On (In Alsace) from "Route"
The force of the long prose section (#5) of "Route," detailing the sufferings of resistance fighters in Alsace, which culminates with a story of suicide, comes from just such a non-reflexive consciousness, although in this case the imagined absence of self-awareness is a result of a heightened consciousness rather than of a reduction into a sea-anemone's dream-life. This is to say, the experience of awareness remains a form of consciousness. But the heightened consciousness Oppen looks for is not limited by the endless game of involuted rationality. Oppen's prose is spare and emotional, void of repetition or extravagance; it seems almost unfair to excerpt from it. Nonetheless the following paragraphs tell of the route one Alsatian chose instead of going into hiding, which might have resulted in the destruction of his family:
There was an escape from that dilemma, as, in a way, there always is. Pierre told me of a man who, receiving the notification that he was to report to the German army, called a celebration and farewell at his home. Nothing was said at that party that was not jovial. They drank and sang. At the proper time, the host got his bicycle and waved goodbye. The house stood at the top of a hill and, still waving and calling farewells, he rode with great energy and as fast as he could down the hill, and, at the bottom, drove into a tree.
It must be hard to do. Probably easier in an automobile. There is, in an automobile, a considerable time during which you cannot change your mind. Riding a bicycle, since in those woods it is impossible that the tree should be a redwood, it must be necessary to continue aiming at the tree right up to the moment of impact. Undoubtedly difficult to do. And, of course, the children had no father. Thereafter.
The act of courage--which is another way of talking about the issues Oppen has been dealing with--is an act in which self is put out of consideration. But what gives it courage is not its selflessness but its devotion to an ideal. Even more to the point, perhaps, is the fact that Oppen too fears not-being. This passage has especial significance for him because it manifests that fear and dramatizes circumstances under which at least one man was able to free himself from it. Whenever possible Oppen sees his job as poet to be to loosen the hold of fear and guilt.
From "Clarity and Process: Oppens Of Being Numerous" in George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Copyright Ó 1981 by the National Poetry Foundation. Reprinted with Permission.
Taking into account Oppens experience of World War II and his connection to Heidegger, a strong case can be made for thinking of him as an existentialist rather than as an Objectivist--or else we must open our definition of Objectivism to include much more than the pallid epithet "second-generation imagism.") One index of the difference it makes when we think of Oppen this way concerns his commitment to "the real" or "the actual." Is it enough to assume that these terms return to the imagist hygiene prescribing the accurate visual representation of things or that they draw upon the impressionist equation of visual data with emotional states? During an interview with the Oppens in which Kevin Power engages them in a discussion of Camus, Sartre, and Heidegger (Power 196-97), he asks George to "talk about 'actualness' and how that enters the poem." George replies, "Well there's that prose section of Pierre Adam in 'Route' when he tells me about his experience. I was conscious, when I wrote that, that any of the Existentialists could have written it. I wrote it, nevertheless, because it was actually what he said to me. Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer... Simply that you are yourself" (197). The story Oppen alludes to was told to him in Alsace, where he was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Many Alsatian men, upon learning they had been drafted into the German army, dug themselves holes in the ground, in which they hid for as long as two or three years. When the Germans learned that men were in hiding, they made reprisals, killing family members and sending wives to the army brothels in Germany. Pierre fed and assisted the men in the holes. "Men would come to Pierre and they would say: I am thinking of making a hole. Pierre would say: yes. They would say then: but if I do they will kill my parents; or: they will take my wife and my children. Then Pierre would say, he told me: if you dig a hole, I will help you" (Oppen, Collected Poems 187-88).
For Oppen, this kind of terrifying existential choice defines the realm of "the actual" Such was the actuality French resistance fighters like Sartre and Camus faced, and it remained the (often unstated) background for their existential philosophies. In his essay "The Resistance," Charles Olson provides something like a gloss on Pierre Adam's story, asserting that the horrors of World War II have rendered the body as the only meaningful instrument of resistance: "When man is reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale, he has, to begin again, one answer. . . . It is his body that is his answer" (Human Universe 47). By bodily acts of resistance, such as those practiced by the Alsatians against the Nazis, Olson claims that human beings can learn to think concretely through the body rather than through the dangerous abstractions such as nation, race, and class. In "Causal Mythology" Olson avers, "I don't believe in cultures myself. I think that's a lot of hung up stuff like organized anything. I believe there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we'd better use because that's about all we've got. . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts" (Muthologos 94). This notion that large abstractions are dangerous and that what we think and do must be grounded instead in who we actually are jibes perfectly with Oppen's statement that his recounting of Pierre Adam's story was "Existential in the sense that you do what you do and that is the answer.... Simply that you are yourself."
From The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural poetics. Ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by The University of Alabama Press.
It is a rare thing for a war poem to lead one to muse, afterwards, that had there indeed been redwoods in Alsace, the difficulty of one man's final solution to the German draft would have been greatly eased. George Oppen, in his poem "(In Alsace)," manages to convey this tragic absurdity with clear, plain prose. His language is more measured, in a sense, than much verse.
The concise first stanza fills in the background as any good war story might. The speaker's squad is "on the edge of the Battle of the Bulge;" history is being written as they "d[i]g in" near Pierre Adam's farmhouse. It could almost be the beginning of a humorous episode, or, more likely, the kind of sentimental Greatest Generation tale John mentioned in his analysis of "Crash Report." Pierre Adam's family and the American troops might have gone on to have fire-side chats about hope and freedom, sending each other Christmas cards for years after the war. Thankfully, we get none of that; instead, Oppen continues with practiced restraint. Men are digging holes and staying there for years in order to avoid German conscription. Oppen gives us all the practical details. In the winter, the men can't leave their holes because they will leave tracks in the snow. So Pierre helps them and brings them supplies while the snow is still falling. Like the American troops, these men are "digging in," waiting.
While they wait, the Nazi army is killing their parents and wives and children. Yet "a man should not join the Nazi party." Either way, it seems, you betray your own people. "You must try to put yourself in those times," Oppen writes. Choices have to be made. Pierre and his wife discuss, openly and plainly, whether they should tattoo the children so they can be found after the Germans take them away (or will the tattoos be cut out?). It is as if they are discussing what clothes to buy them for school. This is just another decision they have to make in their lives, but the choices are few and all have tragic consequences.
It is difficult for us to decide, even if we do "put [our]selves in those times," which choice would be worst. So it must have been for Pierre, his wife, and all the men in the holes. But Oppen's poem seems to nullify all this. The characters in the poem do not deliberate, they decide and they act. Pierre says, simply, "if you dig a hole, I will help you." Similarly, a man single-mindedly pedals his bicycle into a tree, as if that were the most logical recourse for a man in his situation. And perhaps it is. Yet the poem doesn't clarify why he did it. He gives no farewell speech; he only pedals. When the speaker remarks "It must be hard to do," he isn't referring, as we might expect, to the decision-making, but to the details of the act itself. How could you pedal your bicycle downhill into a tree? It would indeed be "easier in an automobile." The engine would take over, the wheels would spin out of control. Volition would cease to be a factor after a certain point. What the bicyclist does is seemingly beyond will power, something he does because he does it, with the same instinct that led other men to dig holes.
As an afterthought to the last stanza's musing over automobiles and redwoods, the speaker adds, "and, of course, the children had no father. Thereafter." The spare language is shocking, the wonderful absence of poetry's more obvious traits (metaphors and flowery language) gives Oppen's poem a rare directness and reality. It is pedaling swiftly downhill toward us, without swerving.
Copyright © 2001 by Luke Owens
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