We gather today and examine a reading from Maximus IV, V, VI. Please note there are no page numbers to this edition, complicating the matter of indexing and requiring a scrupulous degree of attention. The selection is the last pages of Book V and concludes with the lines that begin “off-upland / only Ubaid / gets “in” / to riverine / (Squam” The parenthesis is not closed as often is the case when Olson nests concepts within concepts. These lines are followed by a generous amount of white space, a usage of the keyboard that has nothing to do with Mallarméan white space. The words, “Old Norse / Algonquin,” follow. The suggestion is that there is an over-lay of different geographical riverine registers: Ubaid, where earliest agriculture may have begun in hills above the marshy shores of the Tigris-Euphrates confluence and the basin of the Annisquam. One paratactic system is laid over the first in the line, “Old Norse / Algonquin,” an allusion to Leland’s Algonquin Legends of New England, where the argument is found that Norse loan-words populate Algonquin language since a time of earliest contact. This page will remind us both that Olson is a poet who “reads” and second that the process of paratactic nesting involves the construction of multiple fields in overlay or in nested matrices. I note that “reading” can also be a shamanistic process of decoding ream-images. And third, I stress, Olson is also a poet who invents his necessary fictions.
The pages selected for this morning’s reading begin with one of the most coherent narratives to be found in Maximus, the poem “The Gulf of Mane.” Olson alters his reading of the record of a storm and shipwreck in Damariscotta Harbor and of the underlying socio-political situation, by adding language that indicates a concern for the welfare of the widows of the lost sailors, “sturdy pense / in recompense / of their dear husbands.” He also projects a conclusion in which some ribs from the shipwreck be set up as a memorial for the valor of the lost sailors; although he doesn’t expect appreciation of the deep history enshrined by the memorial, he concedes with irony that “well-dressed persons” will “frequent it.” In this instance we find Olson the citizen of dour disposition. Is it an issue of false identification to suggest the presence of palpable, emotionally-based subjectivity in these lines?
Let’s continue our reading. Be advised, if you are following my subtext that we have already embraced several reading and interpretive strategies. The next page is labelled “Additional “Phoenician “ notes. The notes are oblique and inscrutable references to fertility cults practiced in the Persian Gulf or on Phoenician shores. C.J. Jung addresses some of this material. The next page, with a generous paratactic sweep, returns to the history of Gloucester with an account of the mass death of phalaropes or sea geese, lured to their destruction by lighthouses on Thatcher’s Island in 1899. The passage provides ample support for identifying Olson one of our first eco-poets.
The final matter discussed in today’s reading is the flawed reading of Anaximander to be found in Aristotle and Augustine. It is a brief passage involving a pun. If Anaximader is “alpha” with respect to ancient cosmography, then the others are beta and “in doing so beta’d / themselves.” I hear a down-east drawl.
Most curious then is that the next two pages are blank. Olson invites us to write as he does when he reads. His is a readerly writing. The blank pages may also provide an invitation to meditate. They may indicate a prolonged and dramatic pause before the matter of the riverine landscapes is addressed. Olson’s epic is often indeed, in oral terms, highly dramatic. It is a constructed project displaying deep levels of resonance. Part VI of Maximus which immediately follows offers the most exquisite lines in Olson’s corpus. I will not sully them now with a historical recitation of allusive significance. But it is with concern for the earth that I cite these lines. “The earth with a city in her hair / entangled of trees.” My subtext has been a desire to return to the communal bonds that a reading of Olson’s work may inspire.
Prayerfully, Donald Wellman