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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 3: May 2020
Prose Poem: 608 words [R]
By John Olson

Funny Shirts


I maneuver in a pool like a library maneuvers among its books. I’m hoping the two new John Ashbery books I put on hold have arrived. But first this virus will have to be contained. Irritations cause adaptive responses, one of which is poetry. It’s my favorite drug. My second is insinuation. Where’s the rest of this sentence? It’s out there fetching the world. I could use a little realism about now. We live in the extreme hoping for a resurrection, the purity of an unhurried dream. And what we get is the embalming fluid of remorse. Hyperbolic duodenum squash. And look over there, a piece of art is dragging itself across the floor like a funny shirt.

Funny shirts are pinstripe inoculations. This makes a pretty world. The moon rides high in the sky sprinkling tequila on a horticulture of the imagination. I’m the King of Rain. I exist in a hairspray. Language wanders into focus & becomes a microscope. The sweetness of this is the end of Property Tax. I do this by getting salty in the mud while Clint Eastwood sits on a roan horse at the end of the street. He’s wearing a funny shirt. You can see that by the steely glint in his eye. Words are heat. Clay. Afternoon reveries. Symbols clashed together to make a sleeve.

It’s a very painful time to be alive if you love things. It’s all disappearing. All going extinct. Elephants, tigers, entire rainforests. The empire is falling. Collapse is happening in real time. There is the combined smell of gasoline & rubbing alcohol. I have no idea what to do about any of this. So that’s happening. The apocalypse is happening. And then a cake appears & the mind takes it in by way of the mouth, & remembers the things that overlap, & become other things. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It just becomes cake. And the cake is eaten & the enjoyment of it lasts for a while. And night comes. And the last light in the world goes out.

I remember viewing the setting sun in eastern Montana from a train window in the summer of 1997. It was a different world then, but you could see it coming. You could see everything coming. And now it’s here. Mania defines the moment. Like sudden gunfire in a Whitehorse bar. A thing is metal when it’s literal. Or is it? When is a thing true, & when is it delusional? Gold is imperial. Silver is empirical. Gold is the shine of the divine in the cold creeks of the Yukon. Platinum is Out of Our Heads & Aftermath & Exile on Main Street. Disorder is iron & war. The impulse to make art continues. This is life. The brush is stiff & frozen. But it smells of sacrifice.

I think about death all the time. Does death think about me? Probably not. This is why my eyes are stumbling around in books. I’m looking for God, life, nails, salvation, reptiles, & fish. That was the mission, so I hopped aboard. After Tom Cruise pushed me. Hey, WTF dude? Back off. And take your silly scientology literature with you. We really ought to free ourselves from the seductions of words. But what the hell. Deep down in the water is a reflection of the moon. We sometimes have to distinguish between an illusion & a revelation. One is the weather of the mind & the other murmurs of hypnopompic snow. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Words do this. They keep my simulacrums at room temperature in a correspondence between the dead & living.

—Reprinted with author’s permission from his blog, Tillalala Chronicles (7 May 2020)

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.”

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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