The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat
I don’t like writing bad reviews. As a writer and publisher myself, I hate seeing such reviews of my own work or of books I publish. So few people read or review small press experimental writing as it is that it seems doubly cruel when such notices as do appear are dominated by detractions. In addition, experimental literary productions, taking more chances than one finds in the mainstream, leave themselves by their very nature more open to attack, simply for their newness – the new composition in the arts is immediately an outlaw, as Gertrude Stein famously pointed out. Finally, there is legacy to consider: literary history is full of bad reviews of books later deemed classics – and one hardly wants to go down to posterity as one of the short-sighted fools that lambasted Moby-Dick or Song of Myself or Waiting for Godot.
Nevertheless, I must pass this judgment on John Olson’s The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat: whatever the future of literature may hold, I feel safe in saying that I simply do not think this is a very good book.
I don’t think John Olson is without talent; rather, the problems with NIDSOC seem to stem from a combination of over-reliance on inherited experimental strategy and failure to edit. The book strikes me as an over-large collection of fairly uncut free-writings of the kind encouraged in one context by Writing Down the Bones or some such creative writing guide intended to inspire and stimulate language play and pre-conscious creativity, or by anti-referential experiments of Gertrude Stein or Language Poetry. Generally, I am all for form-shaking work. I think most all readers of this review would agree that the workaday world of Bush-era American life is far too sense-driven, and that unquestioned straight-ahead business-as-usual remains the order of the day even as the assumptions of its power-mad enactments on the world stage are timidly questioned. Even before our present dark age, Bob Perelman discussed in The Marginalization of Poetry the desire to avoid sense-making precisely due to the dangers of “final sense,” which reifies a world where hierarchies (writer over reader, powerful over dispossessed, etc.) remain in place: “But where many poems aspire to the finality of aesthetic completion, language writing represents a struggle, not to make inescapable sense ... but to unmake just such final sense, and to allow room for further efforts from the readers/writers” (Perelman 36).
But does Olson’s anti-referentiality do anything to combat “final sense”? I couldn’t help thinking, in reading Olson’s work, that his avoidance of sense-making was not so much the opening-up gesture of avoiding “final sense,” a political act, but instead apolitical writing that didn’t really have much to say, and whose experiments seemed hackneyed, done-before, not particularly exciting, and, unedited, lacked the ability to channel the reader toward the more aesthetically interesting experiences which the book does from time to time offer.
If it were only Olson’s own work I had problems with in this regard, I might keep from writing this review, but the style/form/tack/attempt Olson engages in is one that I have had some problems with lately. Just as second- and third-generation Punk rockers forgot why they were wearing safety pins but instead donned their now designer trash in imitation of the authentic that had come before them, Olson is but one of the many writers who are writing what seems to me pale imitation Language Poetry these days, as if the first string of words out of the poet’s brain, fashioned without fashion, automatically, are so many lustrous pre-drilled pearls that we need only retire to an easy chair and admire as they accidently clink against each other, making occasional meanings, or echoing each other’s sounds, maybe. You can almost hear these writers saying, as you accuse them of not thinking, or working hard, or revising: That’s just what I was trying to do! I was attempting to create a deliberately banal surface! I was working purely with sounds but trying to avoid easy effects, except where purposefully employing hackneyed effects! – or other such palaver. How else but through an undeserved sense of entitlement can one explain the aesthetic assumptions that would be satisfied that a passage such as this, the beginning of “Delinquent Circuitry,” the first piece in Night I Dropped Shakespeare, is good writing:
A volt is having a since to glint. Nimble to town. Summer soon ceiling. A bee beside the knife. Catalogue of auburn. Wood as a word as a smudge as a snap as a seismic creamery. A blister, or bluster. A bag of nails jaw full of vowels jar full of babble. An equation which causes damask by adherence and hull. An idea broiled in thought.
