In the Tune of the Winds:
Discrete Scenes from La Beausset

by Bruce Ross-Smith



The first half of my title is taken from George Oppen's 'From a Phrase of Simone Weil's and Some Words of Hegel's', published in 'Seascape : Needle's Eye (1972), a poem whose 'radically disjointed syntax leaves us fumbling for clues about the direction in which the poem is headed'. [1] Peter Nicholls acute readings of Oppen are in themselves essential reading, yet Oppen's 'disjointed syntax' will do as a starting point for the geological folds and fissures which characterize the landscape the Oppens came to know well during their residence in the small Provencal town of Le Beausset (Var) 1930-1933 :

We are the beaks of the ragged birds
Tune of the ragged bird's beaks
In the tune of the winds (2)

Peter Nicholls suggests this "poem seems to push toward some 'outer limit' where the homelessness of drifting 'On the open water' allows an apprehension of 'being"' [3], a voyaging along coasts real and imagined.

For Le Beausset and its attendant villages of Le Castellet and La Cadiare lie on a dramatic limestone littoral defined by what the great French geologist, Marcel Bertrand, termed 'nappe de charriage', identified by Bertrand at Le Beausset in 1887 and known in English as the Beausset thrust, a classic example of orogenic 'wave theory' whereby massive folds of earth build up, 'pli selon pli', over a succession of geological eras [4]. From the tower of the Romanesque church in Le Vieux Beausset, built on Bertrand's 'thrust', the Mediterranean can just be sighted as 'open water', glimpsed below Bandol, beyond a landscape dense with vineyards 'on a balcony overlooking the sea', but whose economic viability is today under threat from the corrosive crisis which has afflicted French viticulture over the last decade, a crisis born of global competition in the first instance and global warming in a continuous instance whereby the Mediterranean basin and its littoral(s) could, by the end of this century, experience levels of aridity and heat that would make Le Beausset and environs uninhabitable. Oppen's 'Time of the Missile', could be a short 'Grosse Fugue' of this future desolated present :

My love, my love,
We are endangered,
Totally at last. Look
Anywhere to the sight's limit : space
Which is viviparous:
Place of the mind
And eye. Which can destroy us,
Re-arrange itself, assert
Its own stone change reaction. (5)]

Although Oppen's poem was written as a reaction to the Cuban missile crisis, it looks forward to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, whereby humanity may destroy 'all' life on earth but earth will then reassemble itself chemically , and so on, the end a beginning, though the end too terrible either for us to contemplate or to prevent. Simone Weil's poem 'Promethee' opens with thunder without lightning :

Un animal haggard de solitude,
Sans cesse au verntre un rongeur qui le mord,
Le fait courir, tremblant de lassitude,
Pour fuir le faim qu'il ne fuit qu'a la mort [6]

('An animal wild in his solitariness, /Incessantly consumed by a gnawing in his belly,? Which keep him on the move, shaking with weariness,/ Trying to flee from hunger, which he will only escape in death;' translation by Peter Winch [7]).

In 1930, into this rugged yet benevolent landscape, folded out beneath the Massif de la Sainte Baume, came George and Mary Oppen, both twenty-one, one year married, who were just completing an epic journey by horse and carriage from le Havre via Paris and Lyons to Le Beausset, ten or more times longer than Robert Louis Stevenson's jaunt with his donkey in the Cevennes fifty years earlier. Since their meeting at Corvallis, Oregon, in 1926, at the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers, the Oppens had become gifted and inclusive travellers, in what Mary summed up in her 1978 autobiography as imperative journeying : "the ground we needed was the roads we were traveling" [8], which could very easily have come from the lips of a medieval pilgrim in what the British social anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner have described as liminal, a liminality which "is not only transition but also potentiality, not only 'going to be' but also 'what may be' "[9] The Turners' work on pilgrimage, and much else, very effectively built upon Arnold van Gennep's [10] 'rites de passage' , spread across three phases : " separation, limen or margin, and aggregation". How these ethnographic stages might be applied across the lives of George and Mary Oppen could be answered by these lines (26) from 'Of Being Numerous':

We want to defend
And do not know how.

