Paul Oppenheimer's latest book of poetry, In Times of Danger, feasts on paradox. Composed entirely of sonnets, it is a book that must be both in concert with past masters of the form and, at the same time, stand in opposition to them. Oppenheimer yokes the urban and the rural, juxtaposes fear with serenity, and yet beneath his polished cynicism, there is a lingering trace of earnest Romanticism.
Oppenheimer prefers the relative freedom of the Petrarchan sonnet over the occasionally cloying English and, accordingly, most of his sonnets are of this form. While the rhyme schemes of his poems are often traditional (there are very few half or off rhymes), the rhymes themselves are often surprising and refreshing. Even so, Oppenheimer is such a master of the form that the end rhyme is often purposefully obscured and difficult to pinpoint when read audibly. By doing this, he avoids the sonnet trap of being “sing-songy” and gives his poetry its due gravity.
Focusing on New York City circa 9/11, Oppenheimer’s poetry is in tune with the city’s initial aloof insularity, and its post-attack fiery search for retribution, its brittle conscientiousness, and fragile heart. An early five sonnet sequence that begins with “9/11” and ends with “The Beauty-Terror Trick” takes us through the whole range of human emotion of the attacks. He shows us the view of the outsider, the person in one of the towers, the volunteers, the street-level witness, and the removed cynic. Yet despite all this fireball and building-crumbling terror, hope is omnipresent throughout this book and adds an undeniable humanization to the work’s whole.
He contrasts this supremely urban terror with the inherent terrors and serenities of the natural world. Focusing on the rural areas surrounding New York City, such as the Catskills, Oppenheimer creates a tension between the seemingly incompatible beauties and atrocities that nature creates. “I never doubt the seven seas in us,” he says in “Seven Seas” before finishing: “I see…/ and know those seas in us, how they extend/ from so far back that love can have no end.” He contrasts this optimism in the natural with poems like “Crow in the Sun.” While consciously recalling Ted Hughes’ famous poem/fable sequence on the same subject, Oppenheimer describes his crow in relation to the wider world:
It seems that poets, no matter the era in which they’re writing, have some soul-wrenching understanding of birds. Oppenheimer is no different. He sees more in mountains, forests, and streams than the average nature enthusiast and understands their animals better than the italicized-name givers of science.
Occasionally, Oppenheimer trends toward an overly elaborate floridity. I would argue that he does this in the name of sarcasm or playfulness, as in “A Diagnostic Moment.” However, not all of his sarcasm is as easily identifiable as in the aforementioned. His opening poem “In the Country” is a lyrical rendering of anthropomorphism, a concerto of sound, a diagram of movement, and a knowledge of language and rhythm that recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets. Yet despite all of those positives, the reader cannot keep up with the torrid movement within the poem, its many descriptives and allusions. We’re left with a vague impression of a natural landscape, a general ominousness relieved only by the author’s ending, “eternity would not last us,/ nor any darkness ever take our measure.”
Given all of this, we can see that In Times of Danger is essentially a riff on Romantic poetry. Oppenheimer creates his poems by observing his surroundings and then turning his thoughts inward. When he doesn’t make this intrapersonal turn, he creates his surroundings as an objective correlative in order to signal the reader how the poet is reacting. That’s not to say that Oppenheimer is dogmatic; his poems are enigmatic or ambiguous as often as they are scathing and forceful.
The poems in In Times of Danger are complex and intricately layered but extremely rewarding. The language is precise, crisp, and fresh. Oppenheimer takes one of the oldest forms in the history of English-language poetry and makes it seem an invention of modernity. For a book with such a bleak scope of subject matter, I can’t think of any more complimentary summation than to say In Times of Danger is one of the most refreshing books (not just books of poetry) I’ve ever read.