Scott Thurston

All Reality Is What You Make It: Review

Secure Portable Space by Redell Olsen, 109pp, £7.50, Reality Street Editions, 63 All Saints Street, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3BN. ISBN 1-874400-29-6.

Redell Olsen's first full-length collection is structured in four parts. 'Corrupted by Showgirls' is a long poem in sixteen parts about cinema and gender. The first part directly announces its concerns: 'she is signing her name with letters that are not her own. In this trick-factory where truth has no currency' (p. 9). These sentences suggest the disempowerment of the female star within an industry in which her role resembles a form of prostitution. The statement 'in order to put myself across the footlights I have to imagine that I am a man who sews' (p. 10); reveals a kind of performative gender doublethink critiqued as gender tourism in section II, about cross-dressing ('Barbette Adjusting his Stocking. Man Ray (1923)'). References to Busby Berkeley, Esther Williams, Noir, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and Marlene Dietrich all develop this enquiry across a variety of presentations. Whilst the 'new sentence' in the form of prose paragraphs is the dominant visual form here, some sections do break into lineation. The main technique is a kind of collage response to images or scenes that seem to be before the writer, if not the reader: film script terminology is introduced and defined '(POV: A shot taken as a character would see something)' (p. 12) and one section generates a script-like effect (albeit fragmented):

EXT: outside we are running: so it looks half remembered – fuzzy edges
along       half-deserted
                                  in light crossways
so cut in two like strips

CLOSE ON MONITOR: runs along the lit side – short black suit – one of
them – being there, watches

FREEZE FRAME: face – framed by hat – framed by door to space of light –
comes in through
                            (still of shouting)
(p. 13)

In other parts the effect is as if the writer/narrator is describing the plot of a film:
While building her business empire, she becomes romantically involved with an impoverished playboy but she later ends the relationship when he becomes a financial drain. (p. 17)

musician's life is ruined because he resembles a hold-up man tries to prevent the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist flashbacks explain why one woman shot another
(p. 25)

These latter aspects of the text remind me a little of Fiona Banner's presentations in wall-mounted and book form, of accounts in her own words of the entire action of porn movies and popular films such as Apocalypse Now. The ending of the poem focuses on a scene from the Dietrich film Dishonoured (1931) in which:
A spy clad in feathers, she goes to her death before a firing squad, after
stopping to reapply her make-up in the reflection of the sword of one of her
gaolers. (p. 34)
This text makes some of its clearest feminist statements in lines such as 'this attention to herself instead of the man is the obvious fault of the story' (p. 17) or 'she abandoned herself to “presented to view”' (p. 32) and even ironically name-checks Hélène Cixous' famous essay 'Sorties' (1975): 'Day/Light/Active v. Night/Dark/Passive are notes taken home and left in a drawer' (p.17). The text ticks a lot of the key post-modern boxes with its concern with the representation of representation, its irony and playful disruptiveness, whilst also balancing this with its feminist agenda. But I do find it a little unsatisfying as poetry. Despite the complexity and sophistication of the writing and its gestures towards a poetics that might empower the active reader, I can't escape a feeling that its mind is already made up. It's as if the poems have done too much of my thinking for me, making it difficult to speak and be listened to in the reading process. I find that a similar issue arises in the third section of the book.

'Era of Heroes' is a 16-page alphabetical list in large Wild West style font of the names of superheroes. It opens:

Ace Barlow, 'Ace' Mason, Ace Powers, Adventure Incorporated, Airboy,
Airmaidens, Airmale, Air Man, Air-Sub 'DX', Air Wave, Ajax the Sun Man,
Algie, All-Winners Squad, Amazing Man (p.58)
Subtitled 'Heroes of Error' the text was part of a performance which Olsen describes thus:
I put on Mickey Mouse Ears and walked in circles around the
Bookartbookshop in Pitfield St. London. I read continuously from the
following list of contemporary heroes and superheroes that I had compiled
from other people's lists and from searches on the internet. My voice was
relayed into the bookshop and people could choose to stand outside on the
street and watch me pass, or to listen to my voice from the inside of the shop.
In the window was a neon sign that spelled out eraofheroesoferror. It
alternated between reading eraofheroes and heroesoferror. On the wall outside
the building was a poster of the face and words that are reproduced on page 55. (p. 57)
The 'face and words' that Olsen refers to is a diagram of the inner ears with the following description:
The plumb lines of the inner ear register the position of the head in relation to
gravity. Inflammation of these organs – labyrinthitis – causes them to
broadcast misleading information and the patient reels in the attempt to adjust
to the spurious input. (p. 55)
The piece is also followed by a set of photographs showing the neon sign and the author conducting the performance. All this information offers the reader several interpretive strategies. There is also a link with a poem earlier in the book from the 'Corrupted by Showgirls' section: 'girls pine men adjust // make me feel so Mickey-Mousey' (p. 28). What with the 'Minimaus' poems that follow as a pastiche/parody of Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, with its pun on Olsen/Olson (Richard Ellmann also characterised the relationship between Olson and Robert Creeley as Maximus and Minimus), there also seems to be a pun here on Mickey Mouse/Minnie Mouse as the male-female gendered partnership of cartoon characters. What this might have to do with superheroes is unclear, although the wearing of the Mickey Mouse ears seems also potentially connected to the information about labyrinthitis. Reading 'Era of Heroes' for me was indeed to be bombarded by 'spurious input'. I found the pleasures the text afforded a bit limited: an eyebrow raised at some of the more bizarre names ('Kid Eternity', 'Ur the Caveboy') or the more bizarrely banal names ('Bob Merritt', 'Jim Dawson'), and the early speculation about whether there were going to be any clearly-gendered women superheroes named (there were), and whether one name would give the key to the whole (I didn't find one). Clearly one could read the text as a critique of the cult of superheroes (the 'heroes of error' line), but if so, couldn't the point have been made more effectively by other means? It seems to me that the problem with the text is that all this input appears rather undigested and undifferentiated, whilst simultaneously not disordered enough to constitute a genuinely disruptive experience; if to deliver that could be one of the text's intentions. Heroes are not distinguished according to their cultural origin (although they appear to be predominately Western), their place in history, or the various motivations behind their creations and appearances. None of the speculations on Superman that Tarantino offers in Kill Bill for example, rather just a list where the possibilities don't really seem to be explored. The elision of cultural-historical information is another post-modern feature par excellence, but again for me the effect here is unsatisfying, albeit in a different way to 'Corrupted by Showgirls' – here it feels as if I've been given too much work to do. The author's apparent distance from the research process, taking names from 'other peoples' lists and from searches on the internet', seems to create a corresponding distance from the materials, perhaps resulting in this lack of exploration of what they might mean.

The fourth section of the book, 'The Minimaus Poems', riffs off of the first fourteen letters of Book I of Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems. In a visual collage the title page of Olson's book (a maritime map of Gloucester) gets superimposed by a degraded map of Gloucester, England: Olsen's home town. At its opening the poem's intention feels parodic – Olson's bird vision gets refigured as 'the crap of lyric pigeon' (p. 77) and his invocation to bless the 'the roofs, the old ones' (Olson, I, Maximus, 1) becomes 'roofed plastic M's for O corporate My Modernism' (p. 77). However, the 'parades in parody / of some heroic frisson we are played by' (p. 79) is by no means straightforwardly irreverent or systematic: even in the second section Olsen begins to introduce material that has no straightforward equivalent in Olson's poem but begins to mime the processes inherent in The Maximus Poems: that is, the use of history: 'history declared embossed / under pressure' (p. 80). Although this is territory well-worn by British poets as different as J.H. Prynne and Allen Fisher, Olsen's engagement with The Maximus Poems enables her approach to the history of Gloucester, UK to work in counterpoint with her revisions: at points one is able to follow the close reworking and critique of Olson's poem where lines like:

one loves only form
and form only comes
into existence when
a thing is born
                (Olson, I, Maximus, 4)
get refigured by Olsen as:
form of love is
a torn one, love
of form only
does outside        (p. 81)
whilst at other points one is met by Olsen's own complex and fragmentary engagements with the history of Gloucester:
evidence of 5th Century burial
at the BMW site on Kingsholme Road       (p. 91)

