Subterfuge as Disclosure: Review of Redell Olsen’s FILM POEMS

Film Poems
Redell Olsen. Les Figues Press, $15 softcover, perfect (173p) ISBN 978-1-934254-51-6

A stillness pervades Film Poems, the new collection of five chapbooks by Redell Olsen.  The book dramatizes a kind of celestial mechanics of the spirit, and the concepts have been incorporated into a complexity that preceded them, so that they counterbalance each other, as energies whose rapport had gone unperceived until they were equalized – and yet they were interdependent all along, and therefore they remain at liberty. 
This collection assumes a prominent place amid an oeuvre that’s characterized by a rigorous, speculative intellectualism and an open inquiry into diverse issues related to the arts in general and to poetry in particular.  Instead of commenting on Film Poems alone, it might be appropriate to coordinate this book with its author’s critical and theoretical writings, to read all of them together, and to offer an assessment of the unity that they present – bearing in mind that a reviewer’s job is to read an author’s works by their own lights as much as possible, and to judge them by their own standard, as far as that can be discerned.

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“Experimental” though Olsen’s writing is in its style, it relies upon genre to provide well-defined territories of subject matter and treatment, and freedom still has to be made within these confines: the Baroque, the Picturesque, and the Pastoral are cited, among other types.  By way of distinguishing genre from cliché, the poet uses the term “flat-packing,” in an interview with Will Rowe, describing a habit of forcing writers, groups, works and ideas into ready-made categories for convenient rhetorical deployment in the sort of casual literary debate that amounts to a shabbily disguised squabble between constructed identities.  Olsen explains that her choice to observe traditional genre rules results from an adverse experience of formulaic judgments of poetry, and a need to question the insistence that an artist must in all cases break with conventional forms:

[T]here does seem to be a tendency on the part of critics and writers to read a generation of work as only flat-packing the previous generation’s work and I think that this is a mistake.  What interests me more is what Juliana Spahr calls a possibility of “communal reinvention with an emphasis on combining and transforming formal practices that are often seen as opposed”.  This would mean a re-evaluation of the notion that a break with previous forms is necessarily a positive feature of new work.  My use of the word flat-pack [is] an attempt to register a kind of distrust at the easy acceptance of formulae and categories which necessitate a “break” with previous traditions but also to register a worry about the way certain groups of poets have been flat-packed into kits for reassembly which conform to a small number of critical models through which we have learnt and are learning to approach modernist and contemporary work.  It seems to be an easy option to go along with the existing critical trajectories which are full of rules and regulations.  And I don’t want to be in that position.  I think I’d rather make something that doesn't really conform to an existing “flat-packed” model and that means trying to work out and through existing models of practice and critical approaches to reading and writing about work [….] 

This nuanced viewpoint gives the lie to the presumption that the terms “radical” and “conservative” denote anything in art like the attitudes they are made to indicate in social life.  What’s more, the passage makes a convincing case for traditionalism by contrasting it with other ways of writing.
One of the rewards of reading Redell Olsen’s work is the suggestion one frequently encounters in it of a potential for cross-influence and collaboration among artists working in different media yet engaged in a common effort.  In an essay entitled “Book-Parks and Non-Sites: Susan Howe’s Scripted Enclosures,” Olsen likens Agnes Martin’s large grid paintings on linen to the writing of Susan Howe; the comparison is predicated upon a detailed viewing of the former’s artworks and a close reading of the latter’s poetry, in which the pieces under consideration disclose more subtlety the longer they hold the attention:

Where Martin uses hand-drawn lines to complicate the abstract regularity of the grid’s form, Howe uses the indeterminacies, associative meanings, and acoustical repetitions of language to complicate the clear and abstract representation of historical events and in doing so redraws the assumed maps and borders of the conceptual tracts she inhabits.

