Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s chapbook Hesiod, published in 2010 by The Song Cave, takes its name from a Greek poet who wrote during the 6th and 7th centuries BC. The historical Hesiod was a contemporary of Homer; he was among the first Greek poets to introduce the self as a subject of his verse. Hesiod wrote about ancient Greek beliefs and practices ranging from mythology and astronomy to economics and farming. In short, he set out to detail the complicated intersection of the poet’s subjectivity and the day-to-day life and habits—in all of their minutiae and grandeur—in which the poet necessarily submerges himself. O’Brien’s Hesiod stands as a continuation of the Greek poet’s humanist project; he pulls time, space, days of the week, living within a city, and material products into the web of realities that he lives within. O’Brien’s Hesiod also acknowledges that it is not only the poet who lives immersed in these tediously profound (and profoundly tedious) existential circumstances, but also the non-poet, the non-writer. Hesiod democratizes and expands the space of the poet to include those whose life has no intersection with literature—however, he does not do so by speaking for those who are poetically voiceless and appropriating the voice of an unknown other. Rather, O’Brien presents his own subjectivity (and by extension, values all subjectivities) as a vessel containing limited experience which is able to contact and provide insights to a broad human experience.
The chapbook comprises a long poem, which is written in a single column of text unbroken by titles, numbers, or stanza breaks (save for one). This gives the verse of Hesiod a distinct rhythm (both in the reader’s mind and in its form on the page) that flows without pause until the poem’s conclusion. The continuity and surficially (or formally) linear structure of the poem works in parallel to one of O’Brien’s primary themes: the nature of time and the dual forms in which it seems to appear. Hesiod contrasts the immediate, transient, moment-to-moment sense of time in which we perceive our lives with the infinite and ungraspable nature of the eternal.
The month lies further
Divided into weeks, which will have
A habit of encroaching, and what was all
Dark circles of potential in the hand
Or a nearly transparent green
Floating just outside the obvious soon
Falls back to familiar hours
Designed for a desert capital
Where to walk around unaccosted
Has become a form of genius.
Yet despite the abstract nature of O’Brien’s concerns with time, the poem is grounded in a pragmatic concern that entwines all of Hesiod’s themes: time, the relation between a subject and the material things that he uses on a daily basis, and the pressures of living in a prescriptive culture. These major themes highlight the formal query of the chapbook: how can a language-using subject interact with the physical and immaterial objects constituting his world without either dominating them or being dominated by them? To this effect, Hesiod often works in the space of metaphor and allegory; O’Brien bends the contexts and associations of the objects within the long poem to form a material mesh which strengthens the force of his concerns with everyday life juxtaposed—not always comfortably—with philosophical probing and speculation.
I’d like instead a total serum
To change the pace of conversations
You have with those same days
The man is selling subscriptions for
Despite light rain coming down
Unscheduled. If not handing over
Anything, if it occurs to you anyway
To drop the changing blade you didn’t
Know you held, have held too long,
Then do so, it won’t lose its edge.
This is not to say that O’Brien’s use of language—and the objects that it describes—is appropriative or controlling. He allows objects to permeate matter-of-fact statements, questions, imperative demands, and other types of common speech in ways that vex both language and object, but which undermine the autonomy of neither.
Hesiod also challenges the notion of a distinct “poetic language,” often believed to be at work in verse by defamiliarizing concepts that would be otherwise familiar to the reader and imitating reality in ways that make it novel and unexpected. O’Brien uses non-poetic language—words, phrases, diction, and statements that are drawn from an everyday lexicon—to trouble the division between the “poetic” and “non-poetic.”
From the 27th to the 28th rest
In embarrassing determinations:
Dressed before you leave the house,
Give no credence to initial thoughts
That round things love form more
Than angled ones. Wait mindless
As an herb.
If a specifically functioning category of language is not necessary to create a poetic effect on the page, Hesiod asserts, perhaps the distinction itself is useless and can be dismissed from our conceptualization of poetry.
O’Brien’s chapbook is a cohesive, tight, and masterfully crafted exploration into the significance and challenges of documenting one’s motions through the world and the objects that populate it. Hesiod strikes an admirable balance of abstract pseudo-theorization and descriptive material connection, all while maintaining consistency in its everyday, unstilted vernacular. The poem concludes: “the rich man is he / Who attaches no name to public works / And refrains from loving anything.” This is to be read not as antisocial prescription, but rather serves as a suitable dismissal to the reader, who subsequently must engage her own vernacular of language, time, perception, and objects, and reconcile these often abrasive realities into a suitable daily life.
Download Hesiod for free at The Song Cave
Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has a MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.