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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 7: March 2021
Prose Poem: 604 words [R]
By John Olson

Body and Soul


The one thing that will release me from bondage right now would be a resolution to the Achilles tendinopathy that has dogged my heel now for over a year and prevented me from doing even a short three-mile run. If it heals, as it seems to be doing, finally, I can increase my distance. Running does more than any drug that I’m aware of can do to restore my sense of balance and give the strength I require to fight back the tortures of anxiety and the darkness of depression. The massage gun R gave me for Christmas has been a huge help. I don’t mind shooting myself in the foot. Or heel. Or calf. Or thigh. Jiggle the gastrocnemius into suppleness and stamina.

What strange relationships we have with our bodies. I should feel that I am my body. That would make sense. Because it’s true: I am my body. I would not exist without my body. But I don’t. I don’t feel that way. I feel that I am riding around my body. I’m inside this body looking out. Eyes are windows. The brain is a cloud chamber, a seat of power and vapory conjurations. But this is illusion. The more accurate sensation would be the sensation of being my body. Like an octopus, which has brains in its tentacles. The octopus must have a more pertinent connection to the animation of its being. So that reaching and probing things in the world is not that different from reaching and probing things in its mind. Which is an ocean. As for the condensation on the toilet tank, I don’t know what to do about that. Wiping it down occasionally with a paper towel doesn’t do much to remedy the situation. I worry about the floor tiles. Hopefully the humidity will drop. We’ve had two days of steady rain. Humidity is at 92 percent. Precipitation 100 percent. I reach into my mind for a solution. For answers. For nutrition. For the protein of ideas. For the sugar of reflection. For the fruit of thought. The big fuzzy peaches of perception. The chocolate of observation. The beets of insight. The onions of concept. The potatoes of philosophy. Metaphors hanging like fruit bats in a nocturnal syzygy of mind and matter. Thoughts blossoming in milky lampshades and old wooden docks protruding into language. Sensations from the outside mingle with proprioceptive orchestrations of turbulent Finlandia. Efferent nerves lift my arms. Afferent nerves lift my awareness. I leave the sauna and take a dive into the icy water of Loppijärvi. The shock of the cold is offset by the hug of steam.

In Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between Soul And Body,” the soul feels trapped in a dungeon, whereas the body feels tyrannized by a “tyrannic soul” that gives life to the body only to let it die and makes it impossible for the body to find peace. The soul is wracked with cares produced by the body’s frailties whereas the body complains of the “cramp of hope,” “the pestilence of love,” and “hatred’s hidden ulcer.” What are we? Do elephants and cats ponder such dualities? Was Swedenborg right? Will there be villages and fast-food franchises in the afterlife? I like the mindfulness approach: lean into it. Lean into the body, its pains and comforts. Find comfort where you can. You don’t need to lie on a bed of nails to find the reality of one’s skin, or vanish into abstraction. Read Whitman. “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” Run in the rain. Explode into drums. Breathe the sweet air.

—Republished with author’s permission from his blog,
Tillalala Chronicles (5 January 2021)

Publisher’s Notes:

1. Full text of the Marvell poem is available at Poetry Foundation online:
A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body, published posthumously in Miscellaneous Poems. By Andrew Marvell, Esq. (London: Printed for Robert Boulter, 1681).

2. Re the final quotation in Olson’s prose poem, see also Poetry Foundation: I Sing the Body Electric, from Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass (first self-published in 1855).

John Olson
Issue 7, March 2021

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 (1935–2021), 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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