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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 1: January 2020
Prose Poem: 1957 words [R]
Climate Crisis
By John Olson

Hang on to Your Hat: A Diatribe
for Four Voices (and the Sixth
Mass Extinction)


I know. I’m didactic. Cataphractic. It’s a tactic. It’s prophylactic. Deliciously syntactic. A trifle galactic. At times a little dithyrambic. I was told at the outset, almost as soon as I was pulled into this world and spanked into breath and existence, that modesty is the best course for society and friendship and that no one wants a wet blanket around, a pill, a buzz-kill, a stuffed shirt, a drag, a drip, a killjoy. Partypooper. Pessimist. Prophet of Doom.

But I can’t help it. The state of the world has made me stiff and stentorian. Here’s what I want: everyone stop. Stop what you’re doing to the planet. Stop drilling. Stop killing. Stop grilling and billing and milling. Take a little time to breathe. See that stump? It was a tree. Now it’s toilet paper. It’s a view for the rich. It’s boxes for Brillo pads and Christmas tree lights. It’s a coffin for Uncle Clampitt. It’s a chair for Auntie Shufflebottom. I wish these words had power. What gives words power? A voice? I need a voice. Will you be that voice?

Keep in mind, there are, it should be said, other voices, other aspects to consider. Other moods and declensions. Differing views. Altering perspectives. Writhing boas of multiple pattern.

Me? I’m a hypotactic isotactic thigmotactic swirl of worlds and gourds and thumpity-thump-thump thump. I spit shadows when I’m angry, glitter when I’m glamorous, glow when I’m low, cry when I’m high. I’m never one thing I’m everything and nothing and oblivion pays the rent.

I’m a little voice. I’m so little I’m microscopic. But beware: viruses are microscopic. William Burroughs was right: language is a virus.[1] This is an example. This is a smear of language on the glass slide of your attention. Do I have your attention? You might want to pay attention to these words. Shall we see what they can do? They can give you facts: eleven billion tons of ice melted in one day in Greenland.[2] This will lead to a shutdown of the thermocline circulation system in the world’s oceans. And this will lead to a rupture in hydrological cycles. And this will lead to a disruption of food at the grocery store. So do you see? Words can hurt. Words can heal. I’ve seen words heal. But they can also hurt. Sting. Throb. Quiver. Burn. I’m a little voice with little words and with them I shall plunge a hypodermic needle of imagination into the tough hide of capitalism and wait for it to stumble and heave and collapse. Cough up maggot billionaires as it convulses.

I’m sorry. Am I a little overly hard on billionaires? Don’t worry. They’ll be just fine hunkered down in their bunkers, snacking on caviar and casu marzu while irradiated zombies devour one another on what is left of Earth’s once glorious surface.

Me? I’m just hungry. I want to eat a coconut and build a narrative around that. Reality just isn’t what it used to be. It used to be all skin and blood and now it’s a meme. Life is a mess. People are unfathomable. It’s a tough world and it makes people hard. The landscape expands into buttes and canyons. I slouch through the landscape looking for God knows what. The shapes are beginning to mingle with the dark. This is what happens when a language broods in a tidepool of nouns: beautiful soup. Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays. The heart is a fist of lightning veined and red. I can see it in your eyes: Ferdinand Pessoa in a Lisbon bistro musing on a plate of saudade.

This is me, me again, Didactic. Your resident malcontent. A sourpuss. A holier-than-thou megalomaniacal grouch. Caustic. Morose. Not to mention judgmental. And extremely and perhaps unfairly abusive of billionaires. What about millionaires? What about Eckhart Tolle? He’s a nice guy. And quite possibly a millionaire. Maybe even a billionaire. Is it fair to beat up on billionaires?

Shit, I don’t know. See what happens when you start thinking? It’s hard to be didactic when you’re thinking. Thought and dogma don’t go well together. Let me try and find another voice. A kinder voice. A less belligerent voice.

Here’s a little story: one fine day three or four million years ago a few extremely hungry apes came across some mushrooms embedded in the dung of wild cattle and ate them. The mushrooms were a species of dung-loving psychedelic mushroom called (get ready) psilocybe cubensis, a species of psychedelic mushroom that caused their brains to mushroom into a full squishy pound of convoluted thought. Which led to many wonderful things, like bicycles and hamburgers and scruples and rubles and poodles and apple strudel. The Golden Gate Bridge. The Sears Tower. Laptops. Smartphones. And 400 hyper-scale data centers, all of them gobbling up 200 terawatt hours per year and producing 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

We fucked up. Yes we did, fellow humans. It’s me: Didactic again. Didacticism is hard to shake. Once it takes hold of you there’s not much you can do but give in to its demands.

