D.E. Oprava’s American Means is an epic poem, in ninety-two pages, twenty sections and a short coda. Despite its length, after reading it, re-reading it and reading it again, I know nothing about the poet’s relationship with his father, how he responds to trees or sunsets or whether or not he has the capability to become a stitch in poetry’s rich tapestry by executing a sonnet, ode or villanelle about his feelings for his lover, perhaps, expressed via the extended metaphor of eating a bowl of soup, or God forbid, the act of writing a poem.
This is because, in the context of contemporary English-language poetry, David Oprava has done an unusual thing: he has written a book that sustainedly engages with and explores an important public and political theme (broadly, the state of contemporary America) and is not, like most other books of poetry (collections?), a series of disparate personal observations and experiences refracted through the disengaged yet narcissistic lens of a le poeme pour le poeme sensibility. And you know why he has done this, why he has been able to do this? Because, Oprava’s point of departure in American Means is that he’s got something to say; he’s not just an Eng Lit whizz-kid with an arguable flair for language who wants to be a writer as an end-in-itself.
Borne of ‘frustration and hope with an aim to cross the divide between the poetic, the political and the purely academic’, American Means (a triple pun – read it and get it) is a despairing lament for what America has become and an inchoate call for revival. Oprava’s deeply felt position is not an original one: the blame for America’s decline from Leave it to Beaver to Generation Kill is laid squarely at the door of the conspiratorial, election stealing, waterboarding, greed-is-good, moral-panic-mongering forces of darkness that have undermined tolerance and social justice in America for decades, in the modern era culminating in the grotesque perversity of the Bush II years. For all that, American Means is a poem of hope, and a large chunk of Oprava’s hope, certainly according to the poem’s coda, seems pinned on Barack Obama. Whether this is because Oprava genuinely believes that Obama has the wherewithal to steer America in a more progressive direction, or simply that he’s not a skull and bones WASP looking to exploit the country for the benefit of a plutocrat elite, is moot.
American Means is a road trip through USA 2009 in two main voices, ‘she’ and ‘he’. Via the voices of these characters, we encounter despair at what America has become and hope for what America might be (once again). ‘She’, is a nameless woman who has been deserted by her man (‘Greed’). The protagonists are allegorical; on my reading, ‘she’ is America, or at any rate, the ‘innocent’ America, the working people, the salt-of-the-earth left bereft and despairing by out-of-control capitalists and the pervasive ideology of hyper-acquisitiveness that has thrust the world into recession and in doing so maimed uncounted lives. As we read on, other capitalized allegories of American archetypes – Waste, Sloth, Avarice, Faith, Charity – think Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy (Murder, Fraud, etc) are introduced. I’m not sure this device works, or is necessary. The old dictum ‘show not tell’ comes to mind; perhaps fewer voices, allowed to organically become fully rounded characters, as well as allegorical representations, would have been more impactful?
‘She’ remains the main protagonist nevertheless, and American Means progresses via her travelogue through recession stricken America, a Grapes of Wrath style journey to find hope and a future. Along the way, after first being run down by the heavy-handed metaphor of an out-of-control ‘eighteen wheeler’, she ranges across (allowing the narrator to critique) various aspects of the contemporary USA – the healthcare system, poverty, apathy, gun-culture, imperial decline, feminism and many more.
American Means is written in a loosely associative, lyrical free verse. The mood is wistful and pensive, the opening lines of the poem being typical - ‘This land, a lonesome notion/whose hopes hang on clothes-/pinned winds, chafing, ideals tied to the/forsaken roots of what’s been.’ However, for all its sensitivity, this is passionate and angry writing – Oprava writes like a wounded animal – ‘A new no man’s land creeping/cross country with the/dispossessed sleeping in /shanty towns whilst their/repossessed homes lie empty … turn children out on the/street … vandals sack and loot … the principles of free-market/draconian-isms’ - showing vulnerability, anger and pain.
