Oppen’s “The Bicycle and the Apex”

I’m finding that there are so many Oppen poems that I like in this part of his New Collected Poems that I’m having a hard time deciding which to discuss, particularly since I’m not sure yet what his dominant themes are.

I particularly love the way he makes simple, everyday THINGS function as symbols for abstract ideas, as in:


How we loved them
once, these mechanisms;
We all did. Light
And miraculous,

They have gone stale, part
Of the platitude, the gadgets,
Part of the platitude
Of our discontent.

Van Gogh went hungry and what shoe salesman
Does not envy him now? Let us agree
Once and for all that neither the slums
Nor the tract houses

Represent the apex
Of the culture.
They are the barracks. Food

Produced, garbage disposed of,
Lotions sold, flat tires
Changed and tellers must handle money

Under supervision but it is a credit to no one
So that slums are made dangerous by the gangs
And suburbs by the John Birch Societies

But we loved them once,
The mechanisms. Light
And miraculous …

If you’re as old as I am, you probably remember the moment you got your first, and only, bike, or, in my case, when I finally got my older brother’s hand-me-down bike. It was a miraculous moment, a moment that expanded my universe forever since it could take me much further than my steel-wheeled roller skates. In a very real sense, it was a prelude to my first car.

It wasn’t long, though, before that miraculous bike seemed a poor substitute for a car, especially when richer classmates were driving to school in hot rods and getting all the cutest girls.

I can still remember the apprehension, and excitement, of purchasing my first home, but even that soon lost its newness and became little more than an expensive necessity. Two homes later, I have no desire for a huge home with too many rooms to clean and too much yard to maintain.

I don’t have or worry that someone has more than me. Enough is enough.

Now I spend my days trying to figure out how to capture light or to find words that accurately convey half-conceived thoughts.