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John Olson Prose Poems


If you ask me why we need drama, my answer is somebody dead. Or somebody born. Or somebody weeping with their head on a table. The awareness that human existence is both joy & woe is prerequisite to accepting medication for the inevitable effronteries. Did we lose the world when science separated our minds from our bodies, or when topiary emerged in the gardens of Versailles? Can’t say. But there’s a frog on the kitchen window sill with his mouth wide open. He appears to be singing. But no sound is coming out. Why would it? It's a ceramic frog. The idea is to put things in his mouth. Pencils, screws, a set of keys. And that’s called writing.
              Implications of oak may be primped with cartilage & activated by charcoal. And that makes everything oblique & structural. Which reveals mysteries of flight & perception. Until then we just stand around counting the number of tiles on the floor. It’s hard to start a conversation with a can opener. Somebody might think my vocabulary is arbitrary but it isn’t it’s every bit as meaningful as a cloud of Mesozoic insects trapped in amber. But what the hell. Mop a sentence with the brain & propositions get everything wet with their strands & ramification.
              In all registrations of existence, everything happens as if we had lost the world because we made it so easily available. The world is a mélange, often contradictory, of availability and unavailability. I can make it snow with a snow cannon, but it won’t be the mysterious beauty that arrives with real snow. Pythagoras held reality to be a mathematical code whose core structure was based on the number three. I picture all those numbers dribbling down like rain in The Matrix, especially at that critical moment when Neo reaches enlightenment. Every time that curtain of habit gets pulled back a real look at the universe can make you tremble with awe.
              And dodge bullets as well.
              Availability has two faces: the one negative – when the things that one seeks to control elude us by the very fact that we seek to control it – and the other positive – when we are transported by what exceeds us. We feel its power whistle through our bones. In the morning I walk through an astronomy of words adhering both to the immediacy of their sound & the alluring colors that quicken & blaze with beatitude, as if time were a shine in the eye & space was its natural conclusion, a voluptuous sphere whose center is everywhere & whose circumference is nowhere. And so I often go in search of perfume. The kind that walks out of the mouth dressed in words.
              In philosophy, this is what Adorno called the quest for the nonidentifiable: you aspire to seize a phenomenon thanks to a conceptual framework, but, if you capture it entirely, you lose it. It’s also why the lettuce is kept moist at the supermarket. Its allure is in its estrangement, its absolute aloofness. Which awakens the spirit of intercourse. Which is communion. Clearly, all the broccoli are sad little knots. Where does the inside begin & the outside end? Ok, I’m ointment. Now what? Sometimes it just feels good to put one word after another & see what happens.


