Late Capitalism’s Contortionist: Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Metropole

Reviewed by Dawn Marie Knopf


Written in the nested speech and discursiveness of a long, numb fever, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s newest collection, Metropole, is beautifully dystopian. The collection, as a whole, resembles a more attentive, post-globalization Nausea. Set in an empire where “Without its trucks, America would stop,” O’Brien narrows his focus on a state’s hegemony and its homes, resting squarely in the place where economics meets the personal.

O’Brien’s title demands immediate attention to our-country-as-imperial-state. The idea of “metropole,” defined as the parent-state of a colony, pervades every last cubic inch of O’Brien’s world. He extracts the residue of empire found in the metropole’s households, its language and rhetoric, and the materials of its infinitely complicated supply chain. The language of global corporate empire slyly slips into the language of household banality: “Emotions, weekend meals, their merger during the holidays.” Even the snow in December displays the “potential to become a glowing blue / both hilarious and mercantile.”

Although seemingly rigid corporate-imperial language is ever-present in Metropole, O’Brien uses syntax like a contortionist bends to release herself from the bind. His lines are double-jointed, both incorporating and responding to the rhetoric of war, the dollar, and domination. Imprisoned by this language and also invested in the prison population, with whom the poet works, O’Brien pivots the line within the line itself: “They have a second life in prison time moves slowly in the middle of their sentences.”

The last line of each stanza in Metropole’s title poem, written in prosaic iambs, dangles unfinished, as if resigned, interrupted, or even assaulted by some outside force as the poem stumbled onto some great discovery (e.g. the first line of a Pynchon novel or the truest description of an advertisement). O’Brien often majusculates and breaks his lines in a way that weakens the bond of each line from its neighbor. His lines float, aloft and apart. They are alienated, even from the lines that proceed or follow them, derailing the narrative intimacy you might find in more common syntax.

O’Brien also addresses the failed intimacy Metropole’s citizens develop toward their possessions, the cash register, and ultimately, capital. He combs through the spoils of American empire, one possession at a time. We are reminded, that in the table, we find the tree. In the cup, we might also imagine the hands along the assembly line, the point of sale, the memories of schlepping that thing from house to house when we move. This is illustrated in “Poem from Beginning to End”:

Not made so much as lovingly

Assembled from memories of those
Who couldn’t get out of the way,
Now here in the form of a cup
Alien when brought to bed
From table and the table not
Made so much as overturned,
Evolving from its legs a depth

At least in the collection, the labor is not forgotten, where we might “understand the processes / the smile of a wealthy man is made / of, hidden work along the line.”

Like person-person relationships, Metropole’s person-possession relationships might dissolve, though still retain their history. In “Ambien,” O’Brien writes:

We’re trained to see sun throw
On any common household thing
A glow the bed thrown out retains
A past implied persistently
By indentations in its shape

In due course, a new relationship replaces the old: “like waves and flags each friendship with possessions ends inside five years another drops out.” Person-person intimacy in Metropole suffers the same fate, as citizens “run around asleep in fashion, correspond with friends inside machines, rhythms they’re the same as.” After ticking off our essential to-do list: “spin gold into friends, friends into wells, use the well up,” we are left lonely.

Art, too, falls at the mercy of this political-cultural structure in his poem, “The Other Arts.”

In tall white rooms a people moved
To their sense of a frozen music
Without details they moved then paused
To take a picture with their phones
Flowing in self-guided tours
Stopping as much to listen as stare
At said things if things could be said

The saddest aspect of Metropole is its citizen’s complacency. However, as Metropole’s speaker confirms, “I opened the front door to see / and yes, the melancholy was posing as row houses,” the poet also allows his reader a rare moment of respite on one particular day: “Wednesday: a walk, another, beautiful lonely / tracking through the coming into being of / a beaded atmosphere like harmless diamonds, / survivable.” Amidst the “ads in which the happy finish off each other’s sentences,” Metropole’s citizens survive, however unhappy. In “Forms of Battle,” my favorite of the verse poems, O’Brien writes:

Lights ashamed to be on and on
Nothing left but the bitter verbs
Of manner of motion away from a source
The pastoral jail of refrain
And so I put my head under her arm
As though to leave America

O’Brien has the terrible task of collecting his wounded. As for the rest of us, can’t we all agree “survivable” too low a bar?

University of California Press, 2011