And on and on for 23 more tedious proto-sentences – and then on again across a desert of more than sixty additional pieces in the book. “Delinquent Circuitry” might have been important or brilliant or at least much better, had it been written in 1924, or 1959, or even 1987, with the different assumptions of those moments. Ginsberg may have written “first-thought-best-thought,” but Beat scholars have now shown us that both he and Kerouac were consummate revisers. And, so-called stream-of-consciousness, from James Joyce to Henry Miller to Lyn Hejinian, has never meant an inattention to the nuances displayed in meaning, signification or their opposites.
Further on in “Delinquent Circuitry,” we read, “Do you seek meaning and wisdom in a poem?”
Well, not exclusively, and they are hard to come by and see fully achieved, but, um, yeah . . . sure, I do.
“I seek the occurrence of sound in protein.”
Well, I guess that is a difference between us. Certainly, there is a kind of playfulness here in the echo of “protean,” as if commenting on the proliferation of meanings, but I don’t think Olson is. Certainly, it’s part of the wondrous nature of language that “protein” yields “protean” in its slippage, but Olson isn’t doing any more to increase my appreciation of that. The mere suggestion of this slippage is simply not enough to complicate the suspicions about sign and signification. It’s also true that later in the book, Olson suggests he is after bigger game than mere signifier play: in his tribute to Philip Lamantia, “Philip Lives: A Lament for Lamantia,” Olson writes, “If anyone refers to this as word play I will punch them in the nose.” I guess I should keep my guard up.
I admit to a bias in favor of narrative, or rather, play of narrative concerns, in prose, but not exclusively. Does “play” and “slippage in meaning” legitimate as aesthetic experience whatever comes to mind? Does the train from “blister” to “bluster” make anyone’s home crowd start cheering? “Jaw full of vowels” is one phrase above that seems to create interesting effects – the vowels take on weight, as if marbles in the container of the mouth, defined by the jaw. But generally, the writer seems satisfied to have strings of words linked by sound (“Summer soon ceiling” – yeah... and?) or incongruous pairing (“An equation which causes damask”). Is this really compelling or engaging?
Seeing one piece after the next after the next of this sort, one starts to skim this book; that, after all, is what one does on a series of surfaces, which is where this writing seems satisfied to stay. “Everything in this world we see we see in sequence. Sequins” (11). More heroic slippage! “I was about to nail the harmonica reservoir to my necktie when I realized life is a palate soon scripted by a thermometer” (70). Yes, Mr. Breton, I do see the fly in your soup; yes, it does resemble Lesotho.
One piece that does seem effective, “The New Neighbors,” one of the longer pieces in the book, has a greater level of narrative flirtation. But when I read near the end, “We live on the edge of a deep, deep pointlessness, which is to say nothing original, but said simply to fill a space” (52), I feel I’m hearing the author speaking true and it’s like that moment in On the Road when Sal Paradise is with a girl who is always yawning. “Stop yawning,” he says.
Toward the end of the book, two more pieces; i.e. the title piece, “The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat” and “The Other World: An Essay on Artistic Autonomy” offer something rather different than the ‘blabbacus abacus’ (Olson’s phrase) of the previous 145 pages. The latter is in fact a kind of defense for this type of prose, but not compelling enough to make me want to return to the first page and begin again with “new eyes.” And, midway through the essay it deteriorates by returning to phrases like, “The quality of being futile is an asset to the governance of suds” (156). Futile suds indeed.
Perhaps what’s most unsettling is that Olson often seems capable of much more. The imagery, narrative, and, yes, even the explicit political gestures in the title piece make one wonder why he doesn’t make more of an effort. Note this opening:
The night I dropped Shakespeare on the cat B.B. King played his guitar at the south end of Lake Union. He was celebrating his 80th birthday. Strains of music came through our window. It was a warm summer evening in mid-August. The moon was out. The stars were out. I imagined B. B. King’s old fingers skillfully tickling the neck of his guitar a trance of rapture on his face belying all those years.” (146)
Olson’s sensory detail here, and his listing of the day-to-day events alongside the “greater” political events of the world (e.g. the Iraq War), buoy this book to an extent. There is what Olson himself calls a “delicious space” created by fiction. But, it’s much too late at this point in the book (the third to last piece); it’s simply too tedious and too Sisyphean of journey to get there. And this “space” quickly collapses anyway in the opening lines of the following piece: “By this time zinc. Zinnia zipper and ZIP code. Zucchini zombie and zero. By this time soup” (151). No thanks, I’ll pass.