The practice of writing poetry is an activity that exhibits a temporal duration quantifiable according to standard measures, but it also possesses a largely unexamined oneirospatial extent and breadth and depth.  Among the other arts, poetry is an areal mode that operates outside of palpable time and distance, and as such poems are often best presented to the reader in a series occurring nonsequentially.  It is particularly in an achronic capacity that poetry directs its attention and energies to the planet Earth as a site where human life takes place (the planet also happens to be a whole lot else than that).  Olsen’s statement “Sites and (Human) Non-Sites of a (Sub) Urban World” compares various poets’ writings to the earthworks-artist Robert Smithson’s map-drawings:  

Like Smithson’s maps of non-sites, [Bernadette] Mayer’s, [Fiona] Templeton’s and [Carla] Harryman’s writing calls the apparent singularity of the term site-specific into question.  Their writing opens up a dialogic relationship between the material properties of site and the language itself.  This place of exchange and translation functions as a space in which to figure alternative forms of subjectivity and agency in response to site as a broader category of cultural and social definition.

Despite the mention of culture and society in the passage quoted above, it seems clear that Olsen’s writing carries an emotional charge that is only incidentally directed against anthropocentrism, and that is instead consistently devoted to a nonhuman metric.  It would be wishful thinking indeed to claim that the general acceptance of physicists’ theories about the universe is recapitulated at the psychosocial level in a widespread relinquishment of narcissism.  The object of poetics considered as a discipline would seem to be, not an alternative to the genteel tradition, as it’s been called – with its categories of cultural and social definition – but an intellectual tradition that is altogether separate, created from the ground up, so to speak, and based upon constructs consistent with our evolving understanding of humans’ eccentric place in the cosmos.  Olsen’s gathering consciousness of the scope of her project keeps the reader’s attention; in a statement entitled “the matter of cloven poetics: or, even the title against itself,” an internal tension is posited as the structural principle of poetry, and the spirit of the text is proposed as

a criticism transformed so that it seems almost against itself, up to and including its own limits: an arcade pastoral of non-hierarchical relationships in nomadic reformation [...] a vast field of shared consciousness which encompasses the landscape as setting, as well as all the poetic and critical roles [….]

The reader may well feel that Olsen’s “vast field of shared consciousness” is more like it the cramped passage abruptly giving onto a bounded vista of scaled prospects.
Such complexity implies an acknowledgment that, first, using the written word as an artistic medium links our work to many different contexts, only some of which presuppose the self as a component part; and second, that the poem’s buoyant position amidst these links compels us to write as if not all contexts pertained to it with equal relevance – in other words, to write as if choice mattered in the domain of art – and finally, therefore, that our discipline compels us to write so as to reach a decision among the divergent significations which our materials quite ordinarily carry over through the process of composing and into the finished work.  In an interview marking the publication of a previous collection, Book of the Fur, the poet puts it this way:

I think that using such a range of source material does place you beside oneself.  A writing that is already half someone else’s or that quite obviously belongs elsewhere seems to me to offer quite an interesting position from which to begin an investigation, to acknowledge those previous contexts and see where it leads [….]  I find that a fascinating aspect of [Susan Howe’s] writing; the way in which she is able to represent these voices and people apparently lost to history without pretending to speak through them in some kind of fictionalised construction.

Despite its generalized view of the conventions of fiction as mere pretense, this skeptical stance is modest in that it approaches the central questions of the human condition with a sense of words as common property, and because its purposive indirection offers the reader a cogent space that isn’t over-determined.
Here, logic amounts to a high play of thought where new corrupt ideas are converted into old robust ones, which then yield a definite gain, as in the following formula, from Olsen’s statement entitled “Not, a Conceptual Art Poetics”:

Not the poem as idea as idea but ideas in words as words.  Not that the poem does not think that words are not made of materials.  Not the dematerialization of the poem but the intermittent re-materialization of the word as object.  Not an assumption of language as transparent but an exploration of its densities.

Again, an appreciation of genre is apparent in this exercise, a scholastic approach that entails a projection outward and into (or perhaps an immersion under and in) a heretofore un-studied corpus or aggregation of data which must then be shown forth as self-sufficient, existing for its own sake by virtue of its own activity.
Film Poems is published alongside “To Quill at Film,” an essay that dilates upon the premise that the medium of film might beneficially be considered as a metaphor for poetry:

I drew a plan of the writing instrument as a poetics as a film for showing in live performance as a writing of day for night.  Situations in which I might be expected to film writing occurred and I was drawn to the archives and made them in the everyday.

