Redell Olsen, Secure Portable Space

reviewed by Edmund Hardy

The contents of this Secure Portable Space are four. Each of these four is a poem-project. The first one is called 'Corrupted By Showgirls', and it is a varied sequence of pieces relating to film: bits of real-or-not film-scripts, jammed-together plot synopses – 'From The Wrong Man (1956) to Vertigo (1958)', irresistibly quotable, "musician's life is ruined because he resembles a hold-up man tries to prevent the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist flashbacks explain why one woman shot another hideously scarred woman runs a blackmailing ring"[...] – short bits of film criticism; that which appears to be characters speaking but not as characters ("Later you die of pneumonia and I am even more driven to provide the / best – I expand my business to a successful chain of five restaurants"); spaces where something is missing; strings of lines where we read the little readings of a showing:
sequence to show the passing across large distances
sequence to show the passing across sea:
It's a greatly entertaining sequence, always multiplying methods long before we might have got bored or felt that we had "got" a particular procedure, though – in a few instances, i.e. lines such as "Definition as a loss of physical movement" – it all begins to feel too exemplary as a witty and experimental essay on gender in film noir but with no edges, no way in or out of the sealed conclusions – whereas for most of the time the piece had shown a strange noir-light of its own where the evident feminist critique shifts ground, keeps inventing new lines.

The referencing to other writings in the piece is off-hand, unconcerned, a so-whaterie: On Busby Berkeley there's a film-criticism-style section –


Ready, Willing and Able, Busby Berkeley (1937)

(Crane Shot)

Not to anticipate narrative but to find it coagulated in a mass of legs you
took for a flower, or some gigantic machine. A typewriter perhaps. To
appear as a coin, a car, a lobster, a skyscraper. Bodies as building material
for parts of columns, the wooden frames of harps. The keys for writing on
make a series of uniform taps. The concealment of faces kicks in.
which seems to paraphrase, illustrate & extend this from Deleuze's Cinema 2 – The Time Image -

In Berkeley, the multiplied and reflected girls form an enchanted proletariat whose bodies, legs and faces are the parts of a great transformational machine: the 'shapes' are like kaleidoscopic views which contract and dilate in an earthly or watery space, usually shot from above, turning around the vertical axis and changing into each other to end up as pure abstractions.
- which itself extends Mitry on Berkeley in Histoire du cinéma. The "typewriter perhaps" seems significant. Later "The typewriter beyond the party wall is waiting to go on." The type-writer, many-legged machine...

Olsen, with this assembling, cutting, ordering of material, seems to be creating machines, which is why her procedures for each of the four sections are strikingly different. The machine's operation foregrounds the process of the poetry itself, its arrangements & intervals, while also transposing it, so elements which are not the poetic process itself can form molecular concentrations within it. The result is a high yield. The danger (or the latent possibility) is that you create a machine which just scrambles everything & then disappears.

The second project is 'Spill Kit', a sequence of poems, each one composed in a slightly different form (apart from the first and last). The second poem "tips thinks you" presents two-word lines, and shows this writing seemingly at its most programmed

lurch marks
indicating jest
pilfers directional
fog horizon
low above
ships high
Whereas "gulp" consists of half-sentences:

as the whole is
best before boundary

gravitate to horizontal
to take a measure

the skin in dust
pretense at telescope

structural duress under
paint faces

but factual that

taken as a photograph

by all means do
written in pencil

outside the window
was happy
The Clueless-milieu modernist in Olsen gets to play a subtly different over-coding in each of these poems, "logically peaking". Olsen even writes a poem called "as if" which ends:
perplex me to the store
yet for what my loyalty should be
undoubtedly mistaken as

Ye Skirted Victim!
Ye Waxed Dumbness!
Ye Gob Shut Creature! Witch!

mused to the ready for the painting by numbness
of a glossed lip
or pen in the oven
"painting by numbness" is what? Putting on lipstick, writing poetry, painting in a multi-media world? Pun-rich content: amusingly formal object, for an expressionism of formal relations emerges quickly in the sequence, an emergence which intensifies when taking on the characterisations of death-discourses, the first poem, "spill kit", ending: "charm offensive / models armed / shapes bandaged".


