How infinite and spectacularly arbitrary language can be.
Shall I tell you what reading John Olson's newest collection, Oxbow Kazoo, is like? To say that it is like anything else is already to diminish it -- the almost uniqueness of it and the novelty, if you will allow me the use of that despised word. Reading Olson's collection of fictions is almost like reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, or her portraits. In the secret grammar Olson and Stein practice, in the concatenation of nouns and bright strings of vocables that they fashion -- these two writers are companionable and sometimes similar, even if sometimes not. To readers of Surrealism or of Rimbaud (a character in Oxbow Kazoo, if a work concerned with language removed from narrative can be said to have a character) -- to readers of work that concerns itself with the sound, color, and the taste of words, Olson will be appreciated as a descendant of a certain avant-garde. But to say "descendant" is, again, to reduce Olson's uniqueness, if anyone who has read widely can be said to be at all unique. And Olson has read widely this one knows! read not only literature, but history, philosophy, art, music, and science.
The physics of taffeta duplicate the weather of a feather.
Shall I tell you then what reading Oxbow Kazoo can be imagined to be like?
Imagine waking up Elizabethan and hearing the gaudy language of the street outside your window. The street and the theater and also assemblies of learned men and the taverns, too, where rovers congregate to drink and tell stories. (You can't hear the stories, exactly, because of the conversations all around you their movement in and out of hearing and consciousness.) Reading Oxbow Kazoo is like that; for have we not, in our time, understood that the English language flowered in the Elizabethan? Have we not been told how new words packed the sack of it to overflowing, and the overflow was Elizabethan literature?
Consciousness includes hawks, Damascus, and buttons.
Imagine you are a radio astronomer and have heard the babble of the stars for the first time?
The sound of language is sepia as it moves across the page secreting light.
Imagine you are a particle physicist under a Swiss mountain, who has discovered the lepton or boson. Imagine how it must have felt to realize that the universe is a congeries of bits and noise and dark matter.
. . . a dance of particles, a coagulation of sound on the wound of existence. Meaning poetry is a poultice. Meaning words are entities in a higher dimension, force and matter unified, velocities in luminous collision. Scraps, bursts, packets of wave.
Imagine you are Giotto before a Jackson Pollack.
Pools of pools of spools of water. A pond in the pond a pool in the pool. Oral floral aural wind. Hear the wind. Print the wind. Unwind the wind. The wind on the water.
Or Strauss confronted by Schoenberg.
Music inflamed with jade. Arpeggios of jet.
Imagine what you like so long as it will present to your mind the sensation of a fabulous division and diversity, a fission of incongruous yet irresistible and inevitable sentences, a headlong flight of wild linguistic impulses.
Experience is paste and odd and sentences. Each sentence is an Asia in which gallons of thought float consciousness and jungle. Brief digits dipped in thunder.
You say to me this is not what you desire in a book. That you do not want to experience simultaneity, a mise en scène impossible to fix, an atmosphere of words hardly susceptible to interpretation? That you do not want to delight in language for the sake of what pleasure words and words alone can give?
Consonants burned as sticks in a fire of flax and straw.
In my turn, I ask: Do you not wish to be made agog? To be shown unimaginable sights? "To inhabit a wild yellow logic"? To be pierced by a storm of uncanny particles, which form the background radiation of present and past civilizations? Do you not wish to be made light, in the sense of radiant and free of heaviness? To enjoy a dispensation from the laws of physics the outlaw freedom of the poets, whom Olson celebrates?
. . . freedom to float, freedom to sit down, freedom to make words, words of all sorts, bronze words for monumental thoughts, paper words for meteors and snow.
Did I tell you that some of what you will read in Oxbow Kazoo, if you are wise enough to purchase the book from First Intensity, is funny? Or are you one of those who would banish comedy from contemporary literature?
However, it should be noted that the proportion of theoretical carp to the actual cartilage of reality is liberally taped with gauze and viscous secretions of prose. The emphasis on fiber is accidental and can make you glad.
Are Olson's thirty-nine texts contemporary? Are they literature? They are contemporary in the idioms of the Post-Modern, which seeks to engage and enrage reality as it is commonly understood, by the juxtaposition of present and past references. (Olson likes the American West, and that emblem proves fruitful for his playful mutations and recombinations.) Like Kenneth Koch, or John Ashbery, or Donald Barthelme, Olson is a poet of brilliant surfaces; his verbal and musical inventions possess cumulative force and persuasiveness, but are not under the obligation to signify as metaphors. The pieces comprising Oxbow Kazoo, like Modernist art, concern themselves with the materials of composition.
Let us build a boat out of letters.
Olson's explorations are not about meaning (although he hopes to "rescue meaning" in the same way Stein wished to rehabilitate nouns). Instead, Olson's texts take as their subject the language with which meaning is made.
Potentialities of language do exist but they present other forms of odor, fragrances of subtle circumlocution. They profess span of being. They traffic in arias.
A concern for language and a celebration of words are ever-present motives in these remarkable prose poems:
Words within the mind. Words clasping cells together in a gestation of shape. A rescue of meaning. A spread of letters. A limb of sound. A sack of fluid. A river of alphabets floating behavior and stars.
Olson's texts destroy meaning in the same way that the Cubists destroyed the visible subject, in order to have the pleasure of recreating it. In the hands of an amateur Surrealist, the result would be unfortunate, a game of Exquisite Corpse. But Olson is a master of his materials and composes with assurance and an erudition that is felt always, but never foregrounded. His compositions have an inevitability the product of lesser poets lack. Rarely do I feel that the effects in one of his texts are gratuitous; they are the result of an extraordinary facility for cadence and phrase. Is Olson's work, as it has been collected here, literature? If your definition of literature will allow language constructions at their most skillful and intuitive, both -- then, yes, Oxbow Kazoo is literature. If not, pass on.
There are, I know, many who will not want to spend time with Olson. He is, by his own admission, an outlaw. But those of like mind who, like him, adore words, who believe, like him, that words are the constituent matter of a universe those who are stained by history, science, philosophy, poetry, travel and have made of them all a Cabinet of Wonders those rare readers will want to have Oxbow Kazoo. Such an experience as this is difficult if not impossible to acquire outside the book, which can scarcely be said to contain it. A book, which in the case of John Olson's book, is a kind of particle accelerator. Is a machine for the composition of surprise. Is -- in Olson's own definition of poetry -- "a blade of harrowing utterance."
Oxbow Kazoo, $12, may be ordered from First Intensity Press, PO Box 665, Lawrence, KS 66044 or at FirstIntensity.com.