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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 2: March 2020
Ekphrastic Essay: 665 words [R]
By John Olson

Crocodile

 

Each day I’m out for a run I pass a small art gallery called The Fountainhead. There’s a bronze sculpture in one of the windows that intrigues me: an old woman with a bare torso and a short skirt rides a crocodile. Her breasts are immense. They’ve lost their firmness and hang—outlandishly huge and abundant—from an aging but formidable frame. How many children have suckled at those formerly soft, voluminous rotundities? How many sorrows have been comforted there? There’s something iconic about her. Something regal and strong. The piece is entitled African Queen. I assume this is no allusion to John Huston’s celebrated movie but an intimation of power. The sculpture is a different kind of narrative. Is the woman a figure from African mythology? Why is she riding a crocodile? I look for a clue in her facial expression, which is one of great subtlety, disclosing a gentle, vague, Mona Lisa smile, suggesting a rapport with the creature beneath her and a calm, reciprocal correspondence with the earth and its inhabitants. She’s very much at ease, awakened and serene, as if riding a crocodile were as routine as getting behind the wheel of a Subaru Forester and making a trip to the supermarket. One hand rests on her thigh, the other on the rough back of the crocodile. There’s no hurry, no menace, no predation. It’s Edenic and amiable, an eye-catching fable of breasts and teeth.[*]

Normally, I go for a run in the afternoon, but on Christmas Eve day I woke up at 4:00 a.m. feeling agitated and angry. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided to take advantage of that energy and go for a run before sunrise. Burn the anger out of me by running in the cold. And dark. I won’t have to stop and feed crows. I could feed them later in the day, I could go for a walk then instead of a run. It’s more fun that way. I can feed them at leisure.

We’ve developed a relationship. A rapport. I’m used to the crows flying past my head so close I can feel the air from their wings brush over my face and ears. I get to the McGraw Street Bridge that goes over Wolf Creek Ravine and a big bird flies in front of me. But it’s not a crow: it’s an owl. The owl perches on a nearby limb and watches as I run by.

I enjoy the Christmas decorations. Some houses go all out and are festooned in multi-colored squiggles of twinkly bulbs and fingers and loops of numinous joy. A few are more casual, make some gestures, a string of lights hung from a porch like a seasonal afterthought. And some are completely blank. We’re done with Christmas. We’re going to stand back and let it stress out the rest of the population. Kick back, get stoned and watch TV.

Why am I feeling so angry? I can’t say why. There are so many reasons it’s tedious to go into it. Anomie, corporate greed, denial. Take your pick. I defer to Greta Thunberg. She speaks with greater eloquence than I can. I get choked on my own bile. I sputter and blink and steam comes out of my ears. Sometimes silence is more effective than shouting. And sometimes running at five a.m. in the December black brings a little temporary relief. It helps keep that animal anger in its cage, appeased with a nice warm shower, assuaged with waffles and syrup. Keeping that intensity at bay requires strategy and restraint. Anger is unpredictable. You need cunning and guile. A little control. Agency and style. You don’t want to push it down too hard and you don’t want to let it loose. It’s a lot like riding a crocodile. Don’t kick it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t let it get sneaky and toxic and slink. Just let it waddle forward and swallow the next asshole with a smile and a wink.


—Reprinted with author’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles
(1 January 2020)


*Publisher’s Note:

African Queen (2010), bronze sculpture by Philip Hanna, at Fountainhead Gallery

John Olson
Issue 2, March 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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