THE NIGHT I DROPPED SHAKESPEARE ON THE CAT by JOHN OLSONSTEVEN FAMA Reviews
The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat by John Olson
(Calamari Press, 2006)
The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat is not for the faint of heart. John Olson is an ardent explorer of language for whom poetry is “a whirl of energy in a shell of sound.” He embraces impulse and his poems thrive on autonomy. As he puts it, “Bees moving in and out of a hive. Words moving in and out of the mind.”
I first learned about John Olson in early 2001 from Philip Lamantia. Philip told me that Olson was “extraordinary,” had “made a discovery,”and was writing “the greatest prose poetry [he’d] ever read.” TNIDSOTC is Olson’s third book of prose poems in three years, and at 160 pages -- comprising 70 works, including an essay on poetics -- it is the largest of the bunch. He is clearly on a roll.
TNIDSOTC includes many kinds of prose poems. There are meditations on particular things, narratives, autobiographical pieces, poems responding to art, and philosophical reveries. There are poems that mix these genres and poems that can’t be classified at all. You never know page-to-page what you will find. This unpredictability is a big part of why the book is so fun and such a challenge.
The poems which meditate on particular things, such as “City of Water," “Unconscious,” “Laundry,” and “Starlings,” are among the more conventional works in the book. Francis Ponge is the obvious precursor in this genre, but Olson writes with more energy and stronger beats. His poems are from the age of rhythm and blues and rock ‘n roll.
“City of Water” is presumably about Seattle, where Olson has lived for the last three decades. The poem engagingly evokes the region’s foremost geographic feature (over 40 percent of the area is water) and its well-earned (although usually over-stated) reputation for wet weather. It begins, “I live in a city of water. Water in all its forms. Vapor, clouds, drizzle. Fountains, rivers, lakes. Inlets, ports, sounds. There is water everywhere.”
The poem continues for a page, mostly in short vigorous anaphoric sentences. Olson riffs on the ubiquity of liquid in his city, using sharp details and poetic leaps that are hallmarks of his writing. Here’s an excerpt:
“Water punctuating the earth in commas. Puddles promiscuous as nickels. Puddles impertinent as pickles. Water streaked with whorls of delinquent oil. Everywhere the sheen and luster of water. Rivers in reveries of water. Water pushed to extremes. Water falling from cliffs. Water sprayed over melons. Water in beads on the blade of a fern. Water in rivulets on a window. Water impelling a current water moving in a kind of languor water moving reflectively from rock to rock.”
The poem ends with an unexpected image of movement and stasis, enlightenment and color: “Water wiggled under a Buddha in jade.” Seattle ought to pass a resolution making “City of Water” its official poem.
A few works in TNIDSOTC, such as “The New Neighbors” and “Monsieur Dupont,” are poetic short stories. “Monsieur Dupont” is an entertaining yarn about a poet with a big house who travels through time (so yes, it’s a sci-fi prose poem too). This paragraph from the poem-story seems to reflect Olson’s own views:
“There are numerous advantages to being a poet. Poets can work at home. It may be to one’s advantage to go out into the world occasionally to seek imagery and wisdom, but on balance, the information that goes into a poem is not limited to the debris and data of external reality. Much of what goes into a poem is spun from the silk of one’s own mind.”
In addition to the stories and poems about things, TNIDSOTC also has a few works that respond to art. “Miro’s Blues” concerns a series of large paintings (Blue I, II, III) by the Spanish surrealist and is especially impressive. For almost ten pages Olson puts the paintings under a microscope and launches reveries about what he sees. Here’s an excerpt about Blue II; typical for Olson, its associational train is both focused and freewheeling:
“Running diagonally across the canvas, from right to left, is a thin black line. It is barely perceptible. It is so thin and delicate that it assumes the power of eternity. A skeleton trumpeting death. The joy of candy. Spray from a rock. Electricity in lemons. A head full of heaven.”
TNIDSOTC also has a few purely autobiographical poems. The book’s title piece is six long paragraphs concerning B.B. King heard at a distance, seeing the Rolling Stones on French TV, the spin of information on CNN, classified ads for sex, the movie version of Julius Caesar, the meaning of “that delicious space we call fiction,” and, yes, the night Olson dropped Shakespeare (the heavy Riverside edition, accidentally) on his cat. This last scenario may cause alarm, but without giving anything away I can assure everyone that no animal was harmed in the making of the poem.
Another autobiographical poem is “Philip Lives: A Lament for Lamantia.” Written after the San Francisco surrealist’s 2005 death, it is a moving remembrance and celebration of a poet who Olson obviously greatly admires. (Olson’s poetic and aesthetic pantheon includes many innovators; he has published poems or essays acknowledging the importance of Rimbaud, Stein, Ashbery, Mac Low, Dylan (Tarantula), and Dubuffet, among others.) “Philip Lives” also shows how Olson allows his impulsive poetic energy to take over. Here’s a paragraph from near the start of the poem; notice how its simple directness pivots and takes off:
“Philip lived and breathed poetry. He called poetry a miracle in words. Which is precisely what it is. A miracle in words. Rhapsodies of pain passionate wavelengths tortured minerals sublimated into bubbling autonomy. Delicious anomalies paradisiacal pancakes morning prayer in the bowl of dawn. Fireworks in Mexican villages. The aroma of dragons. Analogues parallels pantisocratic parakeets.”
TNIDSOTC also has poems that are philosophical reveries (for example, “A Bee Is a Predicate With Wings”). It also has poems that begin as one type of poem (a Ponge-like piece, for example) but then bend or twist into something else. Olson is unpredictable even within the poems themselves.
