Saturday, August 27

Intimidated? Me?

Review by Martin Stannard

Secure Portable Space
by Redell Olsen (Reality Street Editions, £7.50)

I suggest, first, that you don’t look at the back cover, unless you like to be intimidated. Not only are the poems in the book alleged to “refigure gender covers and gender codes”, but they also “(stretch) poetry’s power and capacity to play with and expose the shapes words make on their way to making meaning.” Whatever this all means, it’s nothing compared to the information that Redell Olsen teaches an MA in Poetic Practice, and is the managing editor of How(2), “the internet journal for contemporary and modernist innovative writing by women”.

If you’re thinking that I ought to give up now, while I’m (well, actually not at all) ahead, I would understand. But the thing is, these back-cover claims shouldn’t put you off this book, even if they appear to be trying to do exactly that with their so-serious language and intimations of a brain the size of a football. (Planet is such a cliché.)

The book comprises four sections. Everything is based on the assumption that the reader is prepared to work hard and read receptively rather than defensively. This is a poetry, sometimes even a prose, that is more bothered about the moment of reading and the engagement it entails, the work that is done, than notions of narrative or message or, heaven forbid, content that one might comfortably paraphrase.

“Corrupted by Showgirls” explores questions of identity and gender, as far as I can make out.

Sum: a realisation that she is signing her name with letters that are not her own… At other times, in order to put myself across the footlights I have to imagine that I am a man who sews.

It plays with the forms and conventions of film script and plot synopsis, which temporarily offer the reader a hook upon which to hang one’s reading, but the hook is soon taken away and replaced by a cloakroom attendant who can’t be trusted. In other words, what matters is the words and what you do with them. For myself, each time I read them I find myself thinking something slightly different from the time before. I am not always sure if I am being clever or stupid, but I like the experience:


Ready, Willing and Able, Busby Berkely (1937)

(Crane Shot)

Not to anticipate narrative but to find it coagulated in a mass of legs you
took for a flower, or some gigantic machine. A typewriter perhaps. To
appear as a coin, a car, a lobster, a skyscraper. Bodies as building material
for parts of columns, the wooden frames of harps. The keys for writing on
make a series of uniform taps. The concealment of faces kicks in.

Much of “Corrupted by Showgirls” is blessed with a lightness of touch that makes whatever labours you find yourself engaged upon reasonably pleasing:

musician’s life is ruined because he resembles a hold-up man tries to
prevent the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist flashbacks explain why
one woman shot another hideously scarred woman runs a blackmailing
ring woman helps police find husband who is in hiding because he saw…

“Spill-Kit”, a sequence of ten poems, I found resisted me almost completely, which perhaps somewhat fulfils a certain poetic criterion. Which is fine, but sometimes one is resisted and it’s energising, sometimes one is resisted and it’s simply dispiriting. Having said which, the third time I tried my luck something happened. I’m not sure what it was, but it was good. I can’t make up my mind whether or not what happened was prompted or facilitated by what I had been reading an hour or so beforehand. I’d been reading a little magazine of the somewhat conventional type, filled with poems so easy to understand it was hard to stay awake, filled with poems so filled with things I already knew or things I had no interest in knowing about that it was hard to stay awake. But one benefit of reading such nonsense is that it can refuel one’s appetite for something better, and so I picked up the Olsen book and I was ready for it. Of course, the first four lines of “spill kit” remained (and remain) opaque:

the onely spill
or bone (as it
were) between
spongeful type

and, like anyone might, I wondered about that “onely” and I considered “only”, “lonely” and a misprint. But only briefly, because I carried on:

for living matter
mops forecourt
in attendance
and slips inked

I had already given up any hope of narrative here, but there are tentative word associations able to be made, but even that’s not always the point, I think. As I read through this set of poems, somewhat rapidly, I found myself paying attention, glimpsing signs, blinking, enjoying moments of illumination followed by moments of blankness. A bit like life. But I think the important thing was the paying attention, and an understanding that was obscure but exhilarating. I thought back to my reading of that little magazine earlier, and then thought a little about the different demands being made. One sort of poem wants you to think about the little finite thing its maker has to say, and which they think is worth saying. The other kind of poem wants you to pay attention, glimpse, see (even if only momentarily) and be there. It forces you to look beyond it and around it. At best, it forces you awake.

