(REVIEW) poetry with fallen hands: a review of Ollie Tong's choppen/oppin
Tom Crompton reviews Ollie Tong's choppen/oppin (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020), through the words of Rodefer, Rimbaud, Chopin's student and Oppen, to consider how the collection thinks through the problem of collocation.
I probably don’t know enough about George Oppen or Fredric Chopin to do justice to some of the allusions going on in Ollie’s new chapbook. That said, I have been thinking a fair bit about collocation, and choppin’ seems central to choppen/oppin anyway. So, in what follows, I’ll have a think about how Ollie’s using collage techniques while offering some provisional thoughts on where the indexes go.
choppen/oppin is a skinny, saddle-stapled A5 chapbook from If A Leaf Falls Press. The paper’s a dirty white/beige, and the covers cut by a stripe of sky blue. The book’s got 10 sections, each of four lines, and here’s the first one.
I stopped writing Laissez tomber les mains As I remember it, I wanted to paint.
On the one hand, this bit reminds me of the ‘Preface’ to Stephen Rodefer’s Four Lectures, where he talks about painting rather than poetry being the art of the city. Arguing that the city’s like a collage which does not hold together — an ‘oppressed whole’ which struggles to keep its multiple rebellious aggregates in check — Rodefer says that painting better renders these tensions in its ability to capture what he calls ‘the weight of the temporal’. As poets, he wants us to think how poetry might catch up with painting as a necessity of history: ‘(d)eliberate decomposition is required in a state of advanced decay. '
I was also reading The Emergence of Social Space (1988) by Kristin Ross around the time Ollie sent me his pamphlet; the French line about hands reminds me of this bit of Rimbaud from Une Saison en Enfer that Ross mulls over.
J’ai horreur de tous les métiers. Maîtres et ouvriers, tous paysans, ignobles. La main àplume vaut la main à charrue. — Quel siècle à mains ! — Je n’aurai jamais ma main.
[I have a horror of all trades. Bosses and workers, and all of them peasants, and common. The hand that holds the pen is as good as the one that holds the plow. — What a century for hands!— I’ll never learn to use my hands.]
Ross suggests Rimbaud is trying to resist all different kinds of specialisms [metiers] because, looking around at 19th century Paris, he sees specialisation as key to the way alienation both happens through and is necessitated by wage-work; our hands become extraneous when we learn to live by them in some particular form or another. According to Ross, there’s funny French punning here between ‘mains’ [hands] and ‘main’ [signature]. In other words, it sounds like Rimbaud was thinking about the individualising process central to being a worker and/or a poet, and how we might escape that bind.
Like Rimbaud and Rodefer, Ollie invites us to think about not writing poetry—of a certain kind, in a certain way: ‘Laissez tomber les mains’ [let your hands fall]. When I tried to see whether it was Chopin or Oppen who said this, I came across an anecdote from one of Chopin’s students about a piano lesson they had with him.
I had not played many bars before he said: 'Laissez tomber les mains' [Let your hands fall]. Hitherto I had been accustomed to hear 'Put down your hands', or 'Strike' such a note. This letting fall was not mechanical only: it was to me a new idea, and in a moment I felt the difference.
Initially, I was drawn to the links between downing hands and downing tools given in the pronouncement ‘Strike’. However, I prefer the sense of involuntariness we get from “Let your hands fall”, as if the hands would fall on their own if we let them, like Rodefer’s city: ‘a continuing direction felt from within, but ordered from without’. This helps me think about collocation as a form of historical thinking we enter, led not by putting things together, but by letting them fall apart. What happens if we drop our metier, our specialism, our signature? How might we do it? While in some way that returns us to the bind of the lyric I, and how it might also be another, Ollie thinks through the problem as one for collocation, or what I might start calling poetry with fallen hands. A poetry on the side of laziness and errancy then, rather than positivist organisation, a surrender without surrender: ‘Chopin himself warned against becoming/”A zero, a nothing”’
Thinking of tools, organisation, and what undoes them reminds me of the Oppen poem I know best: ‘The Image of the Engine’. The fourth part of both choppen/oppin and ‘The Image’ speak to one another.
I have spent hundreds of days on the water Attributing an improvisando style To Memory and small industry [Tong] On that water Grey with morning The gull will fold its wings And sit. And with its two eyes There as much as anything Can watch a ship and all its hallways And all companions sink. [Oppen]
In Oppen’s poem, I’m drawn to the scale difference between the gull and the ship; the weird little bird on the water, stationary and innocuous, watching the big ship go down. Putting Ollie and Oppen’s poems next to one another, we get another magic resonance between idling and improvisation, and I love it.
Ultimately, the stakes that choppen/oppin sets itself are a little different to ‘The Image’, its use of rhythmic implication over the kind of spectacular imaging that closes Oppen’s poem — 'In flood, storm, ultimate mishap/Earth, water, the tremendous/Surface, the heart thundering/Absolute desire’ — giving it a wholly different kind of pitch. In doing so, choppen/oppin sets some quiet coordinates for thinking through the relationship between small poetry and big wreckages, everything happening and nothing doing, and for that I’m grateful to Ollie.
Text: Tom Crompton