Didactic comes from the Greek word didaktikos, which means “apt at teaching.” That’s it. Pretty harmless, I’d say. So if you still think I’m being a little hard on billionaires don’t be. They’ll be fine. And they can all go fuck themselves.

Poets are the true aristocrats. They don’t need money. They’ve learned to live without money. What’s more aristocratic than living without money? Transcending money? Flouting money?

Defying money? Ridiculing money?

Time for some money quotes:

If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
—Dorothy Parker[3]
Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.
—Anne Herbert[4]
Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people that they don’t like.
—Will Rogers[5]
Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money.

I wonder if planet Earth is the first planet to lose countless species and habitats and go tits up because of a flawed economic system? A flawed—and I might add fundamentally cruel—economic system invented by one species alone: homo sapiens. You don’t see whales and dolphins and crows and penguins paying top dollar to see Lady Gaga in Vegas or maintain notions of exclusion and property rights. Who does that? Humans. Fucking humans. 7.7 billion of them. And they do fuck. They’re good at it. You don’t create 7.7 billion replicas of yourself without fucking enthusiastically.

You do realize money is insane, right? Total madness. Hallucination. Every bit of it. And destructive as hell. A little like poetry. Dynamite poetry. Poetry that explodes the banal into a fireball of imaginative force and pushes all this reverie into words shrieking with the black breath of redemption, which is gold at its core.

Here I sit, a bunch of membranes in a reverie of tears. This is what it’s like to be trapped in a room with your own mind.

Hi. I’m new here. I grew up in Minnesota. And then I came here. It was funky. Then it got glitzy. And now I think of Walla Walla and its rural atmosphere as a better place than Seattle and its high-tech affluence and exclusive, off-putting sociopathic biospheres.

Oppositions lead to propositions. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds good.

The fork is often associated with eating and making tough decisions. This is the theatre of indecision, the sparkling of the wagon, the mahogany of our incantation.

Some things are transparent and some things are not. Coffee, for example, is runny and stucco. That is, if you make it right. Use pulleys. Why, I don’t know. Age is not my friend. I have flexed my weather today under a fir tree. If I say that I can bend the truth, the truth will not bend. The result is sad, extravagant, and watercolor. You can use it for smoking fish but not for actual fishing. Actual fishing requires a fish. Everything else is either a sensation, or golf.

Is there a rhythm here? Something besides bubbles and troubles and wider higher lighter hyper-objects? Immediate certainty, the thing in itself, is complicit in the construction of our experience. Who can look at a river and not feel that river moving through your body in a dentist’s office? It makes Beings become Beings, words become words, and teeth become teeth. These dancing lights around me are shiny peccadillos. It makes me sad to think of veins. So much blood, so many places to visit. This is the way the mind chews things. It never ends, does it? I mean life. These are the words that I was born to carry and lay them down here, one by one, so that they would say this.

Here it all is: sandwiches, textures, wheels. Bewilderment. Closets. Symbols. Everything is words. The armadillos are a minor help, but they tend to keep to themselves. That’s when I started thinking about beets. Dreams of an after-life. Christmas in Budapest. Hegel’s aesthetics. The mesas of New Mexico. The rainforests of the Congo and Borneo and the Amazon.

Bikinis. Oranges. Old Celtic coins.

The invocation is awakening now. Savor the mutations. We’ll talk about them later. I’m my own ransom and this makes me Kansas. I feel a blaze of insight beside the battle. The daily war. The daily rags and simultaneities. Listening thickened by whisper and twig.

I know. I continue to have problems with jazz. But I’m improving. I feel the fingers of a stellar, planetary music play my brain like a jar of honey. This happens a lot. The metaphors go crazy trying to find a solution for ice. How to preserve it. How to nurture it. How to make it spread its angelic white beauty over the Arctic once again securing and balancing the jet stream, that wonderful current of air keeping the calliope of our lives in sweet synchronicity and joy.

I feel increasingly peremptory. But who wouldn’t in these circumstances?

I hear someone calling me. It’s time now. Time to go buy a ticket for the next flight to Mars.

Life, warmth, and compassion are everything we need.

I banish all mass from this poem until homelessness has ceased being normalized.

What is grace? The spin of a wasp, a locomotive in the breath. Allow yourself to be yourself. I hear someone vacuuming the hallway and I dream of Hamlet riding a motorcycle across Arizona with a monkey on his back.

I like to create rhythms for the dance of jelly during the collapse of industrial civilization.

The truth is never simple. Let me whisper in your ear. I need razors and Oreo cookies. I need you to listen. I need to plead my case.

There’s no morality in nature. People create morality in order to live harmoniously with one another. With a little hedonism thrown in occasionally.

