Hold this poem and rub it with space. Ingest it with
your eyes. Enkindle it with needs. Drip abstraction. It just happens.
Abstraction happens. You feel alive and blaze in the snow of Iceland, a
carnival of thought and emotion with a head like a sack of helium. Piercing
sounds of creosote serve the fertility of experience. The map amplifies the
disconnect between reality and an implied geography whose mountains and rivers
exhibit the gum of time as it occupies a schematized space. Incidents of rubber
absorb the shock of monotony. The repetitive rhythm of walking. Headlights
shining through words of granite. The human mind is smeared with sexual
metaphor, the teased agreements of audacity and steep relation, the incentive
to suck and sparkle, the courage to pin a passion to a fold of fingers. The
light is swollen. It indulges the walls. A sharp wind hangs from a highway
sign. The grease at the center of the world allows everything to turn without
squeaking, its axle is wet as veins. And so useful it is to consult
consciousness that consciousness strains to find meaning in hockey. Words,
thumbs, glances, glass, glans, baptisms and powwows. And sometimes we taste the
heat of thought in a balloon of dizzying lucidity, rising into the sky like a
cabana with a checkered past. Possession can also mean inglenook. Or mulberry.
It takes a friend, naturally, to confirm the thickening thoughts on a piece of
paper, each word clear as an ice cube and each sentence a wading pool for the
eyes. Symbolism is nothing more than a bag of groceries, items arranged by
weight and density. The lettuce goes on top, and symbolizes courage. The jelly
is upside down but if the cap is on tight it should remain true to the image of
kings. We feel the full impact of reality at the checkstand. Here is where
being water gets a little messy and hanging words upside-down doesn’t help the
situation. It’s better to stand there being quiet and dream of returning to the
sea as an albatross on a long glide of delectation over dinner.
Experience is what happens when blood circulates,
the heart pumps, and life pops out of the box. Everything goes Technicolor. The
room glows. Pronouns assume the private pain of impulse. Various dimensions
simmer in space sweetening the nerves with saffron and juxtaposition. Is there
anything prettier than a jackknife? Escalators percolate in my skin causing
action and growth. I ride up. I ride down. I move sideways to let people pass.
I’m polite, a courteous person. This is my attempt to hold the society
together. Poetry is my way to blow culture up. Smash capitalism to smithereens.
This is misleading. You can’t smash capitalism, but it will certainly smash
you. You’ve got to find an antidote. Poetry is that antidote. It’s useless as
tits on a hammer. I love that image. A hammer with tits on it. Wrenches and
screwdrivers suckling at its underside in the toolbox of life.
Movement deepens my comprehension of soup. Sparrows
are brusque but powerfully themselves. I feel incidental and ghostly, but also
a little like asphalt, as if I cried on the inside to be a highway joining
Nevada to Arizona and poured distance and velocity into the long Nevada night. Here
comes Walt Whitman driving a Nissan Stanza. He’s got gravy in his beard and a
twinkle in his eye. The stars awaken the thrill of a palpable yearning. It
takes some time for the imagination to slide into another form of being, but
once that happens, one can excel at adhesion and act like a flap in the flag at
the borders of noumenal being. Punches flicker beside the anthology of
contemporary poetry. The nightclub bursts into streams of consciousness.
Leopold Bloom admires the cutlery. Feeling feels wintery as a paper airport for
paper airplanes. Swimming is incongruous and therefore delightful. The mind is
but a shadow. Speed bumps are annotations. All of my memories have been cooked
in reminiscence. Baby you can drive my car. And maybe I love you. Beep beep
It’s hard to build a house when the lumber is alive.
But you can bungle it like comedy and find something much fuller than a house.
You can take all the silence of out of a poem and put it to use as something
blonde and geographic. Sprinkle adjectives on it. Jingle it. Put it in the
freezer until it turns hard and pragmatic. Cold to the fingers. Like a tool.
Painting is instinctive and reckless. A pile of rags
flirt with a harmonica. The plywood conveys vividness. The oak screams in the
ban saw. I savor the gumption of construction. Even my nerves bubble their
opinions in a slow simmer of being. Sunlight slices through the air like a
knife of singing light.
I slide cinnamon into my intestine and digest the
world. I accommodate seclusion well. Fingernails rely on time to grow into
themselves. The black cord of the hair dryer curls in the humidity.