There are occasional such moments in the book, where you just wish the man had kept a stronger finger on the delete key, to help assure the effects of the passages that do work. The make-me-cringe “sequins” line appears in a generally otherwise smart piece called “A Bee is a Predicate with Wings.” Again, it’s a longer-than-usual piece in this collection and it creates some terrific lines in its reflections on “narrative,” “fiction,” and “story”: “This is what we do in fiction. We signify caulk with a caulking gun and wipe away the excess with a moist T-shirt” (13). “That’s what a story does. It fabricates an atmosphere and opens it with rain” (16).
But insights and resonant moments are rare for me in NIDSOC; too much of it feels like it’s been published right out of Olson’s notebooks. This seems part of a trend; I feel like I read a lot of writing these days where authors don’t quite seem to know why they are writing what they do, or wonder if the world needs such work. In a book one expects to be read by other people, improvisation alone is not that interesting, unless newly theorized, or placed in a framework (I think of Kent Johnson’s Yasusada letters) – trimmed, densened, deeper-mined. But then, I guess it isn’t Olson’s fault. I guess there are people in the United States that find this type of writing really engaging. Pieces in the book appeared in 15 different litmags, including New American Writing, Sentence, and Talisman. And, in fact, the editors of this very journal have informed me that new work from Olson will be featured in the same issue this review appears. I guess perhaps the punches may fly sooner than I thought.
So, as I don my headgear, to summarize: John Olson’s wacky demeanor and attempts at prose unmoored to meaning seem tried and tired in most of this book’s particular gestures. Twenty or more years since not only classic non-referential Lang-Po works but metafictive works as Mark Leyner’s I Smell Esther Williams, much of what John Olson’s book seems to admire about itself seems rather passé. One happy aspect of encountering Olson was that he had me pulling Leyner off the shelf; I think that 1970s-80s metafiction is underappreciated these days, with the Language School getting most of the credit for the non-referential writing of a generation ago. But here is Leyner in 1983 writing prose that still seems shockingly fresh:
Here we are, glued to the floor of a matinee, at the apiary, in the methedrine factory, in the lush breadfruit grove near Montego Bay where we curtsied like mechanical toys until dawn in an oceanfront cabana called the ancien-régime that was as accessible as Manhattan, that was like a display at Gimbels for swimwear, and even dummies have feelings, even marionettes complain of headaches, even porcelain geese have a vague sense of haplessness, even a glass of seltzer harbors a kind of festering “what-if-such-and-suchness”, so however one audits the figures, they add up, and the sum is a snowballing of joy, timid indiscretions, of pot-valiant audacity, of jammed broadcasts, of inadvertant breaches of confidence, of bungled trysts, unscrupulous geisha girls, and mislabeled blood types, so here we are, mio dolce amore, at the homecoming it took chains to secure. (Leyner 34)
The desire to make something beautiful in art often pulls the experimenting writer toward the desire to move as entirely as possible into non-meaning, slippage, dissonant discursiveness, and linguistic rupture/rapture, as if there were a way to use words that made a beautiful surface without having to be burdened with the other stuff – reference, weight, history. But aside from the high bar seen already in Leyner and others that makes this task more daunting than it might first appear, I believe we must also think about our responsibilities as writers. A sad side-effect of work that is so hermetic as seemingly to wish not to mean is that there is a world out there and, in case you haven’t looked, there’s many parts of it where the bad guys right now are winning. It may be, as Harold Jaffe has recently suggested, that this is a particularly inopportune time to be working in an art form that as a result of aesthetic assumptions makes itself generally bereft of political content.
Final thought, by way of some out-of-context Jack Spicer: “Learn to shoot fish in a barrel. / People are starving.”
Leyner, Mark. I Smell Esther Williams. New York: Fiction Collective, 1983.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996.