"surrealism is a mouthful of light": Talisman review of John Olson

by on Jan.01, 2013

Since we’ve been talking a bit about Surrealism on this blog and especially it’s troubled relationship to lineage in American poetry, I thought I would link to this review by Andrew Joron of John Olson’s Larynx Galaxy.


Olson’s writing appears to be attached to a secret dynamo at the heart of the wor(l)d, spinning and sputtering without stop. Despite the lack of militant movements in today’s poetry scene, I would name Olson as an important exponent of a classic one: surrealism. However, Olson’s surrealism is hardly doctrinaire—indeed, he has reinvented surrealism (as any true surrealist must) according to the dictates of his own imagination. In his previous collection, Backscatter, Olson has written that “Surrealism is not word play surrealism is a mouthful of light a towering urge to mangle the language to beat it into tungsten a raging river fastened to the hood of a jeep old clocks yawning in oysters oracular ore at the core of an oar a Martian umbrella dressed in music.” In these lines, the naturalism inherent to surrealism becomes evident: the path to liberation is a “raging river” flowing through the world of objects, including word-objects.

On a related note, there’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book Haute Surveillance up at the Iranian web site Paragraphiti.com, in which I talk about Surrealism.

14 comments for this entry:
  1. Bill Knott

    pretty tuff stuff . . .

    for the mr softee version see my new dead-tree book,

    “Surrealist Verse Selected from the Books of Bill Knott”

    —only 3.59 at Amazon (what’s Olson’s book priced at?)—

    see links at:


  2. Bill Knott

    of course Joron won’t be reviewing my book, ha ha

  3. Michael Leong

    “old clocks yawning in oysters” — I like to read that as an oblique response to W. Stevens’ critique of surrealism: “The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover.” Reinvention by way of a bivalve poetics..

  4. Bill Knott

    Olson’s book lists for 19.95 . . .

    mine is 3.59. So

    I guess the HARDER the surrealism is, the more it costs—

    of course if you want the real authentic stuff you gotta pay more for it, that’s just commonsense capitalism, isn’t it . . .

  5. adam strauss

    I’ve wondered this ever since seeing an exerpt as chapbook via Scantily Clad Press: what’s a “raw flower”?

  6. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    This Music Crept by Me on the Waters

    Teemu Manninem. By chance I find two prose poems by Clark Ashton Smith in issue 3 of Fascheuse: In Cockaigne and The Flower Devil. Fascheuse rates a whole post to itself. Pricey, now, playing hard to get, it was launched in 1996 by Jeff Clark & co. running to 3 issues. Clark told me, wistfully, “I gave so many of them away . . .

    Including work by Robert Desnos, Garret Caples, Damon Krukowski, w/ innumerable pseudonyms (probably Joron), it’s an entrancingly French-fried foray by our American LySURgic Acid Realists. “High” production values, lavishly illustrated, lovingly designed.

    I’m rereading the Writings of Robert Smithson. I’ve had this book since 1979. It was un-understandably out of print for decades. So was Delirious New York.

    You have to read it. I can’t put it into words. Cogged first/best as an artist (The Spiral Jetty: Star Date, timeless) Smithson was a master writer. Accessible himself, he also knew what he was after. Mannerism in the films of Robert Corman, mirror travel in the Yucatan; you can’t get there from here. But he died in his plane trying.

    I’ve also read a dumbfounding Artforum interview with him and ur-sculptress Eva Hesse, in which Smithson, animally inarticulate, confined his replies to “Huh”, replete w/ grunts and mumbles.

    Today who would dare? Do you think motor mouth Charles Bernstein would let a Talk Op like that flounder? I heard him bury L. Scalopino’s memorial in para-syllabic blubber. Dead woman. Dead friend. Never slowed him down. Extrapolate from there.

    In Smithson’s day Gordon Matta Clark tore through corrugated DPW road salt sheds with carborundum saws, Gang of One “remodeling.” Power drive. No crew, no insurance, no permission, no safety net. Nights David Wojnarowicz (3 Teens Kill 4) stalked rough trade through those same defunct Westside piers.

    Smithson got snapped up by simplistic Lingo Po for his drawing, A Heap of Language (1966), just as they jumped all over Emily Dickinson’s M-dash, claiming her for their own. They did this to Celan, his fragments. Celan made numerous prepared public statements declaring himself a lyric poet. All Talk Poetry saw were empty spots. Blind, self-serving, don’t follow such clucks anywhere. That aint chickenfeed, they are turds. Susan Howe promoted her own program by declaring Emily D “Futurist” because she tore a note off the triangular flap of an envelope. Who hasn’t, Sue? Think I saw a turkey. Gag me with a spoon.

    Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

  7. Johannes

    Come on, you can’t criticize Bernstein for his eulogy at his friend’s funeral!


  8. adam strauss

    Im pretty sure I don’t agree, but I really like–love?–this:
    Come on, you can’t criticize Bernstein for his eulogy at his friend’s funeral! The notion of being an excessive talker is super salient for me in personal ways as of this week is, I’d guess, why I’m moved.

  9. Johannes

    OK, Adam, you changed your mind. Now I really like this comment – as if the poetry just keeps going in the “motor-mouth.” You keep going motor mouth Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle!/ Johannes

  10. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Dear J., Were you there? (Even the next speaker did.)

    G C-H

  11. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    I (Don’t Even) See Dead People

    Most eerie ectoplasmic diatribe to date on “direct address” had Mei Mei Berssenbrugge expounding to me in small talk inches from the open coffin at Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith’s wife’s wake! (I had never heard of direct address, have still got no clue.)

    G C-H

  12. adam strauss

    Sorta related note: I’m not sure I’ll ever feel anything but hazy regarding what “free indirect discourse is.”

  13. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Adam: Is that Pasolini? I have a book of his film theory. Overintellectualized ratiocination & rodomontade. I can’t research this now, it’s 1 AM, but I think it meant* speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. Class-wise. Dicey. For he gripes about Anna Magnani. Can’t play the part of a vendor because she herself is bourgeois.

    * This term went out the window along with “defenestration.”

    G C-H

  14. adam strauss

    To my knowledge, which isn’t much, it’s not a term much associated with any one thinker exclusively; I didn’t know it’s a concept in film theory–only know it as moniker for examining novels. I adore the word defenestration; I don’t remember what it means, but any assemblage with the word fen in it makes me happy!