Stupid to say merely
That poets should not lead their lives
Among poets.  

They have lost the metaphysical sense
Of the future, they feel themselves
The end of a chain  

Of lives, single lives
And we know that lives
Are single [11])

In his 'Daybooks' Oppens speaks of 'Being, in which intelligence must come to rest. The defining limit of thought' [12]; for the pilgrim the coming to rest of the spirit, 'the defining limit', is located in 'aggregation', or what Walt Whitman, as Victor Turner reminds us [13],"might have called 'the rondure, the cohesion of all"', which could in effect and in reality be, as both George Oppen and Simone Weil understood, the destruction of all.

Oppen's twelve-year-old sister, June, at the time staying with her parents at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, swapped places with Mary for a week of the 'great journey' Lyons to Marseille and finally Le Beausset and explained in her autobiography [14] how the dappled grey gelding named Pompom lacked 'the proper sort of shoes' and so had to be walked up hills, imposing variable limits of space and time and metre. Was it Bertrand's 'nappe de charriage' which halted the Oppens in Le Beausset and held them there for about thirty months? Or did they stop in Le Beausset to keep a safe distance from George's father and stepmother staying down coast at Cannes?

Ob via       the obvious
Liker a fire of straws [15]

In the event the young couple rented a farmhouse surrounded by vines, had plumbing installed, and, as is now well-known, set up 'To Publishers'. The plumbing would have made the Oppen's farmhouse one of the few Le Beausset dwellings which could boast a flush toilet, for it wouldn't be until the post-second war 'les trentes glorieuses' of growth and prosperity that American-style plumbing became the norm in France. As Ernest Everret Just, that most brilliant of first generation black American scientists, noted during his spells of residence in France in the 1930s, material culture and levels of hygiene in rural France left much to be desired, nor were the towns and cities much better in what Sartre would know existentially at the most mundane of levels, in a Hegelian leveling of body as thought and thought as body [16]. The Oppens would very likely have been viewed by some of their Le Beausset neighbours as privileged outsiders, possibly to local communists as representatives of the very class which Mary said she and George, in their 'journeyings, had been seeking 'to escape' [17].

At about the same time the Oppens were setting up in Le Beausset, Robert Graves and Laura Riding were unpacking their printing equipment in the limestone redemption of Deia-de-Mallorca and so reigniting their Seizin Press. Nearly a quarter of a century later Robert and Ann Creeley established the Divers Press in the Mallorquin village of Banyalbufar. All three couples were working at '….the outer/Limit of the ego' [18].

The second half of my title is drawn of course from Oppen's 'Discrete Series', (originally published by the Objectivist Press in 1934), of which he would later explain in an interview that "The first question at that time in poetry was simply the question of honesty, of sincerity"[19]. It used to be a familiar saying in Var, and throughout Provence and Languedoc, that honesty can be found in the grapeless vines after harvest and in the songs of the mistral, that insistent wind which drives liars mad while rewarding the tellers of truth with 'sleep against themselves'. . sincerity, however, remains blowing in the wind.

Thirty years after the Oppens' time in Le Beausset , I spent two years working as an itinerant agricultural worker in Cognac, Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence, and between jobs in 1969 spent a few days at Le Beausset, quite unaware that the Oppens had ever lived there, even though one of the books I had with me at that time was none other than Of Being Numerous, which had been sent to me by an American friend during that autumn's vendange. These autobiographical details are of little consequence other than to give personal reason to and for (my) curiosity about the Oppens' daily lives in Le Beausset, not so much about their work as publishers of Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound, nor on problems with the printers in Toulon who were resistant to Objectivist syntax and typography, but rather on their relationships with the people of a small town of (then) about 6,000 souls, with the vines and olive trees, pine forests, and with the weaving eagles trailing down from the Massif Sainte Baume. Also must wonder what the Oppens made of the multi-conflicting politics of the time in an area which has yielded a rich historical and sociological harvest in the works of Jacques Girault (La Var Rouge : Les Varois Et Le Socialisme De La Fin De La Guerre Mondiale Au Milieu Des Annees 1930. Publications de la Sorbonne 1995) and, for an earlier era, Maurice Agulhon (The Republic in the Village : The People of the Var from the French Revolution to the Second Republic, trans. Janet Lloyd, London and Paris, Cambridge and Editions de La Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982). Both Girault and Agulhon illuminate the legacies of 1848-1851, cutely captured in Agulhon's phrase: 'politics made its descent into the masses' [20].