Here, consistent with certain peculiarly artistic means of regarding the self as if from outside its concerns, the author’s daily life turns into a kind of micro-situationist performance art piece, played out indefinitely in the service of a writing project, with or without onlookers.  Living to write, and regarding the self as subject matter for use in art, this poet has meanwhile taken considerable trouble to inform the reader as to how the work in Film Poems came to be made.  
And, as the reader soon notices, these poems really are about films.  However, it’s also true that the entire book elaborates a single metaphor of poetry-as-film.  And yet this all-important conceit is not proposed anywhere within the book itself, nor is it formulated in any of the author’s other published writings.  Instead, in a resourceful and surprising use of an otherwise pro forma “deliverable,” the crucial statement of the central analogy of Film Poems masquerades as the book’s press kit.  It includes the following sentence:   

Just as really “seeing” a film is to experience our own vision—the technology that is always mediating our sight—really “reading” (a particular form of seeing) is to experience our own language as a constantly shifting medium; meanings emerge through ceaseless splicings and cuts.

The ideas hang together as a cluster, each separate part suspended among the rest, arranged just so.  It all depends upon what we understand by its terms.  First, vision, whose vernacular meanings include the physical (as in “When he stepped outside, the sudden glare impaired his vision for a few seconds, rendering him unsure of where he was”) and the psychic (as in “She had a vision in which a woman descended through the air before her, stepped down onto the earth, and began to speak”).  Further, making reference to the concept of vision by using the phrase “our own” often normally signals a notion that’s considered sacrosanct: everyone, it’s thought, has his or her own artistic vision, and supposedly a person can only know or understand or experience his or her own vision, never someone else’s.  Second, language, whose meanings range from the biological (as in “Humans communicate using facial expressions and nonverbal gestures, as well as spoken and written language”) to the cultural (as in “She informed him that there was a lot more to her country’s language than just High German”) to the idiolectic (as in “Who can forget having been told as a child: ‘Watch your language’?”).  Without any indication that the phrase “our own vision” is or ought to denote something natural or personal, the above statement describes our own vision as a kind of technology, not in the current popular senses of “advanced industrial manufacture” or “handheld gadgetry,” but rather as a kind of ethereal machinery that runs interference between ourselves and the optical equipment responsible for our physical sense of sight: that is, between us and what we see.  Likewise, in the above statement, language, far from indicating a biological or national or cultural or individual acquisition or tool, means a kind of technology that similarly runs between us and what we say – and that therefore comprehends and incorporates those other sorts of language too.  Finally, both of these technologies is a medium in that each of them carries things to and fro as a conveyance, and intercedes as a go-between.  For Olsen, it’s these media alone – and not The Self or The Other or The World – that we experience when we read a book or see a film.  It is from the medium itself that our emotions are born as we see and read.  And a medium, again, is common property, as it were – albeit “constantly shifting” – because we all have a stake in it: all of us are forever creating and using it.  In the jargon of filmmaking, a cut is the change from one image to another that’s created by a splice, the physical jointure between two lengths of celluloid.  But the word splicing, used as a noun – as in “a splicing” – is a piece of poetic diction which is intended to signal the action of joining the pieces of film together.  “Ceaseless splicings and cuts” therefore invokes the profoundly moving experience one sometimes has while watching a film or reading a text, in which there is a powerful sense of another person “on the other side” of the artwork, who is in the act of creating it, even in the very moment one watches or reads.  Further, to claim – as Olsen’s statement does – that reading is “a particular form of seeing” is to make an argument for a special sense of reading as a subfield of physical sight.  This may strike the critical reader as a rather severe limitation upon the possibilities of the medium of writing, undue because self-imposed; it seems likely that this excusable inaccuracy comes (along with much that is beneficial) from Susan Howe’s apparently formative influence upon this poet.  Finally, the claim that there are such things as “really seeing’” and “really ‘reading’” suggests that degrees of acquisitive and generous participatory activity will reward us in proportion as we devote ourselves to them and lose ourselves in them, and that this selflessness of ours lets meanings emerge.