Juxtaposition of 'Spill Kit' with the three other sequences is interesting because 'Spill Kit' seems to speak in a more openly rhetorical way than the collage & rework which surrounds it. It seems to, but then one considers that here, the presence of the machine itself has simply been effaced - only its various productions are here – whereas the next project, 'Era of Heroes', is pure machine encounter.

It is a fifteen page block of text which consists of the names of "heroes", all in a Wild-West wanted poster style font. The names are in strict alphabetical order, with a few exceptions, possibly typos, possibly not. The names, a note says, were found in the easiest way, on the internet. "One Round Hogan, Oracle, Owl, Owl Girl". It's the kind of project one might expect in an artist's book; its presence here disrupts.

What further disrupts is the information that, on March 26th 2003, "I put on Mickey Mouse Ears and walked in circles around the Bookartbookshop in Pitfield St." reading the list continuously, the voice relayed inside the shop. A neon sign which spelled out "eraofheroesoferror" and which alternated between eraofheroes and heroesoferror was on display in the window. There are stills of the "I" reading the list and wearing the ears like some historical re-enactment of a Disney cartoon. Then there are photographs of the neon sign.

All of which firmly tells us that we're reading only one side of a multi-faceted project, a notation. Also there's a diagram of where the inner part of the ear is, with a fertile explanation, "The plumb lines of the inner ear register the position of the head in relation to gravity. Inflammation of these organs – labyrinthitis – causes them to broadcast misleading information and the patient reels in the attempt to adjust to the spurious input." Given this information a figure of the poet as labyrinthitee, haplessly broadcasting, is now inevitable: broadcasting what? How did the metaphor-rich inner ears get signified on the outside? Were they, as with Merleau-Ponty, "outside from the start"? (see also Prynne's The Oval Window and Denise Riley's "Affections of the Ear".)

A flat litany, the work is all broadcast-reception and no anything, allowing Scott Thurston to comment "The author's apparent distance from the research process […] seems to create a corresponding distance from the materials, perhaps resulting in this lack of exploration of what they might mean" while Allen Fisher exclaims that the poem-list is critical of "its social necessity in a desperate culture reading the lives of personalities fantasised into/ out of this world into super-real, rather than surreal, contexts, both the society in praise of the spectacle and in need of another place, conserving its misplaced idea of grandeur, of where it was utopia, a proto-fascist nowhere in particular." The poem doesn't have to mean or not-mean either of these – though it may do – because it appears as a scrambling machine where the machine is entirely before us but not its product, its fuzzy output, which, on March 23rd 2003, was seen & heard & quickly lost. It was live & we're an increasing number of degrees away.

Project four is 'The Minimaus Poems', Olsen's variations, alternatives, re-writings and writings-back to Olson's The Maximus Poems, where Gloucester, Massachusetts is now Gloucester, Gloucestershire. Who is the double? Which Ols(e)on is the effect, and which the event? Olsen's poem begins with a close rewriting then drifts away from this, later returning to points of rewrite, and (nearly) always receiving its theme from the relevant numbered letter or song in Maximus. When Olson considers newsprint, Olsen picks up a newspaper. There is joy in comparison:

and theirs isn't ours! (strong) the crap of lyric pigeon predominates with trust in thrust

(O pesticide
me warmly
as flight preys for
intensive decline, O

their pain full O of leisure, roofed plastic M's for O corporate My Modernism steep ones on whose vacuum formed ridge poles the gulls shit, from which we depart
For the academy

and other cities
compared to:

And there! (strong) thrust, the mast ! the bird !

(of the bird
o kylix, o
Antony of Padua
sweep low, o bless

the roofs, the old ones, the gentle steep ones
on whose ridge-poles the gulls sit, from which they depart,

And the flake racks
of my city !
What begins as a writing back & witty series of admonishments – many of which are pointed and to the point, such as Olson's "you islands / of men and girls" now "you islands of men and plants" – quickly appears as only the first strata: the idea of writing a place poem of the Now lurks, to actually write an equivalent to Olson's project for this other Gloucester.

As different sources are investigated, lines such as "2 MALE SLAVES, 1 FEMALE" appear, document-facts asserting themselves, concerning us, and the poem can only enact an archive hang-over, post-song

MS shows
Gloucestershire badly
executed, not all info
acknowledgement that the ticklish population is lost just at the point where the self-minus-one wondered where the people were.

[2004, 1-874400-29-6, £7.50, paperback, 110pp, Reality Street]

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