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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Noah Gordon reviews

Trouble Lights by William Olsen. TriQuarterly Books, $17.95.

This piece is 660 words or about two printed pages long.

Adding a grace note to the gut strings doesn’t always make for a music easily swallowed. In a 1994 essay, ‘Poetry and Vision,’ William Olsen admits to being ‘blessed and cursed with an acute terror of sounding high-minded.’ Unfortunately such trepidation is warranted, for Olsen’s latest collection, his third, is replete with a sort of stones-and-bones-man-on-a-hill discourse, the tendency to use poetry as a conduit for truisms regarding the human condition. Witness these clumps of primordial wisdom: ‘even the dead don’t seem to want to die,’ ‘the mouth can’t say it all in a lifetime of talking’; and ‘the truth is that the truth alone outlasts us.’ Even the refrigerator’s light can elicit a moment of contemplative pseudo-profundity, as it does in ‘Cryometer’:

The spaceship of the fridge opens,
a half-eaten muffin, the bludgeoned stick of margarine,
the milk carton with blurred photos,
like high-rise windows, of missing kids,
and the little red thermometer there
to measure just how cold
the blackness gets when the light goes out?

Attempting to deepen the ‘visionary’ atmosphere, Olsen goes on to explain, ‘To be at all sounds of being too cold.’ Although it is a more interesting construction, the overdetermined context does not allow one to harbor those uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts of which Keats was so fond. Perhaps Olsen is attempting to answer what he called in his essay ‘the human cry of that primal, animal need with the feeling that for once somethng (sic) has been wrested from the unending encounter with reality.’

Olsen’s proclivity toward carefully rendering such a reality, with its insistence on categorically situating the reader, often undercuts the sheer beauty present in many of his more interesting passages. This is the case in the book’s opening poem, ‘The Fold-Out Atlas of the Human Body: A Three-Dimensional Book for Readers of All Ages.’ The poem begins, quite amazingly:

The vertebrae are a ladder of moonlight
up and out of the perpetual nocturne of the body.

I open myself with the casualness
of a man having a smoke on a hotel roof.

Such an opening, however, is immediately devoid of the more compelling gestural significance it holds after one reads further: ‘The legs flip down / like ironing boards, and when I turn the page // each bone is numbered and charted and named in a dead language.’ Ah, so the opening is that of the fold-out atlas. There goes the duende. Essentially this collection is rooted in the elegiac, mourning the transmogrification of the natural word into yet another zone of commerce. In a later poem Olsen asks, ‘In the infancy of a market economy / when dusk is orphaned by the afternoon / are there any unsold animals in this country?’ Trouble Lights is literally saturated with animals. Setting up a dialectic between the natural food chain and our wrapped disposition toward senseless death, a titmouse opens a seed whose ‘breakage calls out like a gunshot miles away. / Maybe someone is being murdered or executed somewhere,’ a fly has its ‘littlest voice and that voice sings,’ fireflies become a token of nature’s endurance and solidity, even in the face of human abomination, as they flicker from the genocide of Native American peoples up to Olsen’s memory of glazing the sidewalk with them, a herd of cattle ‘stand in the piss and shit of self / which pools and pools to the bottom of things?’

Olsen comes off as a poet with conviction; he has something to say and does so in this book’s 89 pages. However, there is also an accusatory imbalance here: just who is he talking to? Trouble Lights represents a very particular thread of American poetry’s current tapestry. Think of the photo on the back of James Wright’s Collected Poems where Robert Bly is holding the reins to the horse Wright is seated upon; think about returning to that book instead.

Jacket 19 — October 2002  Contents page
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