I want to be a moral support officer. I want to uphold things of value. I want to be a herculean herbevorian trickle of goodness in a swordfish suit. I want a synthetic insect to tap dance on my fingernail & fill me with the nausea of prostitution. I want to wear the brightest lipstick ever invented in a dark room & shake hands with a violin. I want that violin to be a Stradivarius & the darkness to be palpable as the handle of a mop. I want that mop to be as literal as the logo for the Rolling Stones. I want the Rolling Stones to support all my endeavors with the disheveled appeal of aging bluesters. I want the blues to be so blue they turn pink & walk all over my tarpaulin with the viability of Agnes Moorhead swatting little astronauts in a Twilight Zone episode.
              I think of myself as a weather. Strong winds, heavy precipitation, thunder & lightning. That’s why I recommend snow. Be a snowman. When the sun appears, melt. Become water. Flow. Enjoy your opinions. The rhythms of Bo Diddley, the lyrics of Chuck Berry. The drills of Black & Decker, the caprices of Niccolo Paganini. These flirtations can lead to a transcendent, metaphysical attitude if you allow them to experience you as a determined indeterminacy. The pageant never dies because it is forever muddling its way into athleticism & Popeye’s forearms. Meanwhile, leave your helmet on. We’re not there yet. But the poultice seems to be working.
              Nihilism is where you end up when you’ve lost faith in institutions. The world becomes a cold raw emotional state, an exquisite anxiety of fevers & looms. On a good day you can see Paris. On a bad day you want to avoid the freeway & ride a flying buttress into the dark ages of a Walmart. Buddhists refer to our inner life as a bitter ocean of life & death. Is there a polynomial for this? There are no stress equations for emotional distress. Therefore, if density equals squirrels Walt Whitman ponders the wings of a butterfly. Art has no need to justify itself. Don’t break your brain on worthless shit. Look for the light in someone’s eyes. Then sit & reassess.
              What happens when nothing happens? Time happens. Age happens. Heartburn happens. This is when the voice is mute & the words wink at you from under a hijab. It’s all about pushing a language beyond the dimensions of its own saying, so that everyone is finally convinced that poetry truly is worth something, worth one’s attention, for a minute or two, long enough to produce some odors, some mental pictures, & a jar of petroleum jelly. But the definitions here get really fuzzy. Things overlap. They always do. Every detail in the doorway is interrelated. And that’s a huge poem in itself waiting to be written by someone, or just happily ignored.
              How long have I felt this sense of alienation? For as long as I can remember. And that includes adolescence, which is a chrysalis for adulthood, which is a steep rock wall in the Faroe Islands. The Portuguese call it saudade, the sadness of an unappeasable longing. You just can’t shake it. But you can practice Neo-Platonism with an airport & a flagrant romanticism. And later this afternoon The Rolling Stones will arrive in a hot-air balloon & take a look around. It’s not easy to find happiness in ourselves, but if we look to the future we see the spirits of the dead ride on a roller coaster laughing their skulls off, & vowels ride around in consonants persuasive as sugar.

Ohm On The Range

Somewhere in the energy of a poem is a mode of contention, an ohm of resistance, somewhat like an orgasm. I think it’s natural to want to attack a crayon. A 300-pound bull shark was discovered in a valentine of dirt. This underscores the power of the mind to inhabit a desolation with a certain amount of impiety. If these are symptoms, see a wizard. Ponder the disturbances, those slaps to the face that knit such wonderful allegories of trust. Warts are the indicia of a higher reality. Does this mean we’re still friends? I don’t want to rattle anyone’s cage. I just want to let the words reach up into your eyes & pull your head down so I can kiss you.
              Creating anything is always a large gesture. Don’t let the ego get in the way. Be a philosopher of yourself. The illusion will do you some good. Who am I talking to exactly? Is it you? Is it me? Unlike literature, which is a maneuver among words, we find a void when we look inside. Here is where it all begins. That music no one hears because it sleeps in linen. It awakens when the body moves. It’s a sound like no other, including lakes & swans. If I were to frame this moment in a single image I would call it a doorbell. This is what vowels do. They ride around in consonants. We have oars for the calliope. And words behind the teeth building momentum.
              If you go at life with all your might you might make some music along the way. Why not? I rub Athena’s black furry head and listen to Sera Cahoone pluck a Gibson guitar. The rest of my day is a postmark predicated on going nowhere. Every day we see our lives play out in weird trajectories, nothing we expected, & then slowly, imperceptibly the day begins to creep into the blood like a virus & cause great novels by Cormac McCarthy & Fyodor Dostoevsky. There is also the narrative arc of our lives which follows a pattern similar to sentences that get up & walk around like details on their way to a barn: daylight bursting through little cracks & holes.
              I like phantasmagoria. The bizarre. The ineffable. Manufacturing reality out of words is a difficult but highly stimulating project. If you’re starting a novel you should begin with the nerves vibrating with the largeness of things. The insanely, maniacally ACTUAL. Which is all around you. The words will fail. They always fail. They’re words, not jeeps. You’ll need an all-terrain mind. Blake’s tiger moves stealthily forward. Take a deep breath: now begin. The flutter of invisible entities will rock back & forth on the page spitting blood & cathedrals. Go ahead. Give the junkyard a chance. For every discarded item there hovers an improbable angel.
              There are mysteries, & there are mysteries: how much does gravity weigh? What is the identity of dark matter? How does one measure evidence? I do know one thing: we are all water & bone walking around feeling trapped in a cage whose door is always open. Once you get that figured out the rest is easy. If you move the telescope closer to the window you can see the sky crawl into itself. That’s cause for a celebration, don’t you think? There’s no easy formula. Meaning is something you have to make. Use straw. Weigh gravity by sitting in a chair. Or lying down on a blanket & listening to the surf move in & out leaving its brocade in the sand. And this is what time looks like when it’s wedded to space in a handful of words anyone can lift with their eyes.

