Geoffrey G. O'Brien

People on Sunday (1930)

Now they really are involved, drinking
Coffee with the elms behind them. The trick
To wet the coiled paper slowly so the day
Expands like a writhing insect
As trash is swept up and the resultant street
Hosed down, not everyone is free to brag
In the black and white sunshine.
It gets in the eyes of the mechanic during his
Rotations of the left front wheel
Spinning like the crowds around a monument.
Okay, fine, but what about tomorrow?
Done. The rest is knitting outdoors
Or no, she was petting a struggling cat
That from a distance looked to be
Complacent wool while she stood there.
Barge after barge follows this mistake
Along the major river she considers
While getting ready, starting with her nails,
But maybe she doesn’t want to go out
Yet, ambivalence of lying back down
With one’s shoes still on. Jacket off,
He’s proud of his surroundings, the two
Bottles on a table by a single glass.
Amazingly, they are in the same apartment
Reading parts of a single paper
By the inadvertent clock of a faucet
Leaking. It’s not even Sunday yet
Nor are they actors, but it’s time to change

Clothes, sweep the face with a lathered brush
By a wall with photographs of film stars on it.
You use a scissors, I’ll use razor and soap
And for some reason we’ll both go to work
Destroying their faces after having gone
To great lengths to collect and mount them.
It’s a prelude to going out in our best
Or will they, maybe an argument about
How she’s chosen to wear her hat first,
A bit of a scene in which more photographs
Get destroyed. Or forget photos actually,
We can play cards now that there are two men
Present and she’ll have to watch
Sunday punish her without access to its images
Of smoke from a chimneystack, a man asleep
On a park bench, collective living
Pursued in a single bed. Only now
Is it Sunday. He wakes first and washes up,
Tries to rouse her somewhat roughly
But she is not yet there in the way he is
So he leaves a note by the cards and glasses
On the table at which he’d sat with the other
Man and goes. There are so many like him
Outside, and monuments, arches to be
Passed through in a car, and of course
The bridges, the smoke. That which can’t be
Passed through or under can still be passed by,
Advertisements on the sides of apartments,
Windows, trains, and trees. They’re all going
To the same unrevealed place, half an arrow.
Shy in the best friend role, she looks down
Suddenly interested in tree-filtered light
On pavement. You go on, I must make
A phone call, walk down these endless stairs,
Buy a postcard, order a drink, pair off as
The whims of the atmosphere demand,
Carry a suitcase through the park
To its less populated places. In fact,
That’s what my silent phone call is about,
That and whether she’s even gotten out
Of bed or whether her shoes are still
Unoccupied. It turns out you can walk
All the way to a beach, where you’d take them off
Again to become the postcard of a bather
If no one saw you undress and change.
Now the suitcase makes sense, but not
That kind, it seems to be a portable
Device for playing music, music to change to
With clouds as inspiration. This is
Working out, there are definite foregrounds
And backgrounds, each composed
Then dissolving or stopping abruptly

Starting up again as though continuous
And yes, she’s still in bed so you’ll have to
Enter the water without her, a splash of white
Where you just were. You, if you are still
The man on shore, help the other
Woman with her impossible suit and now
Your friendliness has a touch of eros to it,
You would wake her much less roughly
On that same part of the back of the shoulder
You targeted unsuccessfully this morning,
But this one’s already awake and away,
You share a single body with the water
And forget. Swimming from becomes
Swimming towards, a flirtation through
The awkwardness of the element, and walking
Down steps requires they be walked back up,
Agreeable fate they greet as though air
Were water and vision. Whose desire
Is this anyway and is it a cloud or the boat
Beneath the cloud, the blanket or the sand
Beneath that or the thermos and bottles, etc.
If he won’t move the other man will and if
He won’t serve them sausages the other
Does till everyone is restored—losing some
Is okay because there’s enough and it’s not
Ever lost—he cleans it off and eats it anyway.
Coughing and laughing, each can cause the other
But laughing may last longer in a moment
While coughing goes on intermittently for days
Like a group of boys in ties who take turns
Striking each other. Who’s next is more painful
Than the blows themselves, the same with goals
In sports or growing up into shame about
Your nakedness. Swimming the distance
From birth you’re now used to experiencing
As water or Sunday, those two girls at a window
Fringed by oak trees. The other method to fall
Asleep on a park bench so that while clothed
You have no sense you are, or your trust in others
A nakedness your clothes wear and for a second
We can lie back upon the grasses partly
Naked, taking liberties we won’t push too far.
We are as asleep as she who never left the bed,
Who sleeps for us all like a perfect actor.
Now the mid-afternoon when storefronts thrive,
Fountains rise a little higher, vision pans
Always to the left across construction sites,
Laundry hung out windows, public statues
(Men or animals) and even an obelisk
Crowds rotate around rather than confront
Their obvious destination. In time
It’s all sand, even the marble, so smile
While holding still whether naked or not,
Knowing or not, fat with discomfort
Or aware it’s a trap even when surprised

