Free Stream Velocity by John Olson

(Black Square Editions) $14

You begin a John Olson poem and you can't stop. This was a selling point. A person standing in a bookstore in Wallingford on a Friday, paging with interest and hesitation through a book of poetry, can't have any excuse to put the book down, or else he will. The person wants to put the book down, any person would: The world already contains so many poems, and so many of them are so bad, and can the small presses be trusted? Nevertheless, the bookseller, handing the person Olson's Free Stream Velocity, a book of prose poems, says, "Flip it open to any one of them and just start reading. See if you can put it down."

I opened it to page 41, to a prose poem called "Mahogany," which begins, "Everybody has thoughts but what are they?" That is a perfect opening--round, forward-falling, full of beginning. I turned to another piece. "When we ride in a car we become ghosts, indirect objects in a racket of trapezoids and string." And another. "Imagine a drapery opened for the first time, the view out the window, the smoking meat of a maniacal spider embroidered with morning...."

I bought the book.

The prose poems in Free Stream Velocity are like probes launched into a queer sky or the mind of a cautious animal--or, better yet, each poem, rather than being that probe, is the process of following that probe, which changes course and color as it moves. They are emotional inquiries, suspicious of science. They are often about the idea of an idea. Hell, I can't describe it, except that many of the pieces are a sequence of associations, one followed to the next, until the poet, as Gertrude Stein described it, is emptied of the feeling.

The feeling: You can't miss it in that earlier example, that "maniacal spider embroidered with morning"--a haunting, sickly feeling. There is, somehow, the feeling of aliveness in a line from a piece called, riskily enough, "Existence"--"Existence is ceremony: unison, streams of hair, banners in the wind, clashing swords and fireworks, a green current of birds dry as a photograph of lightning"--and the feeling is especially strong and weird in that last bit, that "green current of birds." Suggestive of biology, time, and unexpected order, the way the image is written seems like a syntactical accident: There are green currents in the Duwamish and green currents of vomit projecting from the mouth of the actress and green currents of currency spitting out of the minting machine, but a green current of birds? An odd image, and yet strong, trustworthy, since it conveys something--a feeling--that can't be reconciled or reduced.

A reader like me has a weakness for descriptions of the incongruous moment, and for incongruous phrases. Olson has a weakness for them, too--almost to a detriment. His poems are full of nouns strangely qualified--"raw violins," "unwitting proteins," "inevitable genitalia," "Marxist rope," "marble satellites," "an umbrella like a paragraph," "steamed parakeets," "a hatchery of bells"--and the absurdity of the adjective-noun pairings calls attention, by virtue of conflict, to the participating words. Still, there is an overload of these conflicted phrases in the book, and too much overlap. I liked "eloquent liquids" when I read it the first time, but then I found it again in the next poem, and elsewhere I found "liquid business," and I grew tired of hearing about the liquids. That sadly strung "raw violins" works, I think, but it deflates the power of "raw sonnets," which comes at the end of the collection. Same with "epic bananas" (wonderful, bizarre) in the third poem, and then, in the last poem, annoying, abusively, "epic alligator."

What's compelling in these constructions is the tension in the internal conflict of these phrases, tension between matching a term of specificity with a term of abstraction: the temporal "inevitable" matched with the anatomical "genitalia"; the broad connotations of "raw" with the object noun "violins." Gertrude Stein--one of Olson's poems is called "Dancing with Gertrude Stein"--popularized these kinds of pairings (I just glanced at my Gertrude Stein Reader and found "spoon, special, dumb, cake" and, on a nearby page, "The seam in between is fenceless"). Olson lifts this technique from her directly, skillfully, with "casseroles of vigorous purposelessness" and "an alphabet of meat" and "I feel a mushy dollop of beauty rubbing against my museum."

None of which is as important as the sheer rush Olson's poems--each of them, to borrow from the poet himself, an "outflow of experience and goldfish." The language of these poems rises and eddies and crests and falls, and just as much fun as trying to understand what Olson is getting at--science's inability to explain the world and language's impossibility to describe it--is following the flow of the thought. These are the final lines of "Morning Arrival":

The train is arriving in constellations of bulk and compression. Here is the train. There is the train. This is the train. This is an orange. This is an orange and this is a train. The caribou are gratuitous. The caribou are soft as the present tense of a pork chop. The caribou are unfolding from the day like a hill. The caribou are giving you an image of caribou. The pitch of space in a bulb of volume. The apoplectic assumption of a fish bouncing down the street.

In one poem--"Anchovies, Yes Anchovies"--Olson writes, "Language is a junkyard so powerful it seems to overwhelm us at times. Its artifacts bubble into consciousness like a man playing a limestone piano, or Benjamin Franklin being pulled across a lake by a kite." Earlier in the book he writes, "I suddenly realize how arbitrary and limited language can be," and, later, "Writing is born in disfigurement." Embedded into the book, then, are gestures toward the philosophy behind it--the limits of language to even approach the experience of living, and the distortions of understanding that everyday language perpetuates. His poems--agile, unpinned, full of gratuitous caribou--demonstrate the insufficiency of common vocabulary. And while his work is marked by range and rich absurdity, some of his most stunning sentences are the least showy. "Roberta has gone into the grocery store for whipped cream and lettuce," for example, or "The conical bones of the okapi's horns taper to a glorious conclusion."

John Olson reads from Free Stream Velocity on Thurs March 4 at 7:30 pm at Open Books (2414 N 45th St, 633-0811).

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