Tears Of The Moon

A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer, declaimed Spicer. What the hell does he mean by that? Time is evident in the machinery of grammar. Embalming fluid is for the dead. If the poem is a machine of words you need a mechanic. But it’s dead (who killed it? was it murdered? did the public murder it, or did the poem just suicide itself in a fury of purification?) The act of self-sacrifice arrives without the stubborn power of obsessions. There is more to beauty than stained glass. There is also the gastric intimacy of military commands. They don’t assume any moral or ethical burden. Just the horsepower of human emotion. Hence: Jacques Vaché in the trenches of WWI. Not, perhaps, what Spicer had in mind, but the machinery was inalienable.
              Poets are always fighting wars. Wars with themselves. Wars with the public. Wars with politicians. Wars with husbands. Wars with wives. Wars with society. But mostly language. If you want to call that a war. It’s more like watching a brain crawl across the floor like a playful puppy. Outside, the street defines the pitch of the material world. Shapes crawl into themselves & hold their forms very still in a gospel of superfluity. Life is mostly a flirtation with liquids. Dylan’s tarantula perches on the top of my head confirming everything & denying nothing. There is armistice among the moccasins but the rain is red & each word is a hot warm biology. The wars are manipulated. We call it the media. It shuffles sideways, grinning teeth & deceit.
              I mean, there’s always something, right? The fairy kingdom dancing around my big toe might actually be a form of shoe polish. I believe there’s music in language. It can make anyone’s head explode. And now it’s a whole generation. The kitchen window is open a crack to lessen condensation, water dripping down onto the wooden sill. The air speaks to my skin in the language of pure sensation. Is this what our cat senses? The smell of salvation? The balm of a divine presence? Let’s just say the road is finally open. Look at my forehead. If you can see goldfish swimming back & forth it means I’m doing my best to get the metaphors going.
              How about you? What are you up to? Me, I’m sitting here riding up & down on the windshield wipers. I warp into nouns, jingle them with a bewildered air. Abandon my plywood giraffe for an elephant of air. I think I’m getting there. I’m beginning to feel the space walking around in me. Unlike literature, which is a phenomenological struggle with nebulous objectives. Once the truth is attained, I’ll smash it to smithereens. That’s the proper thing. The ideal thing to do. Cry. Cry cry cry. 96 tears. Feel it? The feeling in meaning & being? I feel iron. I’ll never abandon the way I feel about grapes. Perceptions cause the eagerness to plump into turpentine & beat the ground with little red sticks. I feel an evasion on the way. And wash my face with the tears of the moon.