Sometimes I work late at night juggling giant
handshakes. This is what I experience when experience turns experimental. Any
language will do, but English is particularly supple. Not enough has been said
about that. A mind draws parables out of life. The sound of it is sweet and
seditious. Ocher is a friendly color. But yellow, well yellow is yellow. It
shouts joy from the bathroom wall. I think of myself as an occurrence of meat.
This feeling widens and rivals Wisconsin. A wild energy crashes through the
symmetries of science resulting in the experience of birds. Dirt. Obsidian
shining out of a mountain.
Is there life on Mars? André Breton arrives in a
flying saucer. His eyes murmur oranges. Why is there something rather than
nothing? We all wonder that. But André seems especially obsessed. His
premonitions seep through the words murdering distance and chattering fictions
that are actual whales. Wheels. Weather. Bakeries and postulation. A patisserie
filled with maps. Lips. Promontories of frosting. Pythagorean sensations
serving the fertility of experience abstractions of invisible empires, the
sublime appeal of concertinas and chaos and string theory.
I like words in strings. And when the strings run
out there is still a trace of Paris, kitchen lights edged with gold. And down
below a kangaroo leaps over a turnstile and catches the M4 to Versaille.
Daylight marries the vowels of night and the wedding is twilight and the
twilight is a delicate thing. Twilight is what happens when I feel open to
everything. Even meaning.
Each and every way that I position my regard
provides a plurality of relations and samplings from a mass of pure sensation.
Each perspective insinuates its own incendiary geometry. Expectation acquires a
piquant lucidity. The light penetrates the basement window. A chisel gleams. A
ban saw screams like a banshee. Sawdust accumulates on the floor. It smells of
pine and oak. A nearby gravel road articulates the convulsions of impeccable
clouds. A furious awakening flashes on the horizon. The weight of the sky
thrills the bones and unpacks its provisions in a dialogue of thunder. The
light is perforated with silver. If I choose to read the world like a book it
puzzles me with snow. It dazzles me with pearls. It threads the mind with
The desk emphasizes its existence in a determination
of wood. I sit down and open Ulysses to page 305: “A monkey puzzle rocket
burst, spluttering in darting crackles. Zrads and zrads, zrads, zrads, zrads.
And Cissy and Tommy and Jacky ran out to see and Edy after with the pushcar and
then Gerty beyond the curve of the rocks. Will she? Watch! Watch! See! Looked
round. She smelt an onion. Darling, I saw, your. I saw all. Lord!”
Even the rain dripping from the black rungs and
curls of the wrought-iron patio furniture in front of Molena’s Taco Shop bear
some relation to the rest of the universe. Rain collects in a river which
powers the turbines of Grand Coulee Dam which feeds electricity to the arc
welder welding the patio furniture. The shell on display in the window was made
from proteins and minerals that were created when the planet formed and life
first appeared out of a jelly-like glop of lipids and carbohydrates. The rain
dripping from the patio furniture was once a wave in the ocean that made the
shell that housed the snail that crawled ashore and died on a rock molded by
the gusts and pounding surf of a windy shore.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven / Is thick inlaid
with patens of bright gold. / There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
/ But in his motion like an angel sings, / Still choiring to the young-eyed
cherubins. / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture
of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Declares Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. That harmony
that is in immortal souls is consciousness of the unity of interrelation that
is the juice and savor of pure experience. But this would be an experience
without the adornment of words. Words are a filtering membrane through which
experience percolates before it dances on the nerves.
The urge to arrive at a pure
experience is a journey of bone and skin, muscle and blood. It comes down to
the body. Toes, hands, hair, eyes, knees, everything in this envelope of flesh
that connects my being in the world with that world as immediate as possible.