To know this. Those in front of a camera
Are missing in a saintly way, statues with lives.
Their smiles carry injury, their sadness a power
To adapt, say thank you to the worst of it,
Make a game of snatching its hat and running off
Throwing it till it lodges in one of the oaks.
This precipitates a whole other serious game
Of cooperation—at least three will be required
To spend time getting back the hat of only one,
An inefficiency permitted on Sunday,
The day groups form and learn from,
Deciding where within the frame to go next.
Before choosing a path touch your mouth
Looking sadly at the available options
Then take none at all except the space
Between young trees. Here you’ll meet him
For a second but keep going, there are better
Places to stop for what will happen, and act
Surprised, even discouraged, when he behaves
Predictably; you do too, and where you touch
Each other proof will bloom, you aren’t trees
Growing out of sand. Head back to the right,
You can’t go left forever; go up even, up and right
Then down to where he’s standing while you
Fake sleep and waking from it. He looks like
He’s getting ready for work, holds a pinecone
Like it’s an ancient tool. Others are similarly
Strewn through the instant’s overexposure,
Sprawled or walking, trudging down embankments
Or headed back to the starting point. It’s a huge park
Filled with time they are going to convene
Drowsily, close the musical briefcase, no, not yet,
First a kind of modular pairing-off known
As where are the others—it feels good to say
Finally, even if no answer is immediately
Forthcoming or has stopped to take something
Out of its shoe. The answer is they are here
One at time. That feels good too, slanted
Light to play a last song on the portable
While the final straggler makes her reluctant
Way across involuntary terrain
Over to the fact of the rest. She almost got lost
And that almost is crucial, with its being time
To return, the blue of the afternoon darker
Or deeper, a fight about to break out. Pleasures
Have to be shared, and the grimness thereof
When they’re about to fade. There are many
Others afterwards; they keep falling through
The speed of any one activity’s end
Into a paddleboat either sex can power

Without shame; it’s even enjoyable to move
From passenger to operator and back,
Thinking or doing, melancholy or magnanimous.
The four have forgotten about those who are not
In their boat but are surrounded all the same
By shoreline with unlimited populations
Maples by the water represent; the men
Start play-hitting her, taking fake turns
As they near the shore, and she is mad and happy,
An oar in their water. It’s time to remember, talk
Across greater distances, cooperate with strangers
Stranded nearby. We’ll go over there and retrieve
For them what they can’t get for themselves
Even if it makes us jealous of each other.
Sad to be connected to somebody by so little
So briefly, a note thrown in the water
Unfolds faster. Pedaling hard now they reach
A mooring that leads to others, to a structure
Of some kind where they will have to part
If not all have the money to go on, no, they can
Lend him the money to ensure they meet again.
And he is there, they’re four and one,
It’s still Sunday, full and orchestral if right
About to wane as well. The four become two
Men and two women thinking of the next
Sunday, and probably lying to each other
About this so their bodies will part for real.
One man breaks his cigarette in two to celebrate,
Gives half to the other man. They ride the tram
Like boys without jobs but even they are parted
By the numbers waiting on their buildings.
Back in the apartment the two bottles there
On the table and she still asleep in the bed
As though no time has passed, she refused it,
Nothing has happened but the empty beer.
It’s morning for her but not in the world
That can trade a night for another day
Simply by lifting an invisible hand.
Full morning already, fog in the park
Transported by the many coming off
That double bridge, determined again
To block out the thought of four million
Doing Monday likewise out of sight.
And the cabs that stop almost as often
As they start, bottles packed in crates
On the beds of passing trucks, the rhythm
Causes trivial forgetfulness, white sky.
She leaves her purchase behind in the shop
But it catches her up at the door.

Editors’ Notes

People on Sunday (1930) was written in response to the film of the same name made in Germany using nonactors. The original German version (Menschen am Sonntag) was directed by Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, Rochus Gliese. Billy Wilder collaborated on the screenplay before he came to the United States. At the time of writing the poem, the film wasn't available on DVD so it was written while watching it on Youtube split into 5 sections of roughly 15m each (visible in the poem as the only stanza breaks). Film, internet, narrative, poetry all converging in a contemporary reception of a modernist critique of the weekend.

Geoffrey G. O'Brien

Geoffrey G. O'Brien Geoffrey G. O’Brien is the author of Metropole (2011), Green and Gray (2007), and The Guns and Flags Project (2002), all from The University of California Press, and coauthor (in collaboration with the poet Jeff Clark) of 2A (Quemadura, 2006); chapbooks include Three Authors, with John Ashbery and Timothy Donnelly (Minus A Press, 2012), Hesiod (Song Cave, 2010), and Poem with No Good Lines (Hand Held Editions, 2010). O’Brien is an Associate Professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley and also teaches for the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison.