Sunday, August 19, 2012

Larynx Galaxy, by John Olson

John Olson
Larynx Galaxy

(Boston: Black Widow Press, 2012)
[6" by 9" || 395 pages]
[cover art & design by Kerrie Kemperman]

Larynx Galaxy, John Olsons first collection of poetry in four years (and first all-new collection in six) is huge.  H-U-G-E as in almost 400 pages, comprising more than 180 works, all in prose, each alive aglow and awaiting a-you.  

Although Larynx Galaxy includes several straightforward essays, most of the book consists of prose poems.  These include a  substantial number  that examine, or take flight from a look at,  objects, places, or personal circumstances.  For example, there are poems about closets, electric fans, the Palouse (the region in southwest Washington state), prepositions, a seemingly lost birth certificate, the funeral of a friend, a road in North Dakota, a new bookcase, speeding down the freeway, and elevators.  There’s even a very entertaining flash-autobiography, “My Life In Five Paragraphs,” with its cut-to-the-chase opening lines:
The first punch sent me flying into a Christmas tree. The second put me on the floor on my hands and knees, blood dripping from my nose. I tumbled outside, caught a train to North Dakota, and went to college.
In these object/place/personal circumstance poems, Olson generally (but not always) keeps the focus tight on the subject, or on related tangents.  And while the writing, and thought behind it, displays considerable verve, the denotations and connotations of language are mostly (though again not entirely) familiar.

The other, and I would say more common, kind of work in Larynx Galaxy are what I call JohnOlsonian prose poems.  That eponymous descriptor might sound nutty, but I believe it
’s appropriate: the writing it describes is truly sui generis.  

With regard to this uniqueness, no less an authority than Clayton Eshleman – who edited Caterpillar and Sulfur, two of the premier poetry magazines of the last almost half-century – calls Olson (in a back cover blurb for the book) “an original . . . whose prose poems do not remind me of anyone else’s work.”  A related view was held by Philip Lamantia, who once told me that Olson’s work was “extraordinary . . . the greatest prose poetry [I’ve] ever read.”

The characteristics of a “JohnOlsonian” prose poem are in some ways hard to describe.  Michael McClure’s suggestion (also in a back cover blurb) that Olson’s poems are marked by “surging perceptions” that “float in inspiration” suggests something of the character and energy of the writing.  

So too do the paradoxes in Lewis Warsh’s description (also in a blurb) of Olson’s writing as “hallucinatory” and “clearheaded,” texts that “verg[e] on the edge of infinity, yet [are] forever at home in the world.”  Also on point is the assessment of Christopher Frizzelle, long-time critic for The Stranger (the “alternative” paper in Olson’s hometown of Seattle) – that Olson’s poems are “wild and mercurial.”

Olson himself perhaps best describes the what and why of his writing (and click through here for a post, from three years ago, about that).  Many poems in Larynx Galaxy include declarations or hints about what’s going on with the words as words.  

In “The Utility Of Futility,” for example, Olson proclaims, “I have a Jackson Pollock belt buckle and a cricket cantata hairdo.” That  statement, I suggest, neatly captures both the abstract practicality and musical aliveness of his writing, and its good ol’ surreal fun as well! 

“I can tie water in knots and waltz the skeleton of a cloud,” Olson writes in the same poem, suggesting and at the same time showing his imaginative reach and confidence.  He adds, “I can lean the ocean against a predicate in the scrotum of a moose and nail a drop of perfume to a blister of light.”  I, for one, do not doubt that Olson could do all those things, and more.

Olson more directly discusses his approach to words in “Brought To A Boil: An Essay On Experimental Poetry,” a four page work from near the start of the book.  In the following excerpt from that piece, Olson begins with a kind of prologue of demonstrative poetry and then hammers on several key points:
Experimentation in words leads to the mustard of cacophony, unbridled granite, ecstasies in anvils, legends and dragons boiling out of fugitive metaphors.  Mallarm√© doing wheelies on a Harley-Davidson.  Six nude somersaults and a buffalo in a tulip refinery.  You cannot quite predict what words are going to do.  That is the whole idea.  This is exactly the kind of situation you want to be in: entering into a play with the language in which control is excused and revolutions begin.  Revolution in both senses of the word: orbital motion about a point and a sudden or momentous change in a situation.
In Olson’s poems, language at play can result in a lot of de-familiar denotation, uncommon connotations, and super-elastic metonymy.  Put some or all of that together with the swerve, spiral, and/or surge of ideas in the poems, and wow whoa wow.  

Now, more traditional creative constructs – observed details, lyrical flights, and revelatory assertions, for example – do appear, even in the most experimental poems, and they are a delight.  But when Olson gets out there, really out there, the lexical field energizes hard towards glorious abstraction.  Heres an example of that thing itself, from “Lapadarian”— 
There is fat in the yell of the epaulet idea.  Its chill was pink among that Democratic chemistry and lace hoists that made the calculus nasty with just the right dashboard.  As pills to columns and garters to gargoyles, the oblique in the ketchup is inundated by quandary.  Such pastels as yonder calendar persuade the eyes that reality is dome haphazard mirror, an apology to the toes and an occupation for the nose.
Or consider the following example, an excerpt lifted from the middle of the prose poem “Beet To Beet” because it ends with a question by Olson that suggests something important that’s going on in his poems, and in our reading of them:
Applause cleats are ugly but some come to flap like harmonicas.  It is vital to maintain good philosophy habits.  Memory is an aperture to open in cypress.  Zeppelin is more philodendron.  Only a fire could mark this dent.  This paint.  This yellow wall.  Scan screened through a waterfront is not a crocodile it is a scooter in scales.  Here comes everybody with a fistful of haphazard castles and a sharp pencil.  Who is in control of these words, you, me, or each other?

Larynx Galaxy’s size and sprawl, its JohnOlsonian poetry, will challenge many readers.  It’s not a sculpted book that one can place in the center of the room of the mind and take in with a simple spin about. 

For me, reading Larynx Galaxy is akin to a long trip through a wilderness area, one that you haven’t visited before.  It’s a rigorous journey but one that’s grand and memorable.  You
re far from the urban grid with its familiar commercial strips and mega-malls, and so the unusual and surprising are everywhere.  

In Olson’s book, as in any great wilderness excursion, what’s around the bend – in the next poem, paragraph or even sentence (or within a sentence) isnt easily or at all anticipated.  That’s part of the challenge and fun, especially since there are so many marvelous poems, turns within or between those poems, and plenty of sentences and paragraphs of spectacular imagination.   

Wilderness adventures require a special fortitude and attitude.  A willingness to endure sometimes challenging conditions.  An alert and curious mind that enjoys come-what-may unexpectedness, and delights in discovery.  An enthusiastic diligence to figure out, or try to figure out, what’s going on when the territory becomes unfamiliar.

But while difficult, wilderness adventures renew and reward, me oh my, in very special ways.  This is what Thoreau, Muir and many others – let me mention Aldo Leopold and Margaret Murie – taught.  Get really out there, these folks insisted, and lo and behold the world – you and the universe – come alive.  I believe that’s so, and that it happens when reading deep in and through Larynx Galaxy.

Yes, Larynx Galaxy is Wild Sky, Indian Heaven, Bright Star, and Passage Key.

Arrow Canyon, Weepah Spring and Eagle Cap.

Garden of the Gods and Craters of the Moon. 

Tatoosh too, of course, and hundreds of others I could name. 

Larynx Galaxy: a poem-book wilderness in the best sense of that term: worthy of exploration, attention, recognition, and celebration. 

The following is a small selection of excerpts from poems in Larynx Galaxy’s first approximately one hundred pages.  

I’ve favored in these nine excerpts the short and snappy, or sentences that for one reason or another seemed worthy of showcasing.  I don’t aim here to represent the whole.  Instead, I hope to provide a few snapshots of the wondrous JohnOlsonian wilderness.  Many other examples could be presented, both from the first one hundred and the remaining almost three hundred pages.  

I’ve paired the excerpts with images, altered Olson’s prose by centering each excerpt and inserting line breaks at points, all in a probably futile attempt to make the words look better here on Blogger.  All punctuation has been preserved.  Enjoy, and to those who may go on to explore Larynx Galaxy: Bon Voyage!


The mind can go deep as it wants in a word
or string of words.

— from “Extreme Reading” 


 There is sometimes a sunrise in our consciousness, 
our level of awareness, so that we leave the theatre 
with something we did not have before we 
entered into the darkness, 
something like a jewel, or a song of ice. 

--- from “Marquee” 


The majesty of thought is sometimes too volatile 
to redeem by words alone.

from “The Thing Itself”


The ecstasies of the poet are ignored in the marketplace 
but trust me, the torsions and contortions of syntax 
tremble with each attempt to drag a rainbow 
over the bridge and watch it grow prodigal
 as it leans into the coming night. 

from “The Thing Itself”


Fold the air into words into birds into prepositions 
ingots of gold in a musky room a slightly gnarled wrist 
mute with the moisture of thought a workshop expanded 
by description elephants bathing in a muddy river 
a sentence caged in a paragraph bursting with rain.

from “Life Imagined As A Slither Of Syllables”


Jellyfish never give advice.  They just hang in the water 
like music from a broken zither.

from “Listen”


The lachrymose beak beckons its lurid appearance 
and the variegated scold zigzags on like another incessant 
humidity on the verge of majesty.  The knack of appetite 
hungers for iron.  Eyes mill the vision of a quiet 
identity, an aorta soaked in glee.

from “Niche”


I am alone in my enzymes, but my enzymes are yours 
as well as mine, limpid hammers of protein, 
sequencing each of us into vengeance and boots.  
We are idioms of electricity.  Pantomimes mirrored 
on paper.  Daydreams vivid as jewelry, 
Clark Gable in Nevada, 
a mustang going crazy at the end of a rope.

from “Quartz Ukelele”


A reverie which nails itself to a camellia 
is precisely the sort of thing I’m looking for. 

from “Happy Little Tendons Swimming With Doors”