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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 3: May 2020
Fiction: 1076 words [R]
By John Olson

The Seeing Machine
Chapter XXXIII


One afternoon, Jean Paulhan brought Francis Ponge to meet Georges in his Paris studio in the fourteenth arrondissement next to the Parc Montsouris. He and Georges were introduced for the first time. Francis had so often imagined the artist in his studio that to feel the actual vigor of the man in his handshake was difficult to absorb. The moment was electrifying. Marcelle entered the room and grinned. She was short and round, an autumn apple that had begun to taste simultaneously sweet and sour. They were in the salon, on the lower level of the house. There were African masks and paintings by other artists on the walls. Francis could smell the mingled odors of coffee, scrambled eggs, and garlic. They mounted a spiral staircase to George’s studio. Everything here smelled of paint, thinner, and glue. Georges presented them with a recent painting, a plate of fish beside an iron stove. Francis began to sob. Years later, he would say that I was seized by an impossible sob, a sort of spasm between the pharynx and the esophagus.

Francis liked objects. He wrote about objects. Windows, boats, doors, radiators, fruit boxes, attics, flowers, potatoes, plates.

And animals: frogs, horses, fish, clams, lizards, snails. He devoted a little book to soap.

Everything alive. Everything with a shape and a smell. Everything with texture and movement, color and glaze.

It was an aesthetic philosophy based on looking outward from oneself. Francis, like Georges, sensed that the world was far greater than their subjective response to it and that the true measure of art is to go beyond the circumference of one’s perception and discover that which their limited senses had filtered out. Not a higher reality, but a truer reality. A reality in flux. A reality of avocets, pumps, and laundry mangles. Pumpkins, rumble seats, and Bokhara rugs.


What Alfred North Whitehead called creativity. The ultimate disposition diffusing the entire cosmos is a drive toward the endless production of new syntheses. That drive is creativity. Reality, which is a constant flux of synthesizing agencies, is a product of creativity. And being presented with such a reality in the midst of oppression and the deprivation that accompanies it was akin to grandeur.

How do you do it? asked Francis.

Do what? Georges responded.

Create such beauty in the midst of all these privations.

Privations themselves create their own possibility for expression. Lack is a powerful engine.

Marcelle carried a bottle of wine into the room.

My God, asked Francis, how did you manage to get wine?

Mariette brought a case of wine from Lavalade, her home village near Limoges.

Mariette herself entered the room. She was a bright, vivid, energetic presence, a tonic against oppression.

Marcelle, a Gauloises hanging from her mouth, her eyes squinting from the rising smoke, poured wine into five glasses. Each took a glass and, without anyone saying anything, clinked their glasses and made a toast to liberty.

Georges picked up a piece of clay that happened to be lying on the couch, and sat down. He sipped his wine. Francis continued to stand, gazing around at the clutter of the room, the masks and other curios on the wall, the plants and furniture, and what appeared to be some sewing, or knitting supplies on the table.

He noticed in particular a long, narrow, beaded object hanging on the wall. There was a pattern on it, birds and snakes and round smiling orange faces which were probably suns, the whole of it edged with cowrie shells.

What is that, he asked, pointing to it.

That? That’s a ceremonial belt from Cameroon, said Georges. Pablo gave it to me.

It’s beautiful. It must have taken hours to get all those beads patterned like that.

Yes, said Georges. It’s magnificent.

Outside, a car backfired. They all jumped. Wine spilled. Mariette went to get a rag and returned to wipe it up.

Have you heard? asked Marcelle. A bomb was discovered yesterday at the German employment office.

Francis turned red, but said nothing. He changed the subject.

Have you noticed how beautiful the river is at night? Thanks to the lack of electricity, the moonlight shines on the surface such as I have never seen it. And there seem to be far more stars out at night. It’s almost like being in the country.

It is strange and beautiful, said Mariette, holding her wine-saturated rag.

Another sound, rhythmic and insistent, came from the street. A boy walked by outside bouncing a ball. A flock of crows took flight.

I often wonder what keeps the city going, said Georges. There is so much confusion, so much conflict, so much potential for violence. It seems on the verge of exploding any minute. I fear for the loss of many lives.

The English keep bombing the railroads. The lack of food leads to short tempers, said Jean.

Well, said Georges, if they don’t, we may never be liberated.

I wonder, said Francis, if all these ambiguities will be resolved.

They never have, said Georges. Not since recorded history. The Germans think they can simplify everything by extreme patriarchal order. This is why they so desperately worship a central authority. But it won’t happen. You can’t simplify life with tanks and salutes and big speeches in the courtyards. You make a mockery of everything.

There is no single meaning to be found anywhere, said Francis. The world swarms with contradiction. The Germans will be defeated by contradiction. They cannot handle paradox. It is the most powerful explosive of all. It shatters dogma to smithereens.

Mariette, who had freshly returned from the kitchen, felt the need to sit down.

Are you all right? asked Georges.

Yes, she said. I shouldn’t drink wine on an empty stomach.

Do we have bread, Marcelle?

Yes, there is a little.

I should have looked when I was in there, said Mariette.

Don’t worry. I’ll get it. You take it easy, said Marcelle. She left the room and returned with a baguette, which she handed to Mariette. Mariette ripped a chunk off and handed it to Georges. Georges ripped a chunk off and stood up and went to the window. He opened the window wider and threw some bits of bread out to the crows.

What are you doing that for, Georges? asked Marcelle. You shouldn’t waste it like that.

I like crows, said Georges. They shit on the German tanks.



—Reprinted with author’s permission from his ekphrastic novel, The Seeing Machine (Quale Press, 2012)

For noted poet John Olson, the French painter Georges Braque embodies “the seeing machine”—one of many artists who challenged the accepted views of perception and expression during the early twentieth century. Imagining Braque’s life from the First World War until his death, Olson’s lyric and charged prose delves into Braque’s mind after he endures a serious head wound in WWI, and then struggles to resume his art—to resume his alternate way of seeing. Front cover of The Seeing Machine, by John Olson

In The Seeing Machine, Olson lets the reader experience what he imagines Braque saw. Braque’s Cubistic ideas of multiple perspective, disjunction, and collage leap from the page. The story is not so much Braque’s life but rather with Olson’s exploration of Braque’s deep fascination with the dynamism of sight and the stories inherent in color. Braque was a more solitary and private man (than, say, Picasso), and through his fascination with all sorts of expression, developed close relationships with such prominent French writers as Francis Ponge, Pierre Reverdy, and Max Jacob. War figures throughout the novel as a deterrent to artistic and spiritual consciousness, and the presentation of the fascism of the 1930s and 1940s is pertinent to understanding the fascistic tendencies of our own era.

—From the description by Quale Press
John Olson
Issue 3, May 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.”

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