Boots the Chemist Ltd.
paid for the permanent display
of the remains.       (p. 93)

1906      The fire float Salamander demonstrating its pumping power after its
official inauguration. The 'flames' on the warehouse roof have been
added to the picture later.       (p. 94)

Gloucester Journal: the fire-float "shook and shuddered with her tremendous
exertions, and tongues of fire shot three or four feet from her funnel"       (p. 94)

The range of these investigations takes in the First World War, and, as Olson, the history of slavery, with the disturbing information that 'the percentage of slaves to other categories of population is higher in Glos. than in any other single D.B. county' (p.102). Thus the poem plumbs both what the historian Randolph Starn distinguished as 'the conventions of grande histoire concerned with war, revolution, social upheaval, and high culture' and 'petite histoire... the microhistory, the nonevent, the implicit cultural script, the role of the repressed'. Such a petite histoire seems argued for in building on Olson's somewhat pompous announcement of his intentions in Letter 14 to write 'on how men do use // their lives' to Olsen's 'on how men do use / their lives undisclosed in Barton St.' (p. 104). Deletions, lists, blacked-out text (all features of Olson's original) and lines like 'THE TEXT OF THIS ENTRY is corrupt as a result of faulty transmission' and 'MS shows / Gloucestershire badly / executed, not all info / available' (p. 100) also mime the way in which Olson's poem, to use a term of Allen Fisher's, is 'process-showing' in revealing the fragmentary nature of historical collation.

As a poetic argument the poem comes to a head in the statement '“the voice of Gloucestershire” / still your own?' (p. 104). This could be read as poignant, a figuring of loss perhaps prepared for by an earlier statement in Olsen's brilliant reworking of Olson's Songs of Maximus (in which she updates them to address the language of computer communications): 'And that other sense / of home appropriately appropriated…that consolation' (p. 88). This is in turn echoed by the presentation at the conclusion of the poem of a picture of a sculpture of Olsen's which takes the form of a varnished lozenge of wood inscribed with Gothic script such as people use to name their houses: in this case, Olsen's reads 'homesick' (p.109). Nevertheless, such yearning might simply be presented in order to critique it: one of Olsen's most powerful rewrites of Olson takes the lines in Letter 5:

I am not at all aware
that anything more than that
is called for. Limits
are what any of us
are inside of
                 (Olson)
and turns them into:
what is aware is
that anything is I, more than that
is called for. Limits
suggest confines for
revolt from within       (p. 91)
There is much to admire in this opportunity for writing back to the grande histoire of Literature: Olson's sexism is taken to task where his 'islands / of men and girls' (Olson, Letter 3) undergo intensive transformation, becoming, amongst other things 'islands, of me & plants' (p. 87) and Olsen's Letter 3 reminds one of a classic South Park moment in its painful depiction of fragile hetero-masculinity (p. 86). Olson's Song 6: 'you sing, you / who also / wants' is also neatly undone in Olsen's 'you sing, you / who also is / wanting' (p. 90). Nevertheless, it took me time to be won over by this text. On behalf of readers unacquainted with Olson's work it also seems to deserve an explanatory note on its processes.

It is the second section of the book, however, that to my mind represents some of the most effective work in the collection. 'Spill-Kit' presents 10 short poems in a variety of forms, but with a consistency of terse, paratactic phrases which articulate a grim and angry response to contemporary reality:

petrol sign of
loyalty shakes
comprehensive
spoils in pay is

we trust hand
under down
glass used
faces in flood

pop contracts
and the damage
pinned seams
mouthing dirty
                 ('spill kit' p. 37)

What distinguishes these poems is their apparent willingness to speak on their own terms, rather than through the organising conceits of the three other sections: of cinema, superheroes and Olson. Close, in this way, to a 'new lyric' impulse, these poems put words and syntax under considerable pressure in their registering of thought-feelings and perceptions of everyday life. Hence the way in which, in the above example: 'we trust hand / under down / glass' suggests both the image of paying a petrol station cashier 'under' the 'down glass' of the protective visor that shields them, and something underhand going on. The writing is pun dense with the possibilities of spoils/oils, trust/thrust, contracts (verb/noun), and seams/seems. The underhandedness itself is prefigured by the ironic 'petrol sign of / loyalty', where the loyalty card scheme gets hi-jacked to bigger tests of loyalty, e.g. to a country's foreign policy. That the sequence ends with the lines 'charm offensive / models armed / shapes bandaged' seems to make the political charge of this poem crystal clear: spin turns to armament, turns to casualties.

Loyalty crops up again in the poem 'as if', in which the attack on contemporary consumerism is focused on in a different way:

perplex me to the store
yet for what my loyalty should be
undoubtedly mistaken as

Ye Skirted Victim!
Ye Waxed Dumbness!
Ye Gob Shut Creature! Witch!

mused to the ready for the painting by numbness
of a glossed lip
or pen in the oven
blah         (p. 43-44)

Here Olsen conveys a deep anxiety about the manufacture of consumerist consent and its female victims. The possible mode of communication or protest in writing 'muse[d] to the ready' has to face numbness, gloss and the 'pen in the oven': a neat pun on 'bun on the oven' which evokes both the phallologocentrism of writing and the fear of a possible threat to a woman's creativity posed by pregnancy.

The problematic act of writing as the making of a precarious selfhood also comes under scrutiny in 'felt', in which to 'crack open the distance / from safe “I”' leads to 'fidget of the lip-bite / chewed end of biro' (p. 45). The task at hand is 'meaning to process as /the distance between blades' (p. 45) but again this takes place in tension:

in attendance on shelf-life
        permit stance of habitual
era of stocking up on
         giving of the finger        (p. 46)
The attendance to one's 'self'-life, or the in-attendance to how one's self gets commodified, here risks accepting a whole era of habituated responses of giving the finger (as opposed to the V sign that opens the poem) in mute, inarticulate protest. That the poem is capable of registering the possible limits of expression – it ends with: 'relapse comes full on / as in heavy weather' (p.46) – seems deeply pertinent to today's writerly predicaments.

The sequence progresses with considerable density and the poems tend to grow and develop on re-reading. Here I feel in dialogue with the book. It presents difficult thought-feelings, but its verbal wit allows me to find my own way to it. It listens to my responses and answers back, modifies, coalesces, moves off again. This is the kind of writing I want. It feels less ready to accept post-modernity as a state to celebrate or suffer rather than to resist. The last poem of 'Spill-Kit', 'make-up', seems to confirm the irony and danger implicit in the book's title in the lines 'against instinct / secure portable // space' (p. 54). That the aspiration to secure the portable space of a unified selfhood (figured on the cover as container storage) seems undesirable in a post-modern way, the suggestion that such an aspiration could be against 'instinct' seems a peculiarly un-post-modern position. As 'Corrupted by Showgirls' suggests earlier: 'collage something called self against' (p. 14). The syntactical incompleteness of this line allows for some engaging ambiguity: is it an exhortation to construct – as a collage, out of fragments – a self against some kind of external threat (Eliot's 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'), or does it suggest that collage is a means of poetics that resists the construct of selfhood (hence 'against' is collaged and placed out of sequence)? Such an ambiguity feels a fitting final figure for the tensioned complexities that make up this book.

Scott Thurston
Liverpool 9.4.05

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