Poetry just doesn’t get there. You’ve got to drag it into existence. If it’s got feathers & eyes & sparkles on the tongue you can get a table at Le Cirque without a reservation any time day or night. There’s a power that shapes our destinies into hamster wheels of cyclical infatuation. You’ll become a bistro to yourself. These agitations are natural. The pollen is random but the momentum is real. Cognition is mostly ants. Is it difficult to change? Yes. But it can be done. For example, there’s a hardware store of irrational beauty where the ego is propped up by self-delusion, & there’s a sale on needle nose pliers. The more elusive meaning becomes, the brighter the pot at the end of the rainbow. And so on, until the cows come home, & find their inner moo.
              Can I be literal? Can I be raw like Charles Bukowski? How much alcohol does it take to get away from all these metaphors and sit down with a shot of bourbon and come to terms with death and infinity? Do you see this dust? That’s a thought collapsing. It drifts, in wisps and curls, making nothing, causing nothing. What is going on in your head this minute? Because thought is annoying. It’s not a sensation, not like a woman’s finger’s running down your spine. Is life a simulacrum of somewhere finer and better, or is this it, is this the sleep from which we must awaken? All it takes is a puff or two to blow the little hairs off of the computer screen.
              One day the universe will walk into your head and sit down. It must be taken in abstract form or lost to empirical reality. How it got there, I have no idea. I don’t grow my hair, my hair does that on its own. Yet it seems to me that my mind is separate from my body. Because it feels like a captain in his bridge looking out upon the ocean that is the world. Nothing is really empty. Not even nothingness is empty. Energy can neither be created or destroyed. It’s a riddle. Scribbles in the water. If you go deep enough you don’t even notice the current. But the stripper wants her money & this is a reality you’re going to want to pay some attention to. Otherwise, some big guy is going to come & toss you the hell out. The Buddhists are right: don’t get attached to things.
              It’s not infrequent for something very small to get on my nerves. It would have to be painted. Painting small things is felt around the fingers like a moisture, a cold bottle in the hand. I picked the paint up a few days later. This wasn’t just paint, it was a Schrödinger equation. I got it home and donned a pair of surgical gloves. I opened my life with a screwdriver & proceeded to raise the brush while positioning myself in the world, that big fat phenomenal world out there pressing against my skull. It’s time I said something about it. It’s true that washcloths normally don’t spout their inner being, but tonight the rag is science. And science, said Heidegger, doesn’t think.
              I don’t know what thinking is. You tell me. Is your microbiome happy? I know mine is. I just had a colonoscopy. Is there a theme to this? Yes & no. Yes, there is a theme, but no, the theme isn’t pizza. I’m referencing Clostridium, Faecalibacterium, Eubacterium, Ruminococcus, Peptococcus, Peptostreptococcus, & Bifidobacterium. These are the mighty cities of my gut. Were you expecting garlic & pepperoni? This isn’t meatballs. This is the hindquarters of a mighty abstraction which is involved with possible ways of being in the world. Life in late capitalism. The typhoon Mangkhut crashing through Hong Kong, throwing confetti to the stars.
              And on Wednesday I’m driving my teeth to the dentist. It’s what you do when the sun justifies the windows & we festoon our lives with theorems, however misconceived or snapped together like Lego blocks. The map, so they say, is not the territory. And yet my left pocket smells of almonds & travel. These agitations that plague me at night are legible as the Eskimo night dripping stars & trombones. And so the narratives are tributaries. How can it be otherwise? Each word has a rich interior life, moods and opinions. Divinity resides in our hands. Because eating is weird. I pop a beignet in my mouth & listen to Jimi Hendrix turn his guitar into a machine gun.
              You remember Jimi Hendrix, right? He was the Shakespeare of the guitar. Music is in a war with banality. It always has been. I like music that’s like a wild animal trying to get out of a cage. We’re in this together, 30,000 feet over Omaha. Frank O’Hara is piloting the plane. Delores O’Riordan stands in the dark holding a luminous rabbit. Let these words tickle your ears with thoughts of paradise. Shadows of another world glitter on my lips. Our poetry is what keeps society together. But no one, least of all society, seems to be aware of that. I just want to live in a region where the zippers don’t rust & clothes don’t reek of must. But let’s not get into that. Language is its own disaster, creating a perennial fog to come out of my head & describe itself.
              Happily, I have faith in immanentism. This means that creosote murmurs its nonchalance to whatever train happens to be moving over it at the time. People can tell you what happened later. Dreams carry words to the sentence where the unconscious is the prevailing engine. Sometimes it takes a Ferris Wheel to draw the correct conclusion about life. Structure works by recurrence, by going round & round. Our language is in prison. Open the gates & let the words loose. Lightning will appear later wearing words like a person. And what’s this? This is a sentence swimming beneath the Terra Incognita of the human brain. Context is everything. Is there an art to enduring pain? Follow me. I will show you how music advances the evolution of the T-shirt.

John Olson’s work in prose, poetry, and prose poetry has appeared in numerous publications, including Echo Regime, Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New and Selected Poems. He has also authored four novels, including Souls of Wind (shortlisted for a Believer Magazine Book Award in 2008), The Seeing Machine, The Nothing That Is, and In Advance of the Broken Justy. A new collection of prose poetry titled Weave of the Dream King is forthcoming in 2020 from Black Widow Press.
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