Early Autumn by Geoffrey O'Brien

Early Autumn (Salt Modern Poets) BY Geoffrey O'Brien. Salt Publishing. Paperback, 112 pages. $15.
The cover of Early Autumn (Salt Modern Poets)

The idea that elegy is the essence of poetry is an old one, and has always seemed to me worth resisting. This protest is probably the privilege of youth—and, if I'm honest, probably the privilege of privilege—but I prefer to think of it as an insistence that art can be larger than life, and life larger than loss.

I can't say that Geoffrey O'Brien's Early Autumn quite changed my mind on the question, but this book of elegant, often moving poems certainly forced reconsideration.O'Brien is the editor-in-chief of the Library of America and an accomplished cultural historian who's lent his brisk, stylish intelligence to a range of subjects so broad it could make Harold Bloom feel a philistine. Early Autumn is his sixth book of poetry. Not every poem in the collection is an elegy in the strict sense, but O'Brien writes so comfortably in the elegiac mode that he sometimes makes us forget poetry was equipped to handle any other.

The anchor of Early Autumn is the long poem that closes the collection, “The Ruins of a Long Gallery Illuminated Through a Hole in Its Vault.” It begins with an extended ekphrasis of the eponymous 18th-century Hubert Robert painting, a catalog of scenes and settings lifted from the storehouse of high-Romantic imagination. This is a world of “cow-dung,/ fresh milk, and . . . herbs,” of cellarers and tyrants, “of the precinct where the oracles came from / in the days when the gods still spoke.” All of it, as O'Brien writes, “suggests the possibility of a genre scene / in the old manner.”

The poem is cannier than this sketch implies, however, just like the painting “bathed in a soft light / that the eye can easily mistake.” What begins as a languid drift through ruined grandeur turns into an utterly specific account of 9/11, the events of which cause:

the brutal compression

of past time so that whatever happened previously
is drained of any possible dignity

“The Ruins,” like the book that contains it, is propelled by “the absurd hope of finding something solid” that survives the passage of time. In this respect it's tempting to set the poem in conversation with Luc Sante’s essay, “The Ruins of New York,” which imagines, as O'Brien described it in a 2008 review, “the impossible gesture of stopping time and walking around in a frozen moment.” But where Sante's essay presents the lava-swamped city as what O'Brien called “a museum in which everything can be contemplated just as it is, and for as long as the scientist from the future may desire,” in Early Autumn,

even the ruins

are in danger—all surviving inscriptions

can be scraped away—there is no stone that

can be counted on

O’Brien’s impulse to preserve is generally helped by his eloquence, but if Early Autumn deserves one general criticism, it's for overreaching toward a stately sheen. The poet seems aware of the danger: he recognizes “how / desirable it might appear to deflect or modify // the side effects” of “what cannot be thrown away / without throwing himself away.” And he understands that the scraping, not the stone, is what makes a monument significant: “the promiscuous novellas // and accidental fetishes . . . finally are not just / what happened to the person turning the corner / but what he has become.”

But awareness is not so easily prophylactic. Early Autumn contains too many deflections, with the consequence that too many lines could have been written by too many poets, all of them middle-aged and mourning the loss of a world they once loved. This anonymous quality owes much to O’Brien’s diction; indeed, his style is so smooth that it sometimes leaves us wanting some side effect or accidental fetish to grab on to, a fault he all but confesses in an elegy to his brother:

Chill of language failing—my story

about our childhood house confused

suddenly with the movie on TV

and with our being in the room together—

a collapse of borders

between worlds

In contrast, a pair of stanzas late in the poem shows how much things improve when O'Brien lets some noise in (in this case literally):

what would it take

to set the dark

to permanent music—

to a noise

like pots and pans

banging in swing time

Here the fine polish of the first tercet is cracked open by the second, demonstrating how far a minor idiosyncrasy can carry a poem. That O'Brien hears the soundtrack of the night as a kitchen cabaret is the kind of knowledge I come to poetry for. I could only ask to learn a little more.

Robert P. Baird has recent work in Poetry and Narrative. He lives in Uganda.