Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s People on Sunday was written partially in response to violence leveled at political protesters—O’Brien among them—at the University of California-Berkeley, where he teaches poetry. But in his own poems he largely confronts the unexploded terrors: the workweek slipping into the weekend, not as relief from the grind but merely a “distraction” owing to “the way we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days.” This precludes us from doing our own writing on the wall—although “here is a wall and some chalk,” and what the wall ought to say is that corporations have replaced both democracy and the voice of God.
With previous work, O’Brien (Metropole, Green and Gray) was applauded for his masterful deployment of contemporary avant-garde and traditional formal devices, but the new book is formally looser. It’s more interested in making visible the everyday harm done by the colonization of life by “category errors”—systematic errors, he claims, that subvert, subdue, and sabotage; errors resulting from schemes of measurement enforced by the reigning implements of power—like the corporate calendar that divides leisure from labor.
O’Brien, a great stylist of the sold-out soul, envisions even the self as capital. To remedy misery, he explains in “At the Edge of the Bed,” “We would first have to own ourselves / Then give up on them entirely / Every day.” Yet presented with the distinction between art that isolates beauty from social conditions and art that doesn’t, O’Brien opts for both, wherein poets don’t ignore but also don’t attempt to solve misery. Instead they accommodate good and bad; inequality is not a matter of formal principles. As for the actual words, there’s nothing here of the red-hot rhetorical pikes typical of resistance poetry. The lines are even-tempered with a sobriety that’s almost grim, then almost serene.
Some of the sweeter stuff—like passages about care between strangers—can be hard to swallow. The title poem is O’Brien’s rejoinder to the silent 1930 German film from which it takes its name. In the film, which opens in a train station, chance interaction is characterized by jealousy and misogyny, and presages a darker and more brutal comeuppance ahead. It’s worth wondering if wishing for commuters to sublimate their misery and clasp hands across the abyss of their toil might yet be another false idyll. Then again, O’Brien suggests, if strangers are better off estranged, life is at best an overdetermined clusterfuck of weather, money, and going to bed.