by John Olson
(Black Square Editions) $9
JOHN OLSON'S POETRY approaches his subjects slantwise, bouncing ideas crookedly off one another to create a central image, a negative space centered within a cohesion of intentional near misses. Echo Regime functions like sonar, like echolocation. This collection of poetry is dense and articulate, a complex work of artfully mixed metaphors, exhibiting a self-conscious, thoughtful style that makes you appreciate the slow care Olson takes with language.
"Dead Reckoning" begins beautifully: "Is it possible to invent an emotion/as opulent as October?" Reading this, your mouth opens and experiences itself opening, is reminded of its own movement and made to perform a conscious physical working of words. It goes on: "I see the plain/plan of the plane of the sea as a seaplane/slides into the sky//of an infuriated syntax." These lines make a sensual trip through the pleasure of word play, assonance and consonance, and the easy alliteration of near repetition, echoes.
Olson's work is self-referential. He writes: "There are metaphors for everything//except sleep, which is a box// painted with music. The synthesis/between name & meaning/occurs like the air//that is pumped into tires." Creating a simple, accurate image constructed of common words, Olson gracefully describes the mundane. We get a sense of the inside of the box, the container that, holding something, becomes the thing itself, as well as its skin. A tire is only functional when full, otherwise it's useless, flat. "Ginger Ale" circles the concept of wavering truth. The poem begins: "I think truth is an arch/resting solidly on a column/of experience./And then I think/that truth is the sadness/of predication. And then I think/women like men with money//to emit light from their abdomen." Architectural terms read as translations of traditional philosophy. An arch is a perfect image for truth: graceful, open, and precarious--open space visually carrying the weight of the curve. Olson ponders a big truth that shrinks when he gets silly. The cadence and repetition of sound, and the surprise ending to this discussion resonate. The goofiness of the image introduces the impossibility of defining a static truth. After such a compelling beginning, the departure of predictable logic mocks our desire for truth to be easy, or still.
Olson teases the reader into a sense of contentedness and then ruins this security by changing the subject, veering off and proving his images not quite wrong, but only partially accurate. And this, in content and process, is exactly the point. We can't trust words to tell us the truth, one phrase at a time, but have to wait for their collections to gather, for their allegiances to solidify, before we can comprehend the whole.