Sensation is a product of nerves. It gets to the brain in electrical impulse
where it’s translated into lettuce, a woman’s touch, a man’s voice, a slice of
bread popping up in the toaster, the electric smell of the air in Kansas before
a tornado droops from the clouds and begins spinning debris in a whirl of
William James coined the phrase
“radical empiricism” to describe his notion of pure experience:
the name of 'radical empiricism' to my Weltanschauung. Empiricism is
known as the opposite of rationalism. Rationalism tends to emphasize universals
and to make wholes prior to parts in the order of logic as well as in that of
being. Empiricism, on the contrary, lays the explanatory stress upon the part,
the element, the individual, and treats the whole as a collection and the
universal as an abstraction. My description of things, accordingly, starts with
the parts and makes of the whole a being of the second order. It is essentially
a mosaic philosophy, a philosophy of plural facts, like that of Hume and his
descendants, who refer these facts neither to Substances in which they inhere
nor to an Absolute Mind that creates them as its objects. But it differs from
the Humian type of empiricism in one particular which makes me add the epithet
radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element
that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is
directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect
experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation
experienced must be accounted as 'real' as any thing else in the system.
Elements may indeed be redistributed, the original placing of things getting
corrected, but a real place must be found for every kind of thing experienced,
whether term or relation, in the final philosophic arrangement.
ordinary empiricism, in spite of the fact that conjunctive and disjunctive
relations present themselves as being fully co-ordinate parts of experience,
has always shown a tendency to do away with the connections of things, and to
insist most on the disjunctions. Berkeley's nominalism, Hume's statement that
whatever things we distinguish are as 'loose and separate' as if they had 'no
manner of connection.' James Mill's denial that similars have anything 'really'
in common, the resolution of the causal tie into habitual sequence, John Mill's
account of both physical things and selves as composed of discontinuous
possibilities, and the general pulverization of all Experience by association
and the mind-dust theory, are examples of what I mean.
World of Pure Experience, 1904
The pulverization of experience
occurs as soon as we begin to classify, label, identify, analyze and organize
our experience according to a model that we cultivate over time to give meaning
to our perceptions. What we lose in pure experience we gain in cognition. All
the sensations that comprised that experience lose their acuity but it would be
wrong to say they’re lost. The process is similar to the refinement of ore. A
mass of unrecognizable dirt and rock becomes a dinner set or a bridge, a car or
an Eiffel Tower, a surgical instrument or French horn. It’s a process of
metamorphosis. Of transformation. A sequence of events that never culminate in
a single definitive end but keep metamorphosing in a network of balances and
instabilities, attractions and repulsions.
A simple example will serve: I have
a cut on the inside of my right middle finger. I got it from playing with Toby,
our cat. He likes to chase a piece of ribbon, particularly that type of narrow
ribbon with the little grooves in it so that you can run it over a sharp edge
to make it curl. I swing it over his head, run it over the floor, hide it
behind my back as he attempts to catch it with his mouth or claw. He leaps,
pivots, lunges. He loves to play with this thing. He got me on the inside of my
middle finger with a claw. This isn’t unusual. My right hand is generally constellated
with little cuts where he has bit me or nabbed me with a set of claws. They
usually don’t hurt. I’m often surprised to find myself bleeding. But the one on
the inside of my middle finger really hurts. It feels like a paper cut. Maybe
it’s because the skin has greater sensitivity in this area. It also seems
slower to heal. The pain has a purity that resists artful assassination by
analysis. It persists in exquisite particularity. It resists the attentions of
intellect. There’s no meaning to it, no lesson in it, no symbolism or parable.
It just hurts.
Meanwhile I use my index finger to
tap the surface of the tablet that brings up the rue du Fauborg-Montmartre, no
7, Paris, France, where it is said that Isidore Ducasse, the author of Les Chants du Maldoror, passed away at
the age of twenty-four, November 24th, 1870. I get a street view:
the buildings appear to date from the nineteenth century and may be the ones in
existence when he lived there. There’s a restaurant at street level called La
Rose de Tunis serving Pizza, Panini, Crêpes, and Grilades. Next to it, on the
corner, is a shop called Minelli which features shoes and women’s accessories.
How much has changed since Isidore Ducasse, a.k.a. Le comte de Lautréamont,
lived there and labored at his strange, magnificent book?
I tap Pandora and get an
instrumental song by Johann Johannsson titled, in Icelandic, “Ég Átti Erfiða Æsku,” which appears to mean something like “I struggled in my
youth.” The music is simple, strings, bells, drum, a sad, wistful, languishing
melody punctuated by the rhythms of bells and drums.
John Olson is the author of numerous books of poetry and (chiefly) prose poetry,
including Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New And Selected Poems. He is also the author of four novels, including In Advance of the Broken Justy, The Seeing Machine, The Nothing That Is, and Souls Of Wind.