The majority of the poems in TNIDSOTC don’t fit into the categories already discussed, or perhaps any category at all. I call these unclassifiable works “out there.” The term is used as shorthand for the poems’ singular wildness and nonconformity. Olson in “The Fabric of Fabrication” writes that “anything can be constructed out of words.” In the “out there” poems he shows just how immeasurable and mysterious “anything” can be when built with language in the free play of imagination.
In the “out there” poems, sentences usually have no overt connection to one another, and the same can be true of at least some words within the sentences. “Meniscus,” a more or less typical example of the “out there” poems, begins as follows:
“The flamboyance of trout awakens the cadence of water. It is a symptom of birch. Piano and rocking chair confirm the belt of Orion. The fungus did to the salami what the salami did to the harmonica of fable. It became a scrap of royalty, an amaryllis by the bay. Everything turned quiet as a mountain trumpet.”
The poem continues in this way for more than a page. Olson relentlessly introduces images and associations, stretching and re-inventing language and meaning.
Some readers will be put off by the “out there” poems’ mix of wild energy and experiment. Those looking for messages or logical development will be disappointed. Olson at least gives fair warning to readers in a few sentences towards the end of “Delinquent Circuitry,” the first poem in the book. “Do you seek meaning and wisdom in a poem?,” he asks, and then writes, “I seek the occurrence of sound in protein. In propulsion. In bas-relief.”
The only way to take these “out there” poems are on their own terms. Readers able to love them as they are -- with their sui generis energetic oddness, indeterminancy, freedom and occasional warts -- will find them compelling and fun. They are uncompromising invigorating adventures into the possible. Each poem is “a leopard of thought moving . . . through a jungle of words.” That’s a quotation from Olson’s “This Other World: An Essay On Artistic Autonomy,” a seven page essay on his poetics which ends the book (and from which the quotations in the first paragraph of this review are taken).
All the poems in TNIDSOTC are marked by an almost otherworldly richness of language. Not rich in an overly-luxurious or heavy way, like caviar or chocolate mousse, but something far more nutritious and necessary. Olson’s prose poems are mother’s milk for healthy imaginations. His sentences are full of life. Life that is eruptive, wiggly, maniacal, and unquantifiable, to again borrow words Olson himself uses, in “This Other World,” to describe his writing.
Olson writes in “Free Will Is Not A Profession” that “astonishing coincidences surge ceaselessly everywhere.” His dedication to this aspect of our existence, especially as it manifests within language itself, animates his writing. Olson’s sentences, particularly in the “out there” poems, are full of surprising chance encounters between words and images. “Values in the egret city were such flippers as to hair the swells with suites of honeyed obscurity,” the first sentence of “Other Than Carrots,” is a typical example.
Occasionally, the surge of coincidences comes so fast that sentences are pared down to a word or two or three. The last part of a paragraph in “A Bee Is a Predicate With Wings,” for example, has a sentence of conventional length (“An aperture in the mind dilates into orchards and monkeyshines”) and then the following: “Resolute buccaneers. Rope and canvas. Mermaids. Fiddles. Verbs.” This staccato not only drums up rhythmic variety but also serves as an object lesson of the astonishing surge that nourishes Olson’s poems.
Olson only sparingly uses certain of the poet’s tools, such as metaphor and simile. But when he does, watch out! “Time is but a jackknife between mayhem and rhapsody,” Olson asserts in “Native Emulsion.” In “Absorption Spectrum” he writes, “Reading is like pouring a famished eye on a page of fluorescence and ore.” Pierre Reverdy, who counseled poets to bring together the most distant and distinct realities, surely would approve.
One tool not used sparingly is sound. Sound may be the outstanding feature of TNIDSOTC. Most of Olson’s poems beg to be read aloud. The sounds are varied and can be huge. The first sentence of “The Conservation of Strangeness” reads, “It is keen and convincing to quiver a who.” I’ve been repeating that aloud to myself and friends for weeks now. I love how the hard consonance and other alliterations resolve into a hoot-owl exhalation: “It is keen and convincing to quiver a who.”
Olson unleashes an onomatopoeic ornithological alliteration for the ages in “The New Neighbors,” a lovely long rant about the people who moved into the apartment upstairs. Near the end of the poem he describes the noises he hears, including the mating calls and snoring of frogs (the new neighbors are quite unusual), and then writes:
“To this was added the cacophony of birds. Thousands of birds. Golden-rumped tinker barbets, Burchell’s coucals, Klass’s cuckoos, spotted dikkops, purple-crested louries, and tambourine doves.”
The extraordinary vigor of this passage is emblematic of how words rock and sing in TNIDSOTC as a whole.
With its variety and number of poems, overall length, and richness of language, TNIDSOTC is massive and dense. It can take weeks to take in its many pieces. This may discourage readers. These days, a poetry book is commonly a short chap or a 100 page or less perfect-bound edition. Although I sometimes prefer a quick hit of a writer’s work, or a longer focused collection, I am grateful that Olson published this profuse potpourri of prose poetry. It’s a book to read not for day or a week, but a season or two, and to re-read for a long, long time.
John Olson has earned a measure of recognition in his hometown of Seattle. Two years ago he received a “genius award” from the city’s weekly newspaper, and currently his writing notebooks are on display at the University of Washington’s Henry Museum. But elsewhere his work is not nearly as well appreciated. This is partly due to the fact that Olson was a late bloomer in terms of publication. His first book (a chap) did not appear until just before his 50th birthday. Next year, he will turn 60. I hope he has a very long life. His poems, I believe, most certainly will.
Steven Fama lives in San Francisco and recently became eligible to join AARP. He reads lots and lots of poetry.