John Olson, Larynx Galaxy (Black Widow Press, 2012), ISBN: 978-0984264032, $19.95.
The title of John Olson's new book of prose poems and essays, Larynx Galaxy, with its wishbone consonants, sticks in one's throat: an amusing trick, considering the collection's many full-throated, almost manically monological run-on voicings. "How can I mimic the roar of a jet," Olson asks, "when all I have are words?" Olson often constructs his prose poems according to the snowball-logic of allowing a small conceit to roll downhill, gathering bits of meaning as it accelerates, bouncing over semi-narrative obstacles until, within about two or three pages, finally frictioning to a stop. This is the natural progression for any release of energy, which is appropriate in this case since—for all the absurdist humor and free association operating here—there's a deep naturalism evident in Olson's writing, a conviction that it's the familiar, everyday world itself—and not some otherworldly, transcendental realm—that is the true source of poetic possibility.
Olson’s writing appears to be attached to a secret dynamo at the heart of the wor(l)d, spinning and sputtering without stop. Despite the lack of militant movements in today's poetry scene, I would name Olson as an important exponent of a classic one: surrealism. However, Olson's surrealism is hardly doctrinaire—indeed, he has reinvented surrealism (as any true surrealist must) according to the dictates of his own imagination. In his previous collection, Backscatter, Olson has written that “Surrealism is not word play surrealism is a mouthful of light a towering urge to mangle the language to beat it into tungsten a raging river fastened to the hood of a jeep old clocks yawning in oysters oracular ore at the core of an oar a Martian umbrella dressed in music.” In these lines, the naturalism inherent to surrealism becomes evident: the path to liberation is a "raging river" flowing through the world of objects, including word-objects.
Larynx Galaxy is a sizeable collection of nearly 400 pages of new work, a further testament to Olson's dynamism. In addition to the fast and furious flows of the prose poems, which make up the bulk of the volume, the collection features calmer, more discursively reflective essays on experimental poetry, sixties counterculture, music videos on YouTube, and a variety of other topics. Following the fluidity of the imagination, the essays occasionally morph into prose poems and vice versa; fragments of fiction and even epistolary exchanges, in the form of "Imaginary Letters," surface here and there. Yet the collection does not have the feel of a miscellany; instead, the pieces spiral—in the manner of a galactic swarm of stars—around a forceful subjectivity, simultaneously grand and goofy, tragic and comic. Olson is not shy about projecting his persona into these pieces; on the contrary, Olson stages—with self-conscious theatricality—arguments with himself, reminiscences, rants, and rhetorical questions posed to his own mind as a means of monologism.
In one piece entitled "The Anti–Gary Snyder," Olson directly addresses the question of his poetic identity. Comparing himself to Snyder, Olson declares that while "Gary Snyder writes in a style that is precise, immediate, and eminently accessible," Olson's own writing "is grotesque and elliptical. It mangles syntax. It obscures its own meaning with the violence of virulence and the tinsel of ostentation." Here, it becomes clear that, despite Olson's stagings of own personality in this book, that personality is finally secondary to language itself, which Olson allows to take on a life of its own. Asking himself why he did not "become" Gary Snyder, he answers:
Maybe it was a bad case of hyperbole, an
ungovernable pataphysical appetence, or a colorful and
Maybe it was the bounce of perspective, the faucets
of Finland, the strut of the peacock, or the inscrutable
malaise of the mayonaisse.
Maybe it was the miniature lips of vengeance
singing songs between the pennies of old barnacled piers.
Or maybe it was the skeleton of a trumpet dancing
in its cage of fire.
I don't know.
In another piece, Olson writes, "I want a language of dispersion. Absorption, assimilation, swerve and discrepancy." Following Rimbaud's principle of deranging the senses (it should be noted that Olson has written a novel about Rimbaud, Souls of Wind), Olson—as a disequilibrium-seeker, in contrast to Synder's Buddhistic balancings—trips himself up and ultimately loses his identity within a play of linguistic possibilities. Instead of making language the mirror of nature, Olson frees language to follow its own nature. Here the poet discovers the naturalism of what can happen in language and nowhere else: "The radium of the word," he writes, "is inexplicable."