As might be expected from such a long and ambitious work, there is some unevenness. Although
Oprava’s language is always evocative, his imagery and references are sometimes too disparate and require tighter wiring. Although you can see what the poet is aiming for, and admire the lyrical ingenuity, in something like,
‘ … the/Gotterdammerung gearing-up at/the Last Chance Diner, lost in/the pulled-tooth range of a/once-upon west, mining/companies gone with hammer and/tong leaving no fiscal/dentures to fill the mountainous gaps,’ the over-complex metaphor seems forced and focuses the reader less on the affect of the language, but the virtuosity of the writer, dissipating impact. Sometimes less is more.
The weary tone and excursive narrative style of American Means put me in mind of Amours de Voyage by the Victorian poet, Arthur Hugh Clough. As with Amours, American Means is an accessible, intelligent read that is easy to settle into and encourages further reading – a virtue in a long poem. However, it shares with Amours a lack of variety in pace, intensity and format that can sometimes result in a flat, monotonous effect, allowing the reader’s attention to drift.
Despite this, there’s some great writing in American Means (‘an uppity mobile home fuelled on/bottled gas rots in weeds/nestled amongst old tires’; ‘Cop doesn’t care for the look/of the man hovering at the gas/station pumps, skulking naked-/faced and scribble-lipped’) and some cracking sardonic lines (‘this is what Jesus would/have done on a welfare check,/got drunk and bought a gun). Oprava is always attentive to the possibilities of language and wordplay proliferates (‘the milk’s cheesed off’, ‘beating it flaccid’, ‘waging sense on the automatons pressing flesh in the trading halls’) without ever giving the impression that he is merely a ‘clever’ writer.
As ‘she’ progresses cross country to the ‘continental divide’, middle America/ordinary Americans is/are encountered in towns, diners, bars and in the landscape; it seems to be here, in the ‘middle of elsewhere’ (as opposed to the ‘coastal crust’) where the people have ‘no malice or leering eye’ and cling to ‘home and family … a job and a car that’s seen better days’ that hope and decency is to be found, primarily articulated in the voice of ‘he’, who ‘she’ encounters in the latter sections and who I can’t help but feel is an alter-ego of the poet himself. In finding hope in middle-America, Oprava’s position echoes that of the Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, who responds to actress Sarah Sloane’s patronizing metropolitan jibe, ‘I didn’t know there were still people like you left,’ with, ‘Yep. We occupy that useless bit of land between New York and Los Angeles called America.’
The poem ends with an appeal to ‘turn back ways’, implicitly to the core values of decency embodied in middle-America, to find ‘hope/a new American mean’. A coda follows, the heart-on-sleeve Hope, a poem originally written to commemorate Obama’s inauguration as President, in which the narrator outlines his impassioned hope that Obama can lead the regeneration of a nation.
Oprava is to be congratulated for his ambition, and American Means is some achievement; but the question remains – has he pulled it off? Has he managed, over the 92 pages of this mammoth poem, to sustain engagement with his theme and maintain the quality of writing, insight and structure to the extent that American Means can be adjudged a realized, ‘successful poem’ and not merely a ‘laudable attempt’?
By and large, I think he has, although I do have reservations; the thinking-out-loud, narrative style of American Means can lead to prolixity and excursis; it is perhaps too panoramic, too all-encompassing, which sometimes leads to generalisation and abstraction. The many allegorical voices/characters can be confusing. The summarizing interjections of the narratorial voice are sometimes intrusive. Overall, I can’t help but feel the whole would’ve been be sharper and more polished if it had undergone a more rigorous editing process, that impression perhaps being confirmed by the presence of some erratic punctuation and possible typos.
Overwhelmingly though, kudos to Oprava; he has made an honest, heartfelt and often successful attempt to engage with an important theme, and beyond that, with a world that many poets barely acknowledge the existence of - the world outside themselves and their personal experience. American Means contains much admirable writing, a good deal of insight and a richness and intelligence that repay re-reading. If you’re going to buy a book of poetry this week, buy this one; a big, risky, aspirational work - flawed, yes, but with flaws that come with reach; far better that than the more typical poetry book experience – being underwhelmed by an arbitrary arrangement of safe and (sometimes) perfect forms.
-reviewed by SE