Reviewed September 1, 2014 by Michael Flatt.
John Olson’s Larynx Galaxy (Black Widow Press, 2012) is an intimidating read. First, the book is 500 pages long. Add to this the fact that the poems here are exclusively prose poems, and you essentially have a word count equalling that of a good-sized novel, but with none of the things that can make reading novels breezy and all of the things that make reading poetry slow. Each sentence is its own meditation, often conveying the inherent contradiction of meditation (to think, yet think of nothing). The seemingly endless compiling of aphorisms constructs a toothpick tower of reason that sways with every breeze but never quite collapses.
For me, the primary question of this volume concerns neo-surrealism. Contemporary writers like Matthew Zapruder and Zachary Schomburg have popularized a goofy and absurd form of melancholy narrative poems, following the models made by Charles Simic, Bob Hicok and Dean Young last century. Meanwhile poets like Christine Hume and Christian Hawkey utilize the surreal effect in a less narrative vein opened up by Alice Notley (whom almost no one would call a surrealist but whose work certainly carries the mark of the absurd).
Larynx Galaxy continues Olson’s work of combining elements of both these traditions with a L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E.-y approach that recalls Jackson Mac Low and Lisa Jarnot, among others. This unlikely combination makes for a lyrical but disjunctive aesthetic that leaves plenty of room for direct statements. “A Moment’s Ornament” serves as a good representation:
I am wearing the hat which has just now introverted my fingers. It impels my mood into a nebula of willingness that begins by greeting clappers and planets. The oasis has been created by a faucet of beautiful chrome, bald to the vision as the opulence of French to a tongue of steel. Its very sphere is a job to open. If we fold this genre of speaking into a paragraph we will become ravenous for dots. Seclusion is shattering my circle. The air is ablaze. Symptoms of independence are ambushed and farmed. The clash of powerful coffees transforms our extroversion to metaphorical ash. The asphalt has been respectably milked into handsprings red from potatoes. Grace to propellers. Their elegy is growling. We have painted the sound late at night on the glowing roots of a bloated punctuation. Rumor is a rascal, a bang in Céret. The flaming murmurs next to your table are bone. Only the texture of certain fibers can begin the wealth of denim. It is a private ghost that endeavors to ride the horses of prayer. Muscle a bruice into nails and the universe will tremble. There is a churning in your skull whose virtue will be realized once the sidewalk has been explored. Your thumb is laughing because the ovation is langorous. We anticipated a more photogenic snow. The latitude of our eyebrows has turned to cement. The spars of our ship are on a level of grandeur equal to the biology of birds. It is afloat in my novel now, the words carried into echoes on the sanguine back of a purposeless swan, intriguing and fat. Go ahead. Knock at the door. It is all a fantasy anyway, this constant reaching for things that are upside down, ships and lips and this enormous hypothetical hat whose brim is a replica of Dublin and whose crown is a proposal of auk.
There is a good number of Olson’s tendencies here. The first sentence is banal, and yet impossible. In the next, there is an abstraction treated as concrete/material: “a nebula of willingness.” These are moves that are familiar to the Simic line of neosurrealism. However, the more nuanced consideration of the acts of speaking and writing that follows (“If we fold this genre of speaking into a paragraph we will become ravenous for dots.”) is more attuned to the intellectualized absurdity of Notley. His aphorisms at times feel fantastically true: “It is a private ghost that endeavors to ride the horses of prayer.” This is a line that could serve as the last sentence in a chapter of a Faulkner novel.
But as aphorisms are wont to do, there are some that feel too masculine, too sure of themselves, and not very true, such as the one that follows the previous: “Muscle a bruise into nails and the universe will tremble.” While the impossibility of the semantics would seem to undercut the line’s sentiment, one feels that the speaker would wish to make the universe tremble with muscle and bruises and nails, and this is a bit hard to get behind.
