Fire is The Shadow of Zero, Poems by Roberta Olson

Roberta Olson.jpgRoberta Olson published a chapbook of poems, Some Numerous Dwarf Rippings with Flash+Card. I was happy to read these poems becaue they made me happy to be reading. Sometimes I am reading something that makes me unhappy to be reading mostly because I understand too clearly what the writer is saying and because I am reading a book I cannot object. I can only read or not read but by this time it is too late and I have read what has made me unhappy to be reading and if I stop reading, then I will be not reading and not happy.

I discovered a review someone wrote of a poetics book on via LibraryThing. The person wrote: “The English Language meets Cuisine Arte. If you like to see the English language — the Queen’s English, that is to say — subjected to the most vicious of butcherings and pretentious, pedantic doodling, than I think this books will be right up your alley.” No one speaks or even thinks in the Queen’s English in America. The Englishness of English is now beside the point. The same staid grammatical sentiment might be said about Roberta Olson poems. they are composed of English sentences but they are not English unless you mean the English you might put on a cue ball. “My Niece on the Hill,” is an example.

That’s my niece on the hill
There are trees around my niece
Which make her happy
The hill my niece is on is three miles
Away but I know she is on the hill
Because she is my niece

Perhaps my brain has been damaged by growing up in a household infused with Keith Richards. My niece on the hill is a riff and Some Numerous Dwarf Rippings is a collection of riffs. I am agitated by riffs, by the insistent repetition of sounds. In the consumption of informative text I am inert. I receive informative text as the television receives electricity. These poems are fragments that require action on my part. I put them together. They do not tell me something, rather they tell me to do something.

Roberta Olson writes, for example:

He was humble in writing his obituary. Who are these people? They remind me of a kitchen in Memphis.

I put these pieces together the way I might use cards to make a house. I think this is what Andre Breton might have meant by the marvelous. And so these are marvelous poems because they are unexpected and compel me as the reader to take action not to decipher them (as if they are deliberately obscure code) but to create meaning from them as I would out of any kind of toy. The surrealism here is less of the flaming variety — the pastiche of Salvador Dali, Magritte, or Leonora Clarington — but the casually displaced oddness of close observation. Someone uses a figure of speech that you are used to hearing and maybe the way they say it makes you suddenly aware that you have no idea what they are saying despite having heard it many times and you know what they man to say even if they are saying something else. The book begins with the a metaphor title for a poem: Fire is the shadow of zero. This sounds to me like a figure of speech. It has that clipped and elusive meaning. Someone might say it after they lose their cat to a sudden diagnoses of cancer and put their cat to sleep. Fire is the shadow of the zero, they say as they return form the vet with an empty cat carrier. Or they are fired from a job they were good at after they discover their working place has been keeping careful track of their insubordination. Suddenly unemployed, escorted to the door by security, they go to a bar to get a drink in the middle of they day. They raise their glass of beer: Fire is the shadow of zero, they might say.

My daughter collects objects from the world. She finds fragments of sea shell in evocative shapes. She discovers stones flecked with unexpected colors. She owns a cache of trinkets harvested from capsule vending machines. Alone the objects are junk, but together they are a collection of the marvelous.


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