Oppen Contains Multitudes

“Of Being Numerous: 25”

Strange that the youngest people I know
Live in the oldest buildings

Scattered about the city
In the dark rooms
Of the past–and the immigrants,

The black
Rectangular buildings
Of the immigrants.

They are the children of the middle class.

‘The pure products of America–‘

The ancient buildings
Jostle each other

In the half-forgotten, that ponderous business.
This Chinese Wall.

For me, this poem embodies much of Oppen’s work with its characteristic use of small words, a huge investment in simple details, and the extremely direct verbs. Though many of his poems are somewhat of a mystery to me (mostly due to line breaks and punctuation), this one feels almost simple in its honesty.

I thoroughly enjoyed this section of “Of Being Numerous” simply because I can relate to it. Even though I haven’t been to San Francisco or its Chinatown district in years, it still feels very familiar to me here in Charleston. As a college student living in downtown Charleston, I can relate to the first stanza instantly since myself and pretty much all of my friends live in  old, disheveled “historic homes” scattered about the peninsula. Likewise, if we were to substitute the word “transplants” for “immigrants,” that would also capture the feeling of people migrating to an unfamiliar place, settling there, and then wondering what to do with themselves.

I also appreciate the lines “They are the children of the middle class. / ‘The pure products of America–‘”.  This strikes a significant chord with me when I relate it to young people (particularly those in college) since most of us come from middle class families and are uplifted by America for pursuing an education. I love the sarcastic, almost cynical tinge to the word “pure” that Oppen inserts here, since he knows that the people living in Chinatown and the surrounding area are not “pure products of America,” but merely people. Likewise, we cannot consider ourselves above those without an education merely because we were afforded the opportunities to pursue one from an early age.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this poem as a college student, but I feel like that’s half the fun of poetry. Moreover, that’s one of the best aspects of Oppen’s poetry: the fact that he leaves so much room for the reader’s interpretation. Even with all of his direct language, concise structure, and simple phrasing he allows his poetry to be very broad and shies away from forcing singular meanings into his work. For this reason, I greatly respect Oppen as a poet even if I don’t always understand what he’s writing about from a logical or rational perspective.

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