In order to find an imaginative point de repere for this journey into the Oppens' Le Beausset years, I have discarded a bolus of worthy but lifeless commentary, plodding dull schoolroom stuff, in which the Oppens were virtually invisible and inaudible, and instead ventured into a fictive 'day in the life of', the day in question one of Le Beausset's two annual 'fetes champetres', that of the October 'fete de la vigne et du vin', in this case as it fell in mid-October 1931. Professor Michael Sheringham eloquently ended a recent essay with: 'Marchant au pas du jour, le sujet trouve sa verite, sa mesure, dans la journee que se deplie' [21]. The second section of this essay will therefore be in the form of scenes from an imagined 'journee' in the lives of the Oppens and of assorted citizens of Le Beausset as they celebrated that 1931 'fete'.

On what the Oppens made of the inhabitants of Le Beausset and they of the inhabitants, Eric Hoffman (22) has observed that "The French countryside was not without its own version of political radicalism and the French seemed to know more about the efforts of Tom Mooney and other radical leftists in the United States than did most Americans. The radical political discussion that took place in France awakened them in part to the political realities of the time". Politics in France between the world wars was chronically fractious, fissiparous, often violent, with the SFIO (Section Francaise de l'Internationale Ouvriere) sundered in 1920 at the Congress of Tours, the French Communist Party (PCF) and an unseated socialist rump the after products of that sundering. Centre and right groups came and went, built on bile and the morbid Catholic nationalism and anti-Semitism of Charles Maurras and his Action Francaise, echoed by other far right leagues such as the 'Croix-de-feu'. In Var, in Le Beausset itself, socialists and communists would have existed among the labourers and small farmers, as would the shrill voices of the right, frequently at odds within the same family. Meetings would have been held, arguments would have broken out, sometimes fights. In northern Provence, in Saint-Marcel d'Ardeche, a young Gustave Thibon, the farmer-philosopher later to be favoured by Petain at Vichy and also to become the rural patron of Simone Weil, was beginning to draw up a religio-political programme which would seek to pull France back to pre-industrial values "by drawing upon Proudhon, not the Proudhon of 'Property is theft', but the Proudhon who wanted to replace state authority by free associations of independent artisans" [23], a position which Robert O. Paxton has demonstrated left people like the gentle and generous but guileless Thibon "defenseless against the craftier businessmen who quickly turned Vichy to privileged cartelization" [24]. In post-war Le Beausset, however, it was not for nothing that its main Place was renamed to and for the memory of the pacifist hero of the left, Jean Jaures, who had been assassinated on the eve of war in 1914. Thibon's arguments for 'small is beautiful' would have had limited appeal to the cooperative viticulturalists at the' Cave du Beausset', interwar or today.

