RESPONSA (to Jerome Rothenberg's Three Narratives)
Robert Kelly




Just as a kiss is the only answer to a kiss, and only your body can solve the riddle of my body, so also a poem is the only answer to a poem, writing to writing, lust to lust.   

Writing goes and comes back. This return is the order of what we once called Love, and now call love, and are in no hurry to name it anew.  Put the names to sleep and kiss me.  


Texas has no heart.

That is the first thing we learned

on Ellis Island .

                                    Who's we?

You and me.

The sunflower shotgunned,

we are seeds

of numbers

                        Fibonacci, ruin,

green sepals, broken

bracts, America .

You and who else?

Me and my book,

all end

& no beginning

like a girl on the subway

you'll never see again.



Neighbors of vacancy?

Guitar with a blue man

smoking it hard.

The Dutch were among

the first, taught

urban perspective,

Jesus, Aristotle,

the whole plan.

Even Spinoza

a diamond dropped

from a passing train

in winter between

Yonkers and Deventer

on the frozen

pool of devil's spittle

where children skate

and I know better.

And pain.

The diamond cracks

along my axes,

that is how I come

into the story,

why I am a part of what

happens, a part of pain.

Pain is God.

Teaches us

holy.  Teaches

us to break.



Once I was a Jew

they wouldn't let me.

Once I was a girl

they left the room.

Once I hit the piano

so we hurt

each other, fingers,

horns, wood, sound,

hurt. This was music,

last of all our idols.

The monstrous belief

that someone else

can make us hear.



Something.  Or nothing.

Suspicious beauty ―

if you really are so

beautiful why

do I want you?

Shouldn't real beauty

be enough

to leave alone?

The way you leave a red

maple leaf on the wet sidewalk.

But no.  You think

it is a book,

you pick it up

reverent to the last

vile scrap of scripture.

But nothing helps you.

Nothing but the one

you left behind.

You call her wife

you call her salt

you call her ex-

and why and call

and call, she'll never

come to you again.

You played it by

the book but the book

was the sky.

No one listens

in all that weather.

Speak to me

of crystal silence

all that apocalypse

bring her back

over and over never

all the way home.



Old men play

at tables

tric-trac tarock

chess hearts dominoes


Sometimes they eat

drink from dirty glasses

the light also drinks from,

the flies the no-see-ems

the spirits of the dead,

who knows who hovers

over card players.

The cards are only excuses

for them to watch

each other's hands.

 Old men's faces

are their hands.

Read these.  Once

they were young and spent

their time in bed.

They did not watch

the pine trees on the ridge,

didn't watch the children

play at the edge of the pond,

didn't care if they fell in.

Wanted them to. Falling

is everything.

Falling is the only pleasure

the young can share

with themselves

later.  Falling

sickness, the cards

falling from their hands,

the young men watch

their penises fall

after their spirited bride

settles into sleep.

And the Lord too

fell from heaven

again, time after

time we try

to stand him up,

lean him on a tree,

send him back

where he comes from,

where the words

come from also,

the intolerable language

of sunlight in thick leaves,

evening, even the light

is pain, tells us

too much, skin of our hands.

We start a fire at his feet

and bring out our young poets

to interpret his moans

and write them down

as if pain also

were an alphabet

and he could write it

with his  body from the fire.


You just have to copy

what you see,

the pinhole in the ace of hearts

you hold to your eye

and see sharply focused

the empty field you worshipped

all these years, you see the light

come in and scratch your eyes,

incautious, your hands also

bruised from beholding.  

                                                                                    June 2002

L.H.O.O.Q.? (to Toby Olson)
Robert Lamberton


            Where to start without giving it all away (as if it mattered)!

            The Blond Box as titled designates an (imaginary) object whose existence may be doubted until nearly the end of the novel. It surely designates as well the novel itself, which remains before us to service the functions the fictional Blond Box would have served, had it existed or survived its own fiction. To be a/the "real" Blond Box, the novel would of course have to have been written by Marcel Duchamp, but this is perhaps a minor inconvenience.

            Once published in its entirety, The Blond Box will cry out for some hyperactive reviewer to write A Reader's Guide to The Blond Box, belaboring the pervasive references to Duchamp and to his oeuvre, inscribing the limits of history and fiction. This hyperactive reviewer may or may not realize at some point that Toby Olson has already written her into the book as the character Sandy, and done so with an affection the real-life hyperactive reviewer may not earn. Sandy is a perpetual virgin whose portrait Duchamp might have inscribed with the title of this essay. It's a good thing she's not a blonde.

