Tom Clark

Tom Clark: On "Cole's Island"

The remainder of the summer of 1964 was otherwise devoted mostly to poetry, now to be Olson's final, enduring close companion. Working from Jeremy Prynne’s typescripts, he assembled, and in September sent off to Jonathan Williams, a text of Maximus IV, V, VI, the difficult, unwieldly, cosmic-exploratory midsection of his epic, representing the central effort of the past six years of his life. Meanwhile new verse of the summer, variously somber and agitated in reflection of the psychic trauma of recent months, yielded fragmentary groundwork for the epic's third and last volume. Most notable was the muted, ominous "COLE’S ISLAND," a document of a dream run-in with an allegorical specter of death in the wilds of Essex Bay backcountry. In the dream Death was dressed up as a country gentleman strolling his property, encountered by the wandering poet in the midst of investigations of local topography. The dream poem seemed an omen, another tacit warning of the dangers of infringing carelessly on the domain of mortality--something the obsessive researcher had been doing much of his life, though only lately had he learned something of the stiff penalties such trespassing could bring. In "COLE'S ISLAND," when landowner Death and intruder Maximus sized one another up, Death seemed much less unsettled than the poet by their sudden, chilling propinquity.

Tom Clark: On "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele"

The fusion of lyric vision with "primary images" in a burst of poetry Olson produced that spring owed a certain debt to Robert Duncan's visit, if only in his picking up effectively on certain of the visiting instructors key insistences. Along with the euphoric fecundity of new love and of the Southern mountain springtime, and with his concurrent intellectual passions for the cosmology and typology of Whitehead and Jung, the final decisive influence on his April-May 1956 verse advances was a "magic view" of the poem as spiritual alchemy, which he found--following up on Duncan's advocacy--in the work of Rimbaud.

Olson had been interested since 1945 in the French poet’s life and legend, for him an emblematic image of the post-humanist artist as iconoclastic antihero. But though he’d once borne a copy of the Pleiade edition of Rimbaud’s poems to Frances as a love token, he'd so far actually paid them little close attention. Under his Black Mountain visitor’s indirect influence. he now set out to remedy that oversight, rising to the perceived challenge by "making his way earnestly" (as Duncan later put it) through the poetry in both French and English that spring. In March he introduced Rimbaud into a lecture of his own on Stance, citing the poem "Ô saisons, ô chateaux" and also bringing up "Soleil et chair/ Credo in Unam" in the translation he had solicited from Frances. He'd now recognized an affinity of confrontational stance that linked Rimbaud and himself, he reported in a letter to her. Both were poets of the "double-axe," engaged on the cutting edge of "mercy versus Justice." In the poetic justice of Rimbaud's Time of the Assassins Olson could make out a sense of urgent cultural-revolutionary necessity akin to his own. That the grimness of such justice should not go unrelieved was the lesson of "Ô saisons, ô chateaux," a poem in which the progression of Rimbaud's season in hell reached a turning point, "restor[ing] Beauty and Charity." The "pivot," Olson told Frances, was the poet’s crucial hermetic term "le bonheur," connoting not only happiness or joy but an alchemical elixir, the marvelous "poison" whose traces never left the blood of the intoxicated initiate.

In Olson's springtime rush of poems, vivid celebrations of love, nature and "the powers that be," Rimbaud's image of a miraculous alchemical potion provided a key figurative harmonic relating love with cosmic process: it became, in "The chain of memory is resurrection," a "green poison" announcing at once the fullness and "the death of spring"; in "The Perfume," a "poison / of desire" saturating the poet's bedroom at night; and in "Variations Done for Gerald Van De Wiele," an "elixir" demanded by the body as it "whips the soul" into a state of great desire. At the heart of the lyric "Variations," a poem animated by the pastoral immediacy of the flowering time of year (dogwood, plum and apple in blossom, the hum of bees and tractor diesels, a whippoorwill's song at full moon), lay an inspired reworking of Rimbaud's "Ô saisons." In his American post-modern version, Olson updated the alchemical metaphor of the original, enlarging its allusive scope by means of a Jungian psychological perspective.