Liz’s Weekend Poetry Series, pt. 2: Metropole

by lizard

Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s new collection of verse, Metropole, features an old, grainy picture of Bohemian Grove. The picture was taken by photographer James D. Phelan in 1924, before the now infamous summer boys club in Northern California transformed into a target of conspiratorial speculation.

Intrigued, I purchased the book, and before digging in, did a bit of surfing for some context. I found a review by the Los Angeles Review of Books; the review done by Ed Skoogs, and an interview done by Adam Fitzgerald. Here is a snippet of the Q and A regarding Bohemian Grove:

FITZGERALD: Tell me about “Bohemian Grove”: what it is, and what it means to the architecture of the book.

O’BRIEN: The Bohemian Grove is an encampment set among redwoods in Northern California where male politicos and captains of industry go for two weeks every summer to relieve some of the tension accumulated while despoiling the world the other 50 weeks of the year. The Grove’s motto is “Weaving spiders come not here” and its members kick off the two weeks with a “Cremation of Care” ceremony under the 40 foot concrete owl pictured on my book’s cover and then proceed to get drunk and put on plays that often require cross-dressing. So it’s a sealed, ritualistic space cleaned of the complexity (cares and the “weaving” of schemes) of the rest of the world: multiple genders, races, class stratification, regional conflict should “come not here.” In other words, it’s a kind of political pastoral, a simple green world, a private California, in which song and pageant can take place — a pastoral with an electrified fence and a guarded perimeter.

“Bohemian Grove” is a poem about the dangers and absurdities of conceiving of art as happening elsewhere or of capturing the world via a falsifying simplicity. It moves around in time in the 20th century, the syntax with which one decade is treated melting into the syntax of another (“in leaves, in the 70s I sang a song of we / became ourselves again as women, specifically”) to show this protected space’s blithe passage through history — they just keep staging plays year after year while Rome continues to burn. Putting an image of that ridiculous, sinister owl on the book’s cover was a way of admitting my poems happen in the same world as the rituals of the Bohemian Grove, albeit with an entirely different concept of the function of artifice: to incur responsibility rather than relieve it. Like Oppen, my faith in song is limited but my desire to sing isn’t, so my solution is to try to sing the false pastorals of the actual world rather than flee to them.

O’Brien’s solution “to sing the false pastorals of the actual world” is, I would argue, an important acknowledgment of a cultural environment of falsehoods we are so immersed in we fail to see. We are all participants in a sort of ridiculous pageantry, whether we’re captains of industry playing around in the woods of Northern California, or families exchanging gifts to celebrate the alleged birth of the son (sun) of God.

There is so much cultural detritus heaped upon the core elements of our mortal lives, that using the old pastoral escape routes seems more a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how deeply affected we are by the permeation of that detritus than a celebration of the natural wildness that sustains the human spirit.

Maybe through confronting these false pastorals, artists and poets can help us understand the disconnect that drives us to search for that indescribable something we feel like we’ve lost.

I don’t know how successful O’Brien’s particular poem about Bohemian Grove actually is, but below the fold you can read it and decide for yourself.

*

BOHEMIAN GROVE

Grab our missing spears and begin
to think the Bohemian Grove, trees,
theatricals, songs that hold exquisite
filterings of sunlight down to the boys
were women there in the powerful glades,
in the 20s, there’s nothing like it, to have
loins for the first time running around
in leaves, in the 70s I sang a song of we
became ourselves again, as women, specifically
houris, the “leaves of love” falling
by chopper and could see the security cordon
of leaves running around excited to be
playing a part in the hush of the woods
Donald called me “songbird” and to be fit
for the world one must periodically leave it,
affectionately, for the age and straightness of trees
in the 80s, whispering at the clearing’s edge
about how to keep both houses, no one hurt
when respect is earned by singing a short theme
in the 40s, at the tree line, theatricals, excited
to be putting on a helmet and running around
in the dark, on my knees in the sun
being told as a group what to do about
how soft I was, the pillows in my chamber
with choppers landing and a glow through the trees
spread uncomfortably around the clearing
till there’s nothing like it, going missing
and the distance you begin to think, respect
hushing the woods with a part to play
blacked out in the secret authority
of choosing a heavy gold dress to wear
over on the other side of the clearing
songs hold the men like houris
for the first time leaving the world
affectionately at play in choppers and leaves
no one is hurt at the edge of themselves
running from the news of sunlight
into heavy dresses the warriors wore
for a production of the 50s, absence of birdsong
there in the powerful soil.

—Geoffrey G. O’Brien

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