The astuce of The Blond Box is the realization of Duchamp as fiction. Within that fiction, The Great Glass is memorably transformed into performance art (a Scene that repeatedly recalled to me an account I once heard of "Ave Maria" as a Las Vegas stage show, danced by long-legged showgirls in white) ö and Given: 1¡ The Waterfall; 2¡ The Illuminating Gas is transformed into narrative, accompanied by an account of itself. What most moved me about this metamorphosis was the translation into prose of the outrageous and violent sexuality of Duchamp along with his unbearable reticence. Olson's variations on the rhetoric of embarrassment ö narrator's and characters' ö stick to th reader in the manner of his accounts of medical symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments. It is a prose that makes you squirm. "Watch me turn reality on and off" kind of stuff ö sometimes you think of Hitchcock rather than Duchamp.

The novel as a whole is a beautiful homage to Duchamp, itself bracketed and qualified by apposite acrobatic leaps from genre to genre, voice to voice, time to time. For one thing, it is about Duchamp (or the Duchamps, the Arensberg collection) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the profound oddness of that context. Sandy visits them there in solitude while the crowds stream to a traveling Impressionists show. This is further enclosed in a larger fiction of Philadelphia as home to the action (as it is to the novelist) and to the fictional novelist within the novel. The Great Glass as performance, on the other hand, straddles the border in the Sonoran desert (rhetorically confined to the Mexican side), where Olson has accompanied, perhaps, another neo-Faulknerian, Cormac McCarthy, and where Given: 1¡ The Waterfall; 2¡ The Illuminating Gas is likewise liminalized. Olson's border country would make an interesting comparison with McCarthy's ö something for one of Sandy's students if she ever finishes her dissertation and gets a job. She might also want to assign a comparison of the account(s) of the stage show with similar narratives in Pedro Juan Gutierrez's Dirty Havana Trilogy.

And I almost forgot. It's a mystery novel. And I don't want to give it all away.

Richard Lewis


            Bathing and sex are defining rituals in Toby Olson's fictions. Just as Olson's poetry finds life in pop "standards," collective artifices by which Americans measure shared experience, so his fictions use the mystery-form to refine personal history. Narrators and protagonists live backwards: impelled by nostalgia for lost pieces of their past, led by their intense readings of poignant circumstances ("clues"), they engage and awaken to the actual, finding the quiet and perhaps the serenity of acceptance when their investigations end.

And along their way the rituals of cleansing and intimacy are secular sacraments raising, as do the amazing and magical shenanigans of his plots, the mystery-sequence beyond the mechanical. I cannot call Olson's intent descriptions of the minutia we experience anything but love. His detailed, non-judgmental renditions of what we do face-from traffic to sprawl to jobs to split families-make these novels practical meditations, transformations of quotidian problems into mysteries fully engaging us: "The way I want to write too: Îthe world is all that is the case.'I'm looking out the window on a stormy day, trying to find some poetry there, there, where it has to be, finally not in our tortured minds." (From a letter by Olson.)

But the peoples of The Bond Box are denied access to intimate rituals of joy and relief. This third-person narrative is dispassionate and diffuse, rather than experienced through the senses and actions of, say, a plucky foundling (Write Letter to Billy) or an adventurous contractor (Dorit in Lesbos). The absence of pain is the best we can do in a novel whose significant variable is physical sickness. We meet sex-workers, not intimacy. Hot Rod's profession is never judged: we feel him and his counterpart Mendoza suffer their aggressive stage-acts. Mendoza will live herniated through long sections of the novel.

The Blond Box is told from behind a work of art, Duchamp's Given: 1¡ The Waterfall; 2¡ The Illuminating Gas, the derivative landscape of whose diorama becomes a set of instructions, could we but find them, to the novel's chains of chance. Other artifacts, including an archeological dig and pop science-fiction, furnish elliptical instructions to us and to characters seeking to see clearly and to tell factually the story of a l949 murder. It's a colder emotional world than Olson's eight published novels; it's a momentous game whose rules are as collapsible as historiography's.