Were the Oppens aware of the currents and contra-currents in the agrarian community in which they settled? By Mary Oppen's account, she and George, when in their early twenties, responded to questions about (their) politics by saying that their "political concerns didn't go beyond a very narrow circle of hunting for the nooks and crannies of our society in which we might live as artist and poet"[25]. On what was happening in the USA in what were the last years of the Hoover administration and the first years of the 'Great Depression', Eric Hoffman, in his very fine and penetrating study (see above), All Embarkations Foundered : The Political Identity of George Oppen, draws on Mary's memory of how the Oppens took out a subscription to 'Time' magazine and were deeply shocked to discover that back home "food was being dumped while people starved" [26]). On what George and Mary experienced in France, Eric Hoffman suggests that they "perhaps had the advantage of …distance" in their perspective on the situation in the States; they were (according to Mary) "innocent of preconceived views, and we looked at poverty in France, at children so thin that they were almost transparent, and our minds began to dwell on politics. Our education was conducted each week by 'Time' (Another influential text from this time was Trotsky's History of the Soviet Union, which both she and her husband read)" . In addition, Pathe newsreels would have been screened in Toulon and might, Eric Hoffman thinks, have been seen by the Oppens [27]. It isn't possible to provide documentary evidence on how the Oppens interacted with their politically-minded and non-politically minded neighbours in and around Le Beausset, so my recourse to 'fiction' can only be excusable as at best a 'heuristic device', at worst as an impertinent and irrelevant fantasy.


I dreamed myself of their people, I am of their people
I thought they watched me that I watched them … (28)

Five discrete scenes from Le Beausset : a sketch for something bigger.

Scene I

7 a.m. on a Saturday in mid-October 1931, the interior of a farmhouse situated between Old Beausset and Le Beausset. George Oppen is boiling a kettle. Mary and George's sister, June, are nowhere to be seen. Books and papers are stacked neatly on a solid wooden table, beside a typewriter, this the office of 'To Publishers.' The door opens.

Mary. George, do you hear that scraping noise?

George. Ya. Somebody working the vines.

June. No, there's a man, a wild man, digging a trench around the back of the house. His face is horrible – he hasn't got a nose – and he's got a wooden leg. Completely horrible!

George. A trench? He must be one of Segonzac's workers?

June. No, he's not. I know them. Pierre and Gustave. They come to the stable to see Pompom.

Mary. Nobody works during the Fete and we've got Pompom all ready to take down to the Place for the procession.

George. I'll go and have a look (he goes outside and walks around to the back of the house). Hello. Morning. (A small squat man is heaving soil up against the wall of the house. His face is a mesh of scars, his left leg wooden below the knee, yet he is digging with fury, muttering to himself. George can't make out what he's saying). Can I help? (George climbs into the trench; the man, his face crushed and scarred from wounds inflicted at the Battle of Verdun, doesn't appear to see George. George wonders whether he is blind) Would you like some coffee? You're working so hard. (The man stops for a moment and George notices he is wearing a very shabby soiled military tunic and four medals, for Marius Arnaud is a poilu, a soldier of France, a survivor from the horrors of the war to end all wars.)

Marius (speaking rapidly and incoherently) Must ready. Dig. Ready. The attack now… Then. Ready. Ready. READDDYYY (Mary and June come out to see what's going on)

Mary. What is he doing?

June. He's digging a trench. I told you.

Mary. But why? (as she says this Father Grassi, Le Beausset's parish priest, appears. He is clutching a sheath of papers ).

George (leaping out of the trench) Good morning Father Grassi. Is this (pointing at the trench) some sort of festival ritual?

Father Grassi. Ah, Marius! Marius! Come out of there. (Marius looks up and is clearly fearful). Marius, I will take you home. Your mother will be worried. (Marius slowly pulls himself out of the trench and stands meekly, silently, beside Father Grassi). Just wanted to drop these off. You remember, my alexandrines?

George. Of course. How could I forget : you are, after all, a cousin of Paul Valery's, so they must be good.

Father Grassi. I haven't seen my cousin for decades but, yes, they're not bad. Perhaps you could publish them? (laughs)

George. I'd be very please to have a look but our editor, Louis Zukofsky, is the person who makes decisions about what gets published, and he lives in New York.

Father Grassi. Well, take them and tell me tomorrow what you think. My beautiful alexandrines won prizes when I was at school. Not bad for a son of Genoa. Now, Marius, let's get you home. (Grassi and Marius go … )

Mary. Poor man, did you see his face

George. What's left of it.