I once lived in California where I learned to photosynthesize and enjoy wine. Music drooled from the suburbs and various rivers flowed sweetly and reflectively into the ocean. I hope these words do that. Flow somewhere. Somewhere reflective. Quiet and still. Like sitting in a car at a gas station waiting for a partner to return. Like the slow drip of candle wax. While the glaciers melt and the seas begin to rise and flood the cities.

I don’t think we’re going to ride this one out.

Hang on to your hat.

—This piece was performed at Medicine Ball: Playwrights vs. Poets, 2019: The Climate Is on the Ropes Edition (Seattle, 8 November 2019). Medicine Ball, in partnership with Climate Change Theatre Action, is a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate-change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations COP meetings. “Hang on to Your Hat” appears here with the author’s permission.

Publisher’s Notes:

1. William Burroughs, in his novel The Ticket That Exploded (Olympia Press, 1962)

2. “Greenland ice sheet loses 11 billion tons of water in one day amid historic heat: The rapid melt—unlike levels ever seen before—has alarmed scientists” by Conor Finnegan and Julia Jacobo for ABC News (2 August 2019); link retrieved 13 December 2019: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/amid-historic-heat-greenland-ice-sheet-loses-11/story?id=64737944

3. This quotation, widely misattributed to Dorothy Parker, paraphrases earlier quotations (1) by Thomas Guthrie in Man and the Gospel (1865), “and you may know how little God thinks of money by observing on what bad and contemptible characters he often bestows it”; and (2) by Alexander Pope in “Thoughts on Various Subjects” (published in Swift’s Miscellanies, 1727), “We may see the small Value God has for Riches, by the People he gives them to” (Wikiquote.com).

4. Anne Herbert, on page 331 of Stewart Brand’s The Next Whole Earth Catalog (Random House, 1980)

5. Widely attributed to Will Rogers, but Quote Investigator credits syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in a June 1928 column as originator of the quotation. “Other candidates such as Walter Winchell and Emile Gauvreau helped to popularize the saying but did not coin it. The linkage to Will Rogers was probably based on a misunderstanding. He did speak a line in a movie that partially matched the saying.” Source: “Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like” at https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/04/21/impress/ (link retrieved on 13 December 2019).

6. Widely attributed to Voltaire, but the original source is unknown.

John Olson
Issue 1, January 2020

is the author of nine books of poetry, including most recently these published by Black Widow Press: Dada Budapest (June 2017), Larynx Galaxy (2012), and Backscatter (2008). He is also the author of The Nothing That Is (Ravenna Press, 2010), an autobiographical novel from the second-person point of view, and three novels published by Quale Press: In Advance of the Broken Justy (2016); The Seeing Machine (2012), about French painter Georges Braque; and Souls of Wind (shortlisted for a Believer book of the year award in 2008), in which French poet Arthur Rimbaud visits the United States in the 1880s and meets Billy the Kid while on a paleontological dig in New Mexico.

Born in Minnesota, Olson has lived several decades in Seattle, Washington, and is married to the poet Roberta Olson. His writing notebooks have been exhibited at the University of Washington, and his prose poetry has been published and reviewed in print and online poetry magazines around the world. He was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust, and received a Genius Award for literature in 2004 from Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger.

Clayton Eshleman, distinguished poet, editor, and translator (noted in particular for his translations of works by César Vallejo), says: “Olson is an original, and that accomplishment is an extraordinary feat at this point in the long history of literature.... He is writing the most outlandish, strange, and inventive prose poetry ever in the history of the prose poem.”

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Featured Author John Olson in Issue 8 of KYSO Flash

Tillalala Chronicles, Olson’s blog (from which Five Commentaries on Imminent Doom are excerpted in Issue 9 of KYSO Flash)

Six Prose Poems by Olson in Alligatorzine (Issue 64); includes “Words and Warts and Puppets With Cleavage” and “Why I Never Wear Suspenders”

John Olson Interview by Matthew Burnside at BOAAT Press (18 December 2014); includes this Q&A excerpt:

Burnside: Your writing can be very funny at times. Some of your titles alone are funnier than most jokes I’ve heard (“Smack That Pickle Against the Ribs” + “All Labial and Hard from Jackhammer Drool” + “Bubbles Yell in the Louvre” + “Words and Warts and Puppets with Cleavage” + “Fuck Daylight”). How important is comedy in poetry?

Olson: Very. I’m a closet stand-up comic. I keep my clothes in stitches.

John Olson: A Poet of Excess and Expansion by Christopher Frizelle in The Stranger, “Genius Awards” (14 October 2004):

...Olson is a poet of excess and expansion. His best poems are rich, sturdy, absurd, startling, tightly strung, and scattershot.

...A central theme in [his] work is dislocation—usually the dislocation between feeling and science, or feeling and neutrality, or the extreme agility and awful futility of language—and there is a way in which Olson seems dislocated in time and space. His presence seems implausible. He knows this....

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