Friday, February 26, 2010

Polis Is This


Here's something really good if you haven't already seen it: Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (the film, in six parts, is embedded below).  It includes reflections on the way Olson wrote about space and place, interviews with poets like Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka and Jonathan Williams, and Olson's own words spoken by John Malkovich and sung by Ed Sanders of the Fugs.  It's not an experimental film - in some ways it's a fairly typical documentary, with talking heads, archive footage and scenic shots synced to the soundtrack.  The film's website, with a nice sense of humour, describes it's subject in heroic terms: 'Charles Olson the "original aboriginal" fights to save his town from so-called progress as the bullzoder of change rumbles down Main Street USA.  His challenge to us? We must either rediscover the earth or leave it. Have we all become estranged from that which is most familiar? See Polis Is This before the cultural wetlands are completely drained and maybe you can save the place where you live.'

One of the interviewees in Polis Is This is John Stilgoe from Harvard University who says that “the local environment is the prism through which anyone’s understanding of the cosmos is filtered; to look at the outer world from a vantage point in the local. For many people the local landscape was very uninteresting and ordinary, but for him, it was the threshold to the world.”  The documentary actually begins by addressing the viewer on the subject of landscape, asking whether we really see "not just the present surface, but what came before".  Charles Olson wrote about Gloucester, Massachusetts as it was in the fifties and sixties, as it had been in his childhood, and how it had developed and changed since the seventeenth century. His Maximus Poems contain a lot of detail on 'what came before' - some of it rather hard going if you are not that interested in New England history, although another interviewee, poet Robin Blaser says that Olson told him not to bother trying to get his head round all the local detail: "don't do that... this is my place.  Go do it for yours."  (Maybe I will... "I, Plinius of Stoke Newington, to You" etc. etc.)


The complete Maximus Poems that we now have consists of three volumes: The Maximus Poems, published in 1960 (see picture above), Maximus Poems IV, V and VI which appeared in 1968, and The Maximus Poems: Volume 3, published posthumously in 1975.  As you read through them you build up a strong visual picture of Gloucester, past and present, from fragments of description, but it's not really until the very end of the Volume VI that you get what might be called an actual landscape poem: 'The River Map and then we're done'.  It is a fine poem to read and look at, tracing the river like an old chart (Olson based it on a 'Plan of Squam River from the Cut to the Lighthouse' drawn up in 1822), and ending at a seeming oxymoron: 'Rocky Marsh'.  This is Volume VI's penultimate poem: the last consists of just two lines ('I set out now / in a box upon the sea').

It is in Volume 3 of  The Maximus Poems that you'll find some landscape poems reminiscent of others I've discussed here before (Olson sometimes reminds me, for example, of Lorine Niedecker and Guillevic).  On August 6th 1964, Olson wrote a short poem I could imagine stenciled onto the wall of Thomas A. Clark's Cairn Gallery: 'the sky, / of Gloucester / perfect bowl / of land and sea.'  On December 22nd 1965, he described a winter view with high tide and light snow, 'rocks melting into the sea', '... the whole / full landscape a / Buddhist / message...'  Two poems further on he writes of the late afternoon sun and its effects on the landscape - whitening out parts of the view, glistening on the water, bestowing a 'split second of monumentalness' on Stage Head and Tablet Rock. And so it goes on, through the winter of 1966, with Olson meditating on the view out to sea:  Ten Pound Island, Shag Rock, Dog Bar, Half Moon, Round Rock Shoal.  The rest of the sequence returns mainly to history and myth, 'Time's / unbearable complexity', the landscape's deep past: 'Gloucester herself when Earth Herself was One / Continent'.  But in these last poems Olson also continued to write about what he saw and the sad alterations that had made Gloucester 'a mangled mess' - 'now indistinguishable from / the U.S.A.'






1 comment:

EH said...

Great post, thanks a lot from a Robert Walser fan:).