Olson is at his best when his aphorisms and his L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. tendencies do a complex dance that forces you to reread sentences to decide in what way meaning is being made: through traditional semantics, surreal impossibilities, or lingual soup-making. “Easy and Spinning and Kind to All”:
Consciousness is that energy in my head that invests substances with thought and is like a fetus or gymnasium. To scrub a horde is pulsation but to precede a khaki is itself instrumental to snag a birthmark. Birds are crowded. Space is merely feathers. Extension giggles fruitful mosaics. My pearls worry their luster with forecast. Colors swimming in nickel. An array of snow which sticks to the sides of our budget indicates screens and contrivances. Buds aren’t much else than inflammations crushed in romance. Fluttering is rarely sturdy. A purple camera inhabits its words like a tempo clothed in cheeks of octagonal goodness. The west is dirt. The rowdiness it stirs is all beatitude and conviviality. The jeep of these words is sheer oil. Syllables assembled piece by piece. If you push writing to its natural performance angles and smells and burlap go forth in pictures made of pure mythology. What beauty does is change into truth. But truth is too tight for the grip of wisdom. Taken simply, it is a theory, or rainbow. Everything has a surface except coffee. Coffee is five tints in a detour. The delicacy of its patterns is pregnant with tongues. Each sip plays to a postage particular to the invocation of light. Consciousness is expanded by its walk. This is how vertebrates began to ejaculate meaning. The biggest language I ever saw was a generality dried by sunlight. It goes naked in our nerves, but turns cotton in the air, where it is reasonable to expect heaven to stir into thought and knock at the door of perception. It takes many different glands to tremble like this. Music crackling in a fingernail. A wad of meaning submerged in words. Easy and spinning and kind to all.
The first sentence here makes perfectly good sense. Even the double simile is clear enough: consciousness is something that grows inside of us, and is nurtured toward that growth, or it is something in which we play games. The second sentence is immediately strange. I suppose a horde could be scrubbed, but when was the last time you even saw a horde, and identified it as such? And in what way is scrubbing a horde pulsation? And how does one precede a khaki? Etc. etc. Olson loves to pile up these impossibilities, and it is pretty impressive, especially when you consider some poets make a living by ending otherwise narrative poems with one absurd/impossible turn. Olson uses as many in three sentences as these poets do in a book.
The effect is dizzying, and this is what draws his work toward L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E. practice. In a way, to use “denim” would be no different than “khaki,” or for that matter, “turnstile,” or anything else with the same stress and number of beats. He isn’t even creating an image. He is using language in a MadLib kind of way, and it is the juxtapositions that create interest, the way anything can be forced into syntax.
While poems like “A Moment’s Ornament” and “Easy and Spinning and Kind to All” represent the book’s primary mode, Olson also shows a strong affinity for the lyric essay. His philosophical turns can be extremely potent, with a thin veil of opacity, that reminds me of Bataille and Clarice Lispector. Here is an excerpt from “Mind as Metaphor”:
Every perceived thing—color, texture, shape, compression, funeral, fugue, jingle, discharge, current, buffalo robe—is a knot in the loom of simultaneity. It is a concretion of the visible. But it is also a thread in the fabric of the invisible. Each perceived thing is a fossil drawn from the bottom of imaginary worlds. There can be no single, hard indivisible piece of pure being, but rather a narrow passage between the horizons of the exterior and interior worlds, something that lightly touches and resonates at a distance diverse regions of the world of color and visibility, a certain differentiation, an ephemeral modulation of this world, a momentary crytallization of latency and potentiality.
Despite the piling up of abstractions here, Olson says something very definite: what we see/touch/taste/hear/smell is not all that is. This is then an argument for the significance of the imagination. Science can only answer so much, and can certainly not explain most of the things that really matter to us day to day. The elegance of his prose and the precision of his metaphors make the argument very convincing.
Olson’s wide range of reading and influence is apparent, and makes for an exciting collection. That is a rare thing in a culture ruled by competition, establishing a “voice” and all that other nonsense. These are incredibly articulate, aesthetically diverse poems. It truly feels like there are no rules for this book, and that is the only rule a book of poems should follow.