This review is about 4 printed pages long.
In Redell Olsen’s secure portable space, each section of the four sections — ”Corrupted by Showgirls,” “Spill-Kit,” “Era of Heroes,” and “The Minimaus Poems” — consecutively expands the text, like a telescope clicking open. But unlike the distant passive view of stars found at that instrument’s end, secure portable space — partly through its grand finale of taking on Charles Olson — achieves a certain participatory experience that is at times uncomfortable in the way physical therapy is uncomfortable, in that you’re being asked to do things and go places that are unfamiliar or even threatening. Like many other accumulative works, secure portable space does not begin easily — instead, there are lacunae, and fragmentation, and that sense of someone speaking urgently to you on a static-filled line. Olsen does not even depend on the typical crutches of repetition or prose blocks to get us through to the next section — instead, it’s often pure exploration through incoherent terrain.
As a title, “secure portable space” most obviously refers to the experience of a book as a portable space. But it also goes much further than that initial reference. The title’s origin is revealed on the cover in the form of a blurry photo of a sign on a bolted dumpster/truck. Olsen’s work, while perhaps superficially similar to a dumpster in her accumulation of various linguistic objects and moments, is anything but “secure.” Rather, it calls for a pre (or post) knowledge of quite a few things. The first section, “Corrupted by Showgirls,” is a spliced work with the sense of many omissions. While it roughly follows the process of editing film, it doesn’t replicate the peculiarly condensed narrative of that medium. Instead she conjures everyday objects blinking in and blinking out again, trailed-off sentences, images or spoken snippets overwhelming any sense of a “plot.”
She has a yarn about a beer parlour where a car started from and followed them, which amounts to the same not the same thing.
It’s reminiscent of those rare scenes that make cheesy television shows so well worth watching — the occasional unguarded moment in which the cinematographer or director lovingly films a tractor-trailer backing out of a parking lot, and the harried editor or producer forgets to trim the sequence. (Actually, an analysis of tractor-trailer moments in film would be fascinating. They haven’t lacked even in fine-arts cinema, such as Agnes Varda’s squeezing of a tractor-trailer between thumb and finger in The Gleaners and I.)
If you know that Olsen also explores performative space, you can imagine a certain physical absence in this first section — the distance and lacunae could be because there isn’t a voice to activate them. (Her readings of such are available at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Olsen.html). Sections such as IX could be breathless or they could be investigating the white space of the page — I think I would have preferred to experience a fragmented line like “attach/ for convenience: a loss// a part of/ from an appearance/ beside” as breathless, but how to convey that on the page?
The second section “Spill-Kit” snaps back to a more formal and sustained arrangement, with sharp linebreaks and regular (more or less) stanza breaks. But in a way, this gesture toward a more recognizable poetic form makes the poems seem even more elided.
Is the type calling out to be “figured out”? But only answers “blip”? Why believe in what text has to tell you? After all, it’s really “a cardboard space-ship/ to believe in.” And speaking of cardboard space-ships, Olsen decides to throw us an alphabetical list of heroes — mythical, comic, and otherwise — culled from Internet searches and other people’s lists. Interestingly, she includes mostly DC comic heroes — Captain America is included, but where is Wolverine? Is Wolverine too much of an anti-hero? In any case, the Western-type font does a bit more to convey the piece’s performative aspect: Olsen wore Mickey Mouse Ears and “walked in circles around the Bookartbookshop in Pitfield St. London,” while reading continuously from the list. In the window a neon sign spelled out “eraofheroesoferror,” alternating between “eraofheroes” and “heroesoferror.”
“Era of Heroes/Heroes of Error” is a good introduction to “The Minimaus Poems,” Olsen’s multi-layered joust at who is to some a poetic superhero. “The Maximus Poems” are enormous in size, sound and content, and Olsen deftly flips them into smaller, more questioning, less immediately attractive heroisms — if that, even, as it’s not so clear from these astringent rejoinders that heroism exists (or existed) at all. “The Minimaus Poems” will probably seem the most potent work in the book to some readers as, given a target, Olsen’s lacunae and fragments cohere into their own sort of lance, although a non-directed one. Olsen, the “Minimaus” of “Gloucester”, begins not with an answer (“I, Maximus/ a metal hot from boiling water, tell you/ what is a lance… ”), but with a question (“I, Minimaus/ sitting on hot metal, boiling in a vest,/ ask you who speeds obediently/ are we past ENTRANCE?”). The wit of this first stanza develops and develops — the static speaker, the lack of progression, the passivity — it all highlights the dilemmas of our inexplicably paralyzed times, and is delicious in its capture of our zeitgeist. Olsen continously resets Olson’s bardic pronouncements with the most aptly banal counterpoints — it’s exciting to see what she’ll come up with next.
the thing you’re after
may lie around the bend
of the nest (second, time slain, the bird! the bird!
And there! (strong) thrust, the mast! flight
(of the bird
o kylix, o
Antony of Padua
sweep low, o bless
the thing you’re after
may have been marked
down dingy in a basement (Watch! those birds
and theirs isn’t ours (strong) the crap of lyric pigeon predominates with trust in thrust
as flight preys for
intensive decline, O
She undercuts abstraction with detail, possession with purchase, thrust with trust, and flight with falling. Minimaus doesn’t sate our appetites with wide sweepings of lyric arms, but reminds us, pecking, that we’re inhabiting here with others, and things cost money, bodies aren’t sex, and fractures are more prevalent than facts (“is, as bodies are, as monied are, fractured” vs. “is, as sex is, as moneys are, facts!”). I don’t want to give away all of Olsen’s twists, as part of the pleasure her evolving response to Olson (good to have Maximus propped nearby for reference) is the surprise of her various unpredictable tilts. But be assured that she returns disrespectful fun to poetry (and I regard disrespectful fun as an essential of good literature). After her “journey” of sorts (perhaps voyaging bristling through Maximus is its own kind of odyssey?), she returns to what she seems in earlier sections to have established as her own terrain, a final “Letter” outward to both Maximus and the “community”:
and paddles across the need
for intercepted information Cromwell
authorised TRY YOU BEST
BEFORE CHEATING puzzles
at a mixed audience aghast
Some audiences — die-hard Olsonites, lovers of “that other” kind of poetry demanding fixed solutions and tightly wound words — will indeed be aghast at this insecure portable space, but for those of us who like to see idols pushed off pedestals, Olsen’s apt re-rendition takes up necessary “space” alongside Olson’s bulk.
Redell Olsen lives and works in London, where she teaches on the MA in Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the managing editor of How(2), the internet journal for contemporary and modernist innovative writing by women.