Friday, September 23, 2011
SIX MONTHS, BY JOSH OLSEN
Tainted Coffee Press, 2011, $10.00
FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t know how to classify Josh Olsen’s work. Partially that’s because—
1) I am a librarian by trade, and
2) I am not an academic
3) I do not possess a MFA or an Arts & Culture column in the Huffington Post and therefore I do not I feel that I have the subject expertise or authority to wax eloquent on literary genres and the criterion for placing creative works into neatly (or mostly) defined categories.
What I am, however, is a voracious reader and fellow writer. So my stab at articulating what Olsen’s work is comes directly from nuanced—albeit impressionistic—observations of his work against the smorgasbord of things I’ve read and written personally.
Some back story: I first discovered Olsen’s work in New York Quarterly, where his poem “KT and I,” was first featured before finding a home in his debut book, Six Months. As such, I’ve been operating under the assumption that what I’d been reading for the last month was, in fact, poetry. Poetry in the rhythm-and-meter-and-not-prose sense of the word.
FLASH FORWARD TO SEPT. 17, 2011
Imagine my surprise when I hear from the author’s mouth via a BlogTalkRadio podcast that he categorizes the contents of his first book as flash fiction, not poetry. Grrrreat, I thought, I’ve got to rethink my entire book review!
But I’m not going to rewrite the review. I’ve decided, at least for the purposes of this post that Six Months is a collection of prose poems—author distinction be-damned. I suspect, somehow, that the flash fiction label was chosen out of convenience, and not necessarily derived from the firm conviction that what Olsen is consciously creating is fiction, not poetry. Else why submit “KT and I” as a poem to New York Quarterly in the first place?
On my first read, questions surrounding this book persisted beyond superficial ponderings on genre and carried into the collection itself. This pervasive sense of whaddayamakeofthis plagued me. There’s a kind of tension where the reader (at least, this reader) is unsure of how s/he should feel or think about the tone and execution of the material.
Is Olsen being serious? Are these poems about chronic masturbation and diarrhea mere sophomoric shock-jockery, or is there something more going on here?
But before you think I’m throwing this poor man (or his editor) under the bus, you should up know up front that I admire him and what he’s done with Six Months. Because my suspicion is, that beneath the obvious campiness of the book—whose back cover bears the tag line ‘I returned to the womb every six months’—is a poet who is using humor quite slyly, quite heartbreakingly, to wrestle with somber themes of domestic abuse, sexuality, the woes of working-class parenthood, and childhood trauma.
A graduate from the Sharon Olds School of the Earthy-and-Unapologetically-Autobiographical-Body-Celebrators, Olsen comes off as the keeper of dirty little masculine secrets. And I suspect that many readers (particularly young male readers of a certain counter-cultural stripe) will enjoy Olsen for this very reason—for the pure joy of nodding their heads in affirmation of the oft-comical, at times humiliating male libidinal impulse.
Take a cue from a line in the opening poem, “On a Train Back to Michigan” (I’m ignoring line breaks):
“Doubting her consciousness, I took my time eyeing the soft skin of her inner thighs”
AND this line from “Apple Pie”—
“[I] quietly masturbated through a grainy VHS copy of Class of Nuke ‘Em High.”
OR this line from “Last Night’s Ice Storm, (Pt. 1)”—
“I just shaved my pubic hair. Toilet paper clung to the razor nicks on my scrotum.”
I imagine that some people might dismiss this book or find it distasteful because of the incessant genital schtick Olsen keeps returning to. But the appeal, for me anyway, is Olsen’s plainspoken, working-class hero persona and his reckless, at times ridiculous, joie de corps—it’s what makes Six Months a pleasurable, quick read. Some writers are so abstract/academic/avant garde/high-falutin’ that reading their work feels very much like trying to make sense of the ingredients listed on the back of a bag of Doritos; a mostly useless exercise that leaves 97% of the population frustrated and scraping to remember the prefixes they’d forgotten long ago in high school Chemistry.
Josh Olsen is not one of those writers. He lets you have it without affectation.
Further, to counterbalance all the boxing-the-clown shmuh, there are these redeeming lines that belie deeper, more poignant artistic reaching toward the themes I mentioned earlier. Some gems:
*My sexual revolution peaked in the first grade
*Sometimes he confronts me. Asks where I’ve been all this time. Why I’ve been running away.
*Sometimes I wake up feeling guilty. That I should make amends. Should write him a letter and let him meet his grandkids.
*I had not punched a hole in the wall, I pounded
*I waited for the day when Jack would write his poem
*[I] wondered whose god he prayed to
*My daughter’s condition made me feel dirty
*She used to smell cold, like snow or cucumbers
*I forgotabout the condom, stairwell, miscarriage, and Rodney
*He thought I was there to throw my son in the water
AND my personal favorite—taken from the piece “My Fear, My Guilt,” where Olsen pits his own uneasy desires against the biology of his daughter’s young slumber party guests:
“I feared them and their bodies, humming with potential, moments
From bursting, seconds away from something I would desire.”
That’s the zinger for me in this book—when Olsen actually gets down to the marrow of what it is he seemingly wants to talk about as a writer, but never quite indulges fully (presumably because it is either too painful or too personal or against his creative principles to do so).
What I’d like to see in Olsen’s next book is a total shirking of the locker room antics for a more raw examination of the family and parenting dynamics hinted at in this collection.
There’s an exchange from the poem “Carpet” between the poet and his girlfriend KT that I think is particularly to the point (bold added):
““You should write more about your family,” KT suggested.
“But that’s all I ever write about!” I replied, and KT told me that
I had been too gentle.”
KT—I couldn’t agree more. So, what say you Olsen? Let’s dig in.
In short, spend some time with Olsen’s first book. And when you do, what you’ll find is the promising beginnings of a richly human conversation on fatherhood, relationships, the body, and sexual impulse related with a hefty dose of winsome self-deprecation and nervous humor.
WRITERS: Interested in having your book or chapbook reviewed for this website? Email Christeene at firstname.lastname@example.org