June. He can't live around here anymore …. We'd'ave remembered.

Scene II

Same day, 9 am, Place Jaures. The Place is full to bursting with people in their festive best. Horses , festooned with ribbons, stand in front of 'tomberaux' dense with grapes gathered the day before, the last day of the vendange. Father Grassi stands next to the war memorial beside Monsieur Vardou, the mayor of Le Beausset. Pompon, George, Mary, and June, stand at the back of the Place, visible but unobtrusive. The mayor climbs onto the front of a tomberau and begins to address the crowd through a megaphone.

Mayor Vardou. Ladies, Gentlemen, children, citizens of the commune Le Beausset, we meet again for the thirteenth time since the war to celebrate the end of our grape harvest. That I stand before you, only a few metres away from our memorial to our lost sons, speaks for itself, and next month we will be meeting here again, for Remembrance Day. This day, however, this festival of the vine and of wine, of our ancient vines which the Romans knew, of our wine which is integral to the appellation Bandol, of our labour and care, brings us together to celebrate the present. We are not a rich area and some present may feel our government in Paris fails to understand what our vines mean to us, or of how much we work for limited recompense. Today, however, we put to one side political differences in favour of common cause, the cause of us all and of our future in a world where never again will our sons die on the battlefields of north-western Europe, killed in the mud and horror of Verdun, to name the worst of hell. Instead, we will stand proud in this square, and, in a moment, our Parish Priest, Father Jacques Grassi, will lead us in prayer and then head our procession up and down our streets, past our shops, our cafes, our homes, into which we are all welcome, always, on this and every day.

Today we are fortunate indeed to be joined for the second year by visitors from across the seas, Mr. and Mrs. Oppen and Miss Oppen, whose cheerful presence in our midsts gives us an international flavour (beckoning towards the Oppens). Some of us call you 'the Yanks', others 'the Americans', and we know how much your country contributed to bringing the war to an end. Please enjoy today and when – if – you go home (laughter), tell your family and friends that Le Beausset is the best and friendliest place on earth, often tough, unyielding, but as our vines show, we have made this dry and stony place into a garden, if not the paradise garden, then a garden where no-one goes hungry, where all ages enjoy the strength of our commune. Yes, we have different opinions, right to left, left to right, but we are all communards, all the inheritors of 1848 and 1851, able to speak up for ourselves locally, regionally, and nationally. Also, least but not last, Mr. and Mrs. and Miss Oppen have the best wc in the whole Department of Var: I speak from personal experience (polite laughter).

I now declare this festival day officially open and ask Father Grassi to lead us in prayer.

(Just as Father Grassi begins his prayers, a disturbance begins in the southern corner of the Place, near the Charcuterie Bandol. Marius pushes his away through the crowd, his wooden leg clattering on the cobbles. He runs towards the war memorial and throws himself hard against it, knocking himself out. Father Grassi steps forward to help him and Dr Bernasse steps out of the crowd to help).

Grassi. We'd locked him in his mother's cellar.

Bernasse (checking heart, etc) He'll live. We'll need to take him to the clinic and I'll try to phone the hospital in Toulon.

Grassi. Friends, my friends of Le Beausset, we all know Marius, remember him as a charming boy and mischievous teenager, we know him today, on this day, once a year, when he comes home to us. His mind has long gone, a victim of war but his soul remains pure.

George (to Mary). Not much use, his purity of soul.

Mary. Lost soul, more like.

June. Poor, poor man. It's horrible. And he smells.

Father Grassi ends the prayers and then heads the procession.

Scene III

1 pm, Le café Massif. George Oppen sits at a table reading the sheath of poems Father Grassi had given him earlier that day. Mary and June have taken Pompom home. Mayor Vardou enters with his wife, Marie.

Vardou. Mr. Oppen, let me get you a coffee. You look so serious on Festival day. May we sit.

George (rising). Of course, forgive me. (A waiter appears with coffee). That was quick.