"Even," an offshoot of "Asphodel that Greeny Flower," and for that matter, "The Death of Ivan Illych," presents a meditation on the life of a marriage, a gently spare chronicle whose last sentence has something "biblical" to it: a humble urban villager, as it were, is chosen, and is granted signs, even talismanic objects from the larger narrative structure, but do they call her, and transform her life? And how do we as readers interpret this life-history into a framework for such data?

Could Marcel Duchamp's interpretation of history signify more than F.J. Turner's? Could Toby Olson's? If contemporary history is a nightmare of unimaginable but monotonous variables, not the conventional story as which it is sentimentally presented, cannot its accurate mirror be a vulnerable naked corpse illuminating a pulsing artificial landscape? --In an epoch when our precision bombs mutilate allies' children celebrating weddings, why should we look at the rationalized sequences of conventional journalism and history as more than effete fictions?  

Metropolis (to Lou Rowan)
Toby Olson

            Superman's problems might be the same as those of Ronald McDonald, if the latter were animated and had problems. Still, he stands out front, totally neuter and without surface suggestive of underlayers, as spokesman for the "6 Billion Sold," then after a while (facing such excess?), just "Billions and Billions." But Superman has surfaces. There's Clark, and under that his unform and under that a girdle of modesty padding (provided by a caring mother?, and under that? He's never had an erection, so when Lois says, "Clark, how do you feel about oral sex?" she might be offering heself as receiving, a kind of communion, even given the long salamis hanging above them at the time. The salamis are commodities, and in this novel qualities of product are never the issue, but only the selling and devouring of them (as with McDonald's burgers? As with erections?).

            This is his autobiography, an intention to display the surface, then get under it in order to understand. The self? He has his X-ray vision: "I can see the conical bags of silicone in those breasts, the little clamps on her ovaries." He sees but another surface, one that diffuses any possibility of desire, her body as display of something private, a way to "suppress my imagination, thinking normally, so that I could function as an American." It is exactly that, imagination, that he lacks.

            Autobiography begins in narcissism: "I take a private, quiet satisfaction in myself and my feats that is far more potent than the pleasures my fellow-beings get from their sex-acts. I know this for sure; often my work entails surveiling them doing sex. I am proud to say that I have never had an erection." The voyeur is a narcissist, observing himself as observer, and though seeing, even through X-ray vision, sees not much of the others, but for surfaces under the surface, nothing at all that will result in connection. Even near the end, where Supe rises into the sky holding the poor child Tyesha, he's victim of the splendor of his cape and clothing, only vaguely curious about her destitution.

            Yet autobiography might end in knowledge, if not of the self, at least in discoveries about the self's place in the world, in this case the discovery that he is not more than a shill for Rupert Murd's World Enterprises Plc, WE, that world wide commercial engine making a commodity of everything, including himself.

            WE, MCFE, MAMA, the book is full such acronyms, and they, together with an ongoing tortured business lingo, create an Orwellian world, though one burlesqued in roman a clef, most notably in the characters of two poets, Robert Duckey and James Blahre. Recent personages appear, hardly veiled, and time is torqued through a conflation of past and present. Michael Jordan has died, for example, 2000 seems far in the future at times, or in the past. Dreams may regularize: Supesees himself "disappear into the [computer] screen, into red dots that sear my skin, and I shatter into glass fragments scraping themselves," some early image of his place only as a manipulated icon.

            I think of three versions of metropolis. There's New York City of course (the place in this novel), a real place, but Gotham City too, so named, satirically, by Washington Irving in Salmagundi Papers, a place to wake up in, disoriented and off center. Then there's the great Metropolis of Fritz Lang, that 1926 movie (set, curiously, in 2000) in which the Art Deco city scape is the central character, a twisted utopia, the people in it strangle disconnected, in dress and attitude, from the physical world they find themselves within. There's the saintly Maria, then the Frankenstein like creation of the vil one, the revolutionary. The double, of course, and perhaps autobiography can move below surface, that narcissism, and discover the true self. Supe certainly becomes the revolutionary here, rearranging the city in which he'd been held in bondage, though this rearrangement seems enraged and excessive, almost adolescent. What exactly has he discovered, about the self under that costume?

            And the last one, Metropolis, Rintaro's tour de force of Japanese anime in which human figures are cartoon like, though set against a magnificent and infinitely complex city so real that it seems unreal. In My Last Days the city is animated by language, no less halluninatory. It's a machine, the people are cogs, and only one might fly, up, up and away, in search of self knowledge and freedom.