Next up in a book I am coming increasingly to like is “Era of Heroes”, the text of a performance piece best described by the poet herself:

I put on Mickey Mouse Ears and walked in circles around the Bookartbookshop in Pitfield St. London. I read continuously from the following list of contemporary heroes and superheroes that I had compiled from other people’s lists and from searches on the internet. My voice was relayed into the bookshop and people could choose to stand outside on the street and watch me pass, or to listen to my voice from the inside of the shop. In the window was a neon sign that spelled out eraofheroesoferror. It alternated between reading eraofheroes and heroesoferror….

The list starts off with Ace Barlow and ends up, 14 pages later, at Zoro, which I always thought had two Rs. I have, as it happens, read all 14 pages. I’m not sure why. I suspect it all worked a lot better live, on the day.

Finally, section four is “The Minimaus Poems”. It’s what the back cover (I revert to it) calls “a brilliant rewriting of Olson’s Maximus Poems into Olsen’s Minimaus Poems. You’d be crazy to miss it!” In it, Olson’s Gloucester is replaced by the UK’s Gloucester, and I suspect you have already figured that Olson’s surname is very similar to Olsen’s surname. Yes. Let the fun begin.

For those of you who don’t happen to be familiar with it, or have it to hand, Charles Olson’s “The Maximus Poems” begins thus:

Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood
jewels & miracles, I, Maximus
a metal hot from boiling water, tell you
what is a lance, who obeys the figures of
the present dance

“The Minimaus Poems” begins:

Inland, by Iceland hidden by the blood of
jewels & discounts, I, Minimaus
sitting on hot metal, boiling in a vest,
ask you who speeds obediently
are we past ENTRANCE?

One or two things need to be made clear. This is not a parody, although if one came across the above examples out of context one might be forgiven for thinking it was exactly that. (At least, I hope it’s not a parody. If it is … No, it can’t be.) Anyway, leaving that aside, “The Minimaus Poems” runs to some 30 chapbook-sized pages. Charles Olson’s “The Maximus Poems” is I don’t know how many times longer but it’s lots and lots. My 1960 Jargon/Corinth edition has big unnumbered pages and is quite hefty. I’ve never got around to reading much of it because I always get bored. And I’ve made no attempt, apart from a superficial one, to trace all the mirrorings and parallels that exist between the Olson text and the Olsen text. This point also should be noted: I have never quite “got” Olson in my earlier attempts at him. I’ve been able to discuss “open field” poetics in student essays and theses and classrooms and pubs, but connect? “Get”, in the way one has connected with New York School, for example? No. But I’m not dead yet. There’s still time.

Having said all of which, I suspect the best thing to do with Redell Olsen’s “The Minimaus Poems” is to try and forget the Charles Olson poem. Or at least, don’t bother too much about the mirroring and such like. Take it on its own terms, even if its own terms are pretty much the same as those upon which one has to read Olson. (I am, by the way, fed up with saying Olson and Olsen, and then checking if I’ve spelt them right. I wanted and needed to say this.) Whether writing “Corrupted by Showgirls” or re-writing “The Maximus Poems”, Redell Olsen manages to be readable and unreadable in almost equal measure. I mean, how often have you come across something like this by an innovative poet:

you island of me & plants
you island of me &
you island of me
you island of

which then becomes, further down the page

you is land of me & plants

etcetera. Yawn. And then you come across the almost obligatory old document stuff:

1839 Recipe for 8 ends of black felts
Logwood 54
Shumac 12
Copperas 12
Ros. Vitriol 10
Alum 1
Tartar 2

If I had a quid for every time an innovative poem used old documents… There are times I think I misunderstand the word “innovative”. But never mind. For all my misgivings, I actually like this book. The day I wrote this review, which is a few weeks back now, I sat in the park in the afternoon, in the sunshine, and re-read “The Minimaus Poems” from beginning to end. I felt it was a worthwhile thing to do before I did it, and after I’d done it I was pleased I had. I can’t tell you what it all means, and if I could it would be almost a shame.

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