Vardou. Some advantages in being Mayor. Ah, the spiritual poems of Father Grassi. Yes, we've all read them and heard them, haven't we Marie.

Marie Vardou. Many times. Very holy man but …

Vardou. Not a poet, even if he is a cousin of Paul Valery. Do you know Valery.

George. A little, but my French …

Vardou. Your French is generous, Mr. Oppen, but not profound. Isn't that so Marie.?

Marie. Gentle, yes. . .

Vardou. I am an atheist and a socialist, Mr. Oppen, and although I like Grassi , I can't forgive him for his past membership of Action Francaise. You know Action Francaise?

George. Father Grassi has passed on the paper to me from time to time.

Vardou. No, shame. His Holiness the Pope expelled – or is it excommunicated? – Action Francaise in 1926, so Grassi shouldn't be reading its heresies and hatreds, little less passing them on to you.

George (embarrassed). They were all ancient, out-of-date, nothing recent.

Marie. That's good. Very good.


George. Marius. Tell me about Marius. We found him this morning digging a trench behind our house. I know from your speech that he's a war victim …

Vardou. Marius Arnaud was one of our most typical young men : strong, loyal, kind, and patriotic. He was the first to sign up in 1914- no conscriptee he – and off to war he went, full of nonsense from Father Grassi about Charles Peguy as a Catholic hero, full of nonsense fed by Grassi from the poisonous and hateful tongues of Barres and Maurras. After Marius, went his brothers and cousins and they all ended up together at Verdun and got from Petain on April 16, 1916, this order of the day : 'Courage! We shall get them'. A few weeks later, at Corbeaux Wood, the Germans pushed forward. Marius and his kin were caught in heavy shell fire. We don't know for sure what happened, because Marius has never been able to say, but his company commander wrote to Marius's mother that he and his brothers and cousins had been heavily shelled, all killed except Marius, who for five days was trapped in a shell crater with his dead, before the Germans were driven back. He then crawled out of the crater and made his way towards the French lines, only to be caught in a French offensive, hit by a shell from his own side, , and the rest you can see. His mother got a letter after the armistice from Petain's people saying he was a hero, but both his body and spirit were gone by then and he's been in a veteran's hospital in Toulon ever since. He comes home for the festivals and for Christmas, but his mother can't cope … she's defeated, dead, gone, yet Grassi tells her again and again Marius is a Christian hero. (Pointing at the poems). Grassi came here as a young priest in 1913 and became in effect a bloody recruiting sergeant for the militarists and full of hatred for Jaures. Read his sonnets, Mr. Oppen, and learn about bigotry and stupidity. I am a communist and know where the future lies.

George. A terrible story.

Vardou (angrily) No, not a story, Mr. Oppen, but a life. And yes, he digs trenches, holes, tunnels, because he never came home from Verdun, a shitty place 1400 kilometers from here where France died, Mr. Oppen, not heroically, but pathetically.

Marie. Forgive my husband's language, Mr. Oppen, he was also at Verdun, Marius' company commander.

George. Understood.

Vardou. Did you have any family in the war.?

George. No. No, I don't think I did. (Mary and June return) Pompom settled?(Mary and June sit down)

June. Happy as a horse! Hello.

Mary. Your speech was very moving.

Vardou. We must look forward. You young people are the future. Be brave.

Mary. Oh, I'm sure we will ….

Scene IV. 7 pm in the Place Jaures. A crowd of drunks are milling around. Mayor Vardou and his daughter, Helene, walk out of the Café Massif. A voice cries out 'Traitor' and Marius is pushed forward by the drunks. He has a rifle with a bayonet attached and lunges at Mayor Vardou.

Marius. Traitor! Traitor! (the Oppens enter the Place from rue de l'Avenir. George runs forward and pushes Marious to the ground. The drunks jump on George and start kicking and hitting him. Mary and June run into the Café Massif. . . Father Grassi appears from the shadows . . .)

