Foundered.

The single quotation mark suggests that someone else (Mary perhaps?) is here addressing the poet, with a poignant question that simultaneously affirms human collectivity ("we" are united by our memories) and implies that whatever was valuable in life has a ready ended. But the quotation remains unclosed, and thus the voice of the other seems to dissolve back into the poet's own voice ruminating on the possibility of total failure, all tales untold and all ships sunk. Part four extends this line of thinking by invoking an image whose implications should be immediately clear to us, the image of shipwreck:

On that water
Grey with morning
The gull will fold its wings
And sit. And with its two eyes
There as much as anything
Can watch a ship and all its hallways
And all companions sink.

The machine of part one which offends our humanity in its mindless, mechanical frenzy, here finds its counterpart in another kind of otherness: a nature no less mindless and inhuman than the machine. The sea, here as throughout The Materials, defines the irreducible, impassable boundaries of the human world. The sea personifies itself in the gull which stares on indifferent, wings folded, as both the human community (the "companions") and the things that humans create (the "ship and all its hallways") slip beneath the water. All voyages do ultimately "founder." The world may not end with our lives, but it will eventually end. What, then, can give purpose and value to human life?

In part four, Oppen finds in the very failure of our "embarkations" a new ground for human community, and thus a new way of postulating a "world": "Also he has set the world/In their hearts"--thus part four begins. The "world" here may have theological overtones--the "world and the flesh" as opposed to "heaven." But I suspect that "world" here carries no invidious inflection, and so we should consider another possible reading of the line. If the "world" is "set" in our "hearts," Oppen may here be implying, then world-making is an activity that will go on, even though all our embarkations "founder." Such, in any event, seems to be the point of the succeeding lines:

From lumps, chunks,

We are locked out: like children, seeking love
At last among each other. With their first full strength
The young go search for it,

Native in the native air,

The "lumps" and "chunks" of the world--the rocks and bricks which we have encountered in other poems, the dumb and blind engine of this poem--drive us back upon our humanity, and force us to seek love "among each other." The love we thus create, Oppen proceeds to make clear, offers no permanent solution to our dilemma:

But even in the beautiful bony children
Who arise in the morning have left behind
Them worn and squalid toys in the trash

Which is a grimy death of love. The lost
Glitter of the stores!
The streets of stores!
Crossed by the streets of stores
And every crevice of the city leaking
Rubble: concrete, conduit, pipe, a crumbling
Rubble of our roots . . .

Our hunger for love enmeshes us among the things of the human world--the tawdry toys we learn as children to love, the stores where these stores are sold, the rubble (and here we are again among the lumps and chunks, the rocks and brick, on which our humanity runs aground) of the decaying city. The children who search for love seek to leave behind these toys, but in this very act they also experience the death of love. So in the very moment we "embark," we have already "foundered," and this win not be the last of our mishaps:

                        But they will find
In flood, storm, ultimate mishap:
Earth, water, the tremendous
Surface, the heart thundering
Absolute desire.

Thus "Image of the Engine" concludes. The loss of our toys, the rubble in our streets, merely augur the ultimate shipwreck, death itself. But in the very moment of shipwreck, the hunger of the heart, a hunger for "the world," surges up. In these concluding lines of the poem, the engine returns, but now the alien machine into which we have projected our humanity is absorbed back into the human. No longer an image of the merely mechanical that stands over against the human community, the engine now becomes the symbol of the human heart itself, both "mechanical" and "natural," both "individual" and "collective," as it thunders out the beat that makes us all members one of another, and joins us to the sometimes inhuman world we have created, in the beat of "absolute desire."

from George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


Marjorie Perloff

In a five-part poem called "Image of the Engine," that appears in The Materials of 1962, we find these lines:

Also he has set the world
In their hearts.
From lumps, chunks.

I can think of no better description of Oppen's characteristic prosody, his way of proceeding through a given poetic structure. If Williams' is a metric of action, the creation of a field of force in which the presence of the moment is made manifest, Oppen's "discrete series" of lines remains disjunctive, discriminatory, abrupt--a movement of fits and starts, "From lumps, chunks." Ellipsis, riddle, radical condensation, abstraction, equivocal syntax, and the fragmentation of semantic units--all these pull against the coalescence of sound, often extremely delicate, and the hammering of words into the firm structure of the line. Oppen wants us to pause on every word, to try to understand how and why just these words could possibly coexist in the same text, so far removed are his "connections" from those of ordinary discourse. The text itself is thus called into question even as the poet "sets the world/In our hearts."

From "The Shape of the Lines" in George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.


David McAleavy (Interview)

11. "Image of the Engine" (from The Materials)

D: I was just starting to ask you about Eliot, because "Image of the Engine," with its five sections, so much like the five sections of "The Waste Land" . . . and I don't know, but a couple of ideas, a similar way of working.

G: It's unlikely that I was consciously thinking of Eliot because I seldom do. . . .

D: That really was my question.

G: I see. No. It was undoubtedly not. It's true that I liked the stair . . . " Ash Wednesday," isn't it? And I didn't pay much attention to Eliot at any time. I started maybe because of the mechanical knowledge in there which would be very far from Eliot. The poem's not difficult: you can see from the physical to these [things (?)] , this whole physical process. It produces, oh, consciousness.

12. Section 3 of "Image of the Engine "

G: That etching of my mother's brings up this: those lines, "I want to ask if you remember when I was happy," it was my mother's suicide note.

from "Oppen on Oppen." Sagetrieb, Vol 5, No. 1


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