Thursday, August 18, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 5.7 (Charles Olson)

Olson, Charles
Olson: The Journal of the Charles Olson Archives, Number 6


Click here for details on my acquisition of this set.

I am not feeling a strong urge to remember anything this morning. I feel more inclined to examine the objects in the photo of Olson on the cover of this issue of the journal. If you are interested in Olson, you've seen this photo many times before. He sits at a table by the window. Morning sunlight filters past a white window frame, gently lighting up a white curtain on its way to bathing the poet, hunched over a piece of paper, in its soft glow.

I have no idea when this photo was taken. I assume it is from the early fifties, as he looks much slimmer than he did in the sixties. A dark, short mustache covers his upper lip. His hair recedes straight back from the forehead. He's wearing black, horn-rimmed spectacles. He is not wearing a shirt. A towel is draped over his left shoulder. As if he were about to get in the shower but had a thought he decided he needed to commit to paper right away. Or he just stepped out of the shower and needed to write it down before he got to dressing and let the moment pass. At least, that is what the photo seems to want to indicate.

But who took the photo? And why would someone suddenly decide to take a photo of a half-naked poet just before getting into or out of the shower? It's probably staged, though it may have been staged in the moment.

The poet is quite hairy. Hairy chest, hairy shoulders, hairy back. Even his right arm, which holds the pen, and which can be seen crossing over his body as it extends across a sheet of paper, is quite hairy.

The table upon which he writes looks to be a small wooden one pushed against the window frame. Some part of the grain can be seen near the edge of the sheet of paper he's writing on. Next to the window sits a white paper cup with a faint, decorative band printed along the side. The cup is overturned and appears to be pressed over top of something else, possibly another cup. At the edge of the photo, just in front of the cup, can be seen some kind of round object. An apple, perhaps.

Following the same edge of the photo down toward the lower righthand corner we can see an ashtray, which resembles a shard of broken pottery, filled with the ashes and butts of five or six cigarettes. Just before the corner, at the furthest distance from the poet in the photo (in reality a couple of feet) one can see a portion of a ceramic bowl with a lid.

The bowl sits on a woven placemat, whose weave pattern highlights and confuses another weave pattern. At the edge of the mat, in front of the poet, dominating the frame to nearly the extent that the poet himself does, rises a rounded cask of wine. It's the kind of cask that used to be associated with dinner at a cheap italian restaurant tucked away in some quiet corner of Greenwich Village. The bottle is corked.

To its right (our left) sits a small tin cup with an elongated handle, almost like an old military or camping coffee mug. Behind the mug rests another object. Possibly a pack of cigarettes, possibly not. A cylindrical object, resembling the small end of a miniature baseball bat, peeks partially out from the left edge of the frame. The last object, also only halfway visible, is a small glass jar. On the label I can make out a few letters, but nothing intelligible: "-crip" and "-affers" and the number 42.

Could it be ink? Pen bits? Coffee? Who knows.

What the picture succeeds in doing is to portray the poet in a state of intense concentration. He is focused on the task at hand, which is to get his thoughts down on paper. Neither the temptations of wine nor food nor cigarettes nor even the need to bathe can distract him from his task. The only question left unanswered is, "What on earth is he writing?"

1 comment:

rdeming said...

Mike--the photo is at Black Mountain College in Olson's cabin. The photographer was Jonathan Williams and yes the whole thing was indeed staged or posed (including the addition of the gourd)to create the maximum amount of Maximus.

Scholarly yours,
Richard