Grassi. What is this, Marius? What is this? Think of your poor mother. (The drunks have run off, leaving behind a scattering of papers. Marius doesn't move The rifle and bayonet lie a few paces away. Vardou is unharmed but George has a slash on his left hand). Mr. Oppen, you need to go the doctor. Can you walk?

Mary and June (deeply distressed). We'll take him. We'll take him.

Vardou (picking up one of the sheets of paper) Yes, of course, the Croix-de-feu. Veterans! Thugs, Thugs and cowards. Cowards and thugs. Do you see Grassi what you and your church created?

George (Mary helps him get to his feet) I'm fine. We can go in a minute. But what was all this?

Vardou. As I told you, I am a communist, Mr. Oppen, proud to work for a better future. But for these people, for Maurras and the rest, we are the enemy now. They would have worked Marius into a frenzy of hate, telling him he's back at Verdun and I'm the enemy. But you must go to Doctor Bernasse and I must go to the gendarmie, again. Go carefully. (The Vardous move off). Goodbye Grassi.

Mary. Are we safe, George?

George. Yes, of course, Vardou was the intended victim. We just got in the way.

June. You got in the way. What should I tell father.

George. Not a word. Promise!

June. Promise.

Scene V.

11 pm, the Oppens farmhouse. George is reading by lamplight, Mary and June have gone to bed. George is startled by a banging on the heavy wooden door. He moves near the door and calls out.

George. Who's there?

Grassi. Grassi. Father Grassi (George opens the door to an extremely perplexed priest).

George. If this is about your poems …

Grassi. No, no, Mr. Oppen. I need your help. Marius. Marius has hanged himself from the tower at Old Beausset. I need to cut him down but my back . . .

George. He's dead?

Grassi. Hanged with his army belt from a beam. Would you help me take him to his mother's house?

George. Have you seen her?

Grassi. I have seen her. Could you come?

George. Yes, I'll come. But I need to tell my wife. (George goes off into another room. Grassi moves across to the 'To Publishers' table and picks up a page from the desk.)

Brassi. (He reads out a name) Ezra … Ezra Pound. Funny name. (George returns and Grassi puts down the sheet).

George. We'll need Pompom.

Brassi. No, Mayor Vardou is with me and has a horse and cart ready. (They leave)

Twenty minutes later, at the Romanesque Church at Old Beausset. George, Grassi, and Vardou enter, Grassi carrying a lantern which casts an unsteady light.

Grassi. We need to go up the steps. He's hanging from a beam under the tower.

Vardou. Can we reach him?

Grassi. Yes, I left a hoe up there, to help pull him in.

(They reach the top of the tower and see Marius through a hole in the wall, where two beans, one above the other, cast shadows across the ancient walls. Marius's body is hanging from the upper beam.)

Grassi. Mr. Oppen, if you could crawl out on that beam and swing Marius towards us. (George does as instructed, but has great difficulty in pulling Marius's body towards Grassi and Vardou He pulls hard, but before he can get a secure grip Marius's belt breaks and the dead poilu crashes to the stone floor below). No. No. How can this be? No!

Vardou. The belt was very old.

Grassi. As old as Verdun?

Vardou. Older?

George. And how old was Marius.?

Vardou. Grassi, how old?

Grassi. He would have been thirty-six on May the first next. His mother always said he came with the spring.

George. We need to take him home.


rounding the corner of some wall

Into a farm yard – France – The smell of wood-smoke from the kitchen;

An overwhelming sense of joy!

Steps everything. More than the water trickling among the cobbles.(29)

Please note : All the characters in the mini-drama (?) are inventions with the exception of the Oppens, who, of course, existed and lived in Le Beausset. Whether these dramatized Oppens bear any resemblance to the real thing must remain doubtful. Pompom the horse was in fact sold shortly after George and Mary settled into their farmhouse amidst the vines, but I've twisted history and given him a decorative role, for festive reasons.