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The Notes section at the back of Film Poems documents its sources, as well as the process of composition and the circumstances of performance; an entry for the first chapbook, “London Land Marks,” reads in part as follows:

London Land Marks (2007) refers to a 1950’s 8mm black and white ciné film entitled “London Landmarks” probably produced for tourists visiting London.  The film caught fire the first time it was put through the projector.  What remained of the pieces of film reel were scanned onto a computer and provided a series of still images that were projected alongside the poem during readings.  These stills often contained multiple frames, as well as the edges of the original film stock which had words and letters already printed on them.  The original film included pictures of famous landmarks in London such as Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace and more incidental images of a woman feeding pigeons, a London bus and the crowds on Oxford Street.  One section of the still recovered in the scanning process showed a hand setting up a poster that detailed suggested topics for speeches that were to take place at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park; a place in which open-air speaking, debate and discussion are allowed apparently on any subject as long as the police consider the speeches lawful.  In 2003 the authorities tried unsuccessfully to ban a demonstration against the war in Iraq that was to take place in the park.

The Geographical Poem goes back a long way in England, at least as far as John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill;” the passages in Wordsworth’s Prelude about first arriving in London likewise represent an early effort to deal with a locale on its own terms.  Olsen’s London is a place to talk in.  The repeated words and phrases lack the isolated, neurotic, short-circuited quality of many poets’ work whose superficial resemblance to Olsen’s might otherwise tempt one to surmise that they partake of a kindred effort; instead, the short monosyllabic lines of “London Land Marks” read like a solitary voice, in a conversation in the round, that isn’t fawningly waiting for another voice to chip in:

evil ones can mark a peach
I you me
run from the parks
where evil ones can mark
a peach with land
I you me
where evil ones can mark
a peach with
London is marked

Ominous and personable, generalizing and declarative, vernacular and unemphatic, Film Poems opens with a kind of civic area designated for public use.
“Bucolic Picnic: or, Toile de Jouy, Camouflage,” the book’s third section, draws upon accounts of working women’s contribution to the war effort during World War I, an interdisciplinary piece in which design, textile manufacture, and visual art all figure equally.  Of the film poems in Film Poems that are available as videos via the internet, “Bucolic Picnic” is a successful film in its own right: the subdued but clear tones of the poet’s voice play over documentary images of the construction of a tank decoy from piping and fabric, as well as amateur footage of men in ghillie suits and a tableau from a 1927 film version of Robinson Crusoe.  A tribute to ingenuity and resolve in extremis, the section also contains some strong descriptive writing:

against a dark red ground embellished with leaves in regular horizontal rows pale delicate ornamental motifs stand out—flowers birds butterflies and squirrels little cherubs hold out vine shoots from which hang bunches of grapes a sphinx between the two vases of flowers occupies the centre of the pattern bark-mimic out motions still shunned to dye with madder the madder is carefully mixed with water in a boiler just after the fire has been lit underneath and the pieces of cloth tied together at the end are put into the bath at first his assistants disguised observation posts either by constructing dummy dead horses or cattle into which the observer could take shelter while using binoculars then trees stripped of their branches by bombardment were cut down at night and dummy trees substituted in which men could sit protected by a steel plate and connected to

Because of the writing’s intent and measured concentration upon its subject matter, passages like this one strike the reader as the textual component of a quasi-claustral rite, reverberating someplace unseen, deep within cell walls, the hours of a strict cohort devoted to the gentle arts of peace, a song of deep meditation faintly overheard.
The book’s fourth section, “The Lost Pool,” is a nexus of scholarship, film, dance, athletics, history and politics.  The Notes report of its debut performance:

The installation took place in a disused swimming pool that had been remodeled as a lecture hall at Royal Holloway, University of London.  The original pool was still just visible and perfectly intact underneath the current floor.  The project was conceived in part as an homage to Esther Williams who would have represented the US as a swimmer in the 1940 Summer Games had they not been cancelled, and to Jane Holloway and Elizabeth Jesser Reid both of whom were instrumental in the founding of what was initially a college of further education for women on the site in 1849 [….]  The text repurposes written accounts by women who had used the pool from the 1940s to the late 1960s [….]  Apart from my voice, that of Esther Williams is also heard, as recorded in a 1996 interview in which she recalls auditioning for the 1940 San Francisco Aquacade during which the director and entrepreneur, Billy Rose, instructed her to swim “pretty” rather than “fast” to which Esther replied “If I can swim fast then I can learn pretty.”

This is Film Poems’ finest section; pathos emerges from its materials unforced as if without interference from the author, who seems only to have made a selection from the sources and shaped it.  With the above notes in mind, for example, consider what a range of emotion must be condensed in the following laconic couplets, a complete poem standing alone on the page:

aquaplane butterfly
chrysalis mermaid

to dress-up model
I. Magnin store girl

eat medals at war
turns doing svelte

customers custom
made fast so learn

pretty price of Rose

This accordion-like contraction of what might reasonably be supposed to have been the spectrum of Esther Williams’ lifetime of experience as a woman living in the world is not presented to the reader as if it were being recollected aloud in tranquility by a first-person-singular narrator according to the conventions of verisimilitude.  Instead, the poem is simply written – as the Notes humbly state – “as an homage.”  Other poems in “The Lost Pool” spring forth like buds from out of a collective past, then unclose and bloom as prolonged moments.  The following excerpt is from the section’s conclusion:

you remember you think it must have been in your final you remember you decided you remember sundry boys girls you remember that it would be great fun to have a party down at the pool you remember a friend of hers you remember a short-sighted one you remember sedately swimming along in glasses you remember yourself as a surprisingly dignified sight you remember how a listed building could be simply shut up and allowed to decay you remember him taking his surfboard into the pool for practice you remember how they would take the place over for their total immersions remember it as a rather creepy very old-fashioned place you remember it being extremely hard to find you remember it deeply embedded along winding leaf-strewn paths you remember it set within towering oppressive greenery you remember ladies had to enter a narrow cubicle you remember many little dips there you remember your friend and fellow student you remember sneaking in there with a friend and two male friends who were not even you remember taking advantage you remember the chrome tube rails from which the changing-booth curtains were hung you remember the old swimming pool as you remember the pool outside where there were oar locks at the side you remember the sunlight dappling and twinkling through roof lights onto the still water you remember the swimming pool in the woods with some affection you remember the swimming pool quite well you remember the thrill of being able to push off at one end and then swim underwater to the other end and back again never once breaking surface

Again, aside from the excellence of the evocation, there is a finesse of workmanship here, as the repeated words “you remember” occur where one might more or less comfortably say them.  The fact that this stylistically post-Modern recollection comes not from the author’s own life, but from recorded testimony, marks a departure from – and an advance upon – established and recognized form; as such it also marks the triumph of Film Poems.

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Redell Olsen has indicated where Film Poems stands among her other works, as well as where she herself stands vis-à-vis her immediate forebears, her contemporaries, and her peers of tradition.  Moreover, as an exploration or investigation, this book offers a counterexample.  Neither Olsen’s collaborations with – and critical studies of –  artists from foreign lands, nor the fact that Film Poems is published by Les Figues Press in Los Angeles, accounts for the challenge this book presents.  The quality that sets Redell Olsen’s Film Poems apart is what one might describe as their call for civilization in the widest sense – the sense in which anyone at all does not possess civilization, but creates it.  The theoretical writing that accompanies these poems cites such everyday creativity as a prerequisite for reading them.  (May, 2014)

Purchase Film Poems HERE.

Reviewer bio: Erik Noonan is the author of the poetry collections Stances (Bird & Beckett, 2012) and Haiku d’Etat (Omerta, 2013).  He lives in San Francisco with his wife Mireille.