Sunday Best: People on Sunday by Geoffrey G. O'Brien

John Gibbs

For poets, Sundays are familiar turf. Their intricacies have been explored and their possibilities challenged. Perhaps most harped upon is Wallace Stevens's eight-part meditation "Sunday Morning," which begins timidly, "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair," but quickly unravels into a philosophical, questioning manifesto. Both Robert Hayden ("Those Winter Sundays") and Edward Hirsch ("Early Sunday Morning") thought the day synonymous with fathers, as both speakers in their poems reminisce upon their fathers' ritualistic actions on the sacred day. On second thought, Sundays aren't just for poets, songwriters fancy the day, too. The Velvet Underground opens their debut and most well-known album with the irresistible, lullaby-like "Sunday Morning." Across the pond, U2 writes a song ("Sunday, Bloody Sunday") which remembers an unforgettable day in 1972 and rallies fans. Let's not forget our Easter Sundays or our Super Bowl Sundays. Perhaps I should stop this exercise before this review becomes a top ten list of my favorite Sunday things. But, if it were to go on selfishly in that direction, Geoffrey G. O'Brien's newest collection, People on Sunday, would definitely make the cut.

O'Brien's verse is smart, winding, and argumentative. And, at times, it convinces us of things we have never imagined or thought possible. Take, for instance, the second poem of the collection, "At the Edge of the Bed." The title itself pushes us outside of our comfort zones, for pairing a bed (safe place) with an edge (not-so-safe place, especially for you top-bunkers) casts the poem in paradox. The combination of opposites prepares us for the poem itself, which begins:

No one yet has ever chosen misery
Those that seem to have done so
Haven't any more than they have
Chosen this mist or is it rain

The conceit seems an old hat; everyone suffers. But the way it is prepared for us creates new meaning: the arresting weather analogy in that fourth line, all those high "i" sounds happening in the top of your mouth ("this mist," "it is"), the stanza's questioning conclusion. What is misery's proper comparison? Is it heavier than a mist? Why the progression from one to the other? The poem bounces back and forth, exploring the crooks and crannies of miseries, happiness, and weather reports, until we reach the poem's last stanza:

Still time to convert though
Not really from, not quite to
A misery intransitive as when
Sunlight takes a building

Suddenly, the sun is robbing us of things, and misery is "intransitive," a truth not asked for but a reality. I think readers will grasp an immediate sense of the weight of O'Brien's poetry, as well as its beauty, by reading and dissecting just a few lines.

If his lines seem ultimately too tough for casual readers, O'Brien has cleverly structured the poems in this collection to help situate us within his world, an elaborate one no doubt. Sequence itself becomes an important glue holding these poems in place. "Materia" is long-winded, but broken into five separate sections and uses an echoic refrain to pull us along. It begins with the line: "I had three tasks, finish, cease, and stop." The second section contradicts: "True, I had a single task: vary the method." These déjà vu moments are pleasurable, yet also exist as a neat structure. Just like a musical composition, we hear our exposition, then we notice our development. "Wintereisse" (also a song cycle by Schubert) operates in a similar manner. O'Brien builds a crown of sonnets, where the final line of any given part repeats as the first line of the next part. Take the closing of part two: "The stray cat most important to herself / The one green centers and keeps warm / Behind all repeated speech." Now the opening of part three: "Behind all repeated speech / The chest unfolds as nights / Come earlier." It seems important to note the versatility of his repeated lines and how each works naturally as a beginning and an ending. Each performs the function of a hinge, which allows the poem to swing both forward and backward, allowing the reader to walk through the threshold readily.

But perhaps the real genius here is the title poem itself, "People on Sunday (1930)," which has an intriguing genesis. People on Sunday is a silent German movie using non-actors, which are exactly what they sound like. Billy Wilder helped to write the screenplay for the film, which was produced in 1930 and follows a handful of young, energetic men and women as they leisurely pass the time on, you guessed it, Sunday. O'Brien's poem is, on the surface level, a poetic reshaping of the action of the film as it unfolds. However, what is lasting about O'Brien's poem is its clear intention to stand apart from its origins. If you decide to obsessively watch the movie and follow along with the poem in front of you (like this reviewer did) the effect is not altogether different from listening to an album and reading the lyrics of each song. You will notice some things you hadn't noticed before, gaining a deeper understanding of the work and, in this case, the artist's mind at work. Yes, that much is true.

But such an experience simultaneously takes away from the originality of O'Brien's poem, which begins: "Now they really are involved, drinking / Coffee with the elms behind them." The lack of antecedent and the unusual syntax ("with the elms behind them") create an ambiguous start. The reader has to do a lot of legwork to even keep up with how this poem moves. And it's not a strict retelling. O'Brien chooses palpable moments to insert a speaker and a spoken-to in the poem:

You use scissors, I'll use razor and soap,
And for some reason we'll both go to work
Destroying their faces after having gone
To great lengths to collect and mount them.

The inclusion here of a "you" and an "I" creates a certain pressure point and the poem launches out of itself, or rather out of the movie, as we become the stars of the poem. Lines like "You go on, I must make / A phone call" strikes us similarly. Standing alone, they are tender and bittersweet, something that, for a large majority of this collection, has been elusive. Here we get just a momentary taste, but one that lasts. A well-timed execution of the lyric.

People on Sunday attempts to accomplish a lot, and there is much material to unpack within these poems. It perhaps asks more questions than it answers. But I have a feeling readers will be okay with this reality, as it leaves us something to return to. And I have a feeling I will come back to this collection time and again, in search of discovering some new intelligence buried deep somewhere in the space between lines.


People on Sunday
By Geoffrey G. O'Brien
Wave Books, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-933517-72-8

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