In 1933 Mary and George Oppen visited Ezra Pound at Rapallo and were disenchanted by his political lecturing and right-wing posturing. While in Italy they witnessed a rally of Mussolini's Black Shirts and decided to return home, where they were to find levels of economic and material hardship they could have scarcely imagined when they sailed from New York to Le Havre four years earlier (30). In France political unrest came to a head in the riots of 6 February 1934, when the perfume manufacturer, Francis Coty, directed his blue-shirts, led by Jean Renaud, to insurrection. On June 4 1936 the Popular Front government of Leon Blum took office, savaged by Maurras for its Jewish leadership. Earlier, on February 13 1936, Blum had been attacked in the street. On March 16, 1937, anti-fascist demonstrators were shot dead at Clichy. On April 21 1938 the right-wing government of Édouard Daladier was voted into office by a parliamentary vote of 575 to 5. On September 30, 1938, Daladier joined Neville Chamberlain in signing the Munich agreement, so allowing the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (31). And then returned to Paris after the Munich signing, he expected a hostile response from the great French public, only to find he was cheered to the rooftops. His response was to turn to his aide, Alexis Leger (Saint-John Perse), and say of the cheering crowds : 'Les cons' (the fools) and then admitted that he knew Hitler would take no notice of the Munich agreement, it was a meaningless 'peace in our time'. And so it was. On the other hand, Chamberlain, poor deluded parochial politician, just couldn't see it.

Sources :

1. Peter Nicholls :.Modernising modernism : from Pound to Oppen. Critical Quarterly, Volume 44, Number 2, July 2002, 49-50.

2. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, edited Michael Davidson, New Directions, 2002, 211.

3. Peter Nicholls, ibid.

4. Sir Edward B. Bailey : 'Some features of Provencal tectonics', Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1952; v. 108; issue 1-4; pp. 135-155.

5. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, 189

6. Peter Winch : Simone Weil "The Just Balance", Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 449

7. Ibid., p. 214

8. Mary Oppen : Meaning A Life : New Sparrow Press, 1978.p. 34

9. Victor Turner and Edith Turner : Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 1978, p.2

10 Ibid., p. 3

11. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, 177

12. George Oppen : 'Daybooks One, Two and Three', The Germ, 3, April 1999.

13. June Oppen Degnan : You're Really Getting Up There When You Find Ex-Lovers on Postage Stamps, Chapter 11, Depression and War, pages unnumbered. I am very grateful to Eric Hoffman for providing me with a typescript of part of June Oppen Degnan's autobiography.

14. Victor Turner : Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual, Cornell University Press, 1975, p.15.

15. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, 211

16. Kenneth R. Manning : Black Apollo of Science : The Life of Ernest Everett Just. Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 303-307

17. Mary Oppen : Meaning A Life, p.34

18. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, 211

19. Interview with L.S. Dembo, Contemporary Literature, Spring 1969, p.160/

20. Jacques Griault : La Var Rouge : Les Varois Et Le Socialisme De La Fin De La Guerre Mondiale Au Milieu Des Annees 1930. Publications de la Sorbonne 1995; Maurice Agulhon : The Republic in the Village : The People of the Var from the French Revolution to the Second Republic, trans. Janet Lloyd, London and Paris, Cambridge and Editions de La Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1982.

21. Michael Sheringham : Une Journee A Soi. Conference No 25, automne 2007. p. 74.

22. Eric Hoffman : All Embarkation Foundered : The Political Identity of George Oppen, 2008, p. 53

23. Robert O. Paxton : Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944. Columbia University Press, 1972, p.270

24. Ibid., p.271

25. Eric Hoffman : All Embarkation Foundered, p. 53

26. Ibid., p. 54

27. Ibid., p. 54

28. Ibid., p.54-5

29. George Oppen : New Collected Poems, 53

30.Eric Hoffman : All Embarkations Foundered, pp 54-55

31. Jacques Danos and Marcel Gibelin, translated by Peter Fysh and Christine Bourry : Struggle and the Popular Front In France, Bookmarks, London and Chicago 1986, pp. 8-9.

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