in the watermark stain of my little plane
James Tierney

              The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the                    reason that it is nearer our language.

                     Saint-ExupŽry, Wind, Sand and Stars, p. 50


           The human past is dead

                Toby Olson, "My Little Plane"



From a recent interview we now know with certainty this one tidbit concerning the writing practices of Toby Olson, that when he writes, perhaps now without exception, he is sitting in a chair. It is easy enough to imagine. Every flyer, for all his exploits, is only ever seated, head set in concentration, reading his instruments or gazing through the glass, sending transmissions to and receiving transmissions from his hands. That's all there has ever been to it.


I had made a discovery that horrified me: my hands were numb. My hands were dead. They sent me no message. Probably they had been numb a long time and I had not noticed it. The pity was that I had noticed it, had raised the question. That was serious... What a discovery!... How can a man tell the difference between the sight of a hand opening and the decision to open that hand, when there is no longer an exchange of sensations between the hand and the brain? How can one tell the difference between an image and an act of the will? Better stop thinking of the picture of open hands... And I began to chant a silly litany which went on uninterruptedly until this flight was over. A single thought. A single image. A single phrase tirelessly chanted over and over again: "I shut my hands. I shut my hands. I shut my hands." All of me was condensed into that phrase and for me the white sea, the whirling eddies, the saw-toothed range ceased to exist.

                Saint-ExupŽry, pp. 64-65



"Reversal of Fortunes" begins with a sort of disorder of images, some there some here, and thoughts on the here and the there, dealing out the simplest, nearly most quaint parade of pictures of children, flowers, the town, light and rain. With these we are gradually let down into, as a coffin is lowered with the most serious slowness into the grave, a dark and somber incantation, a lacrimosa of a sparse narrative. It is a narrative, however, in which we are early on assured "everything soon to be solved," and that contains nothing so much as it does the elements of a question only, a hushed darkened simple incantatory question, What happened? Through the filter of a spent memory this can become an empty and unanswerable loop dumbly put in a head that in the end finds it has no other recourse to memory but this blind repetition, the essence perhaps of the deepest, least accessible spiritualities, or, the purported mind of a dog. But Olson is not hanging his head so much as he is nodding it. It is customary also when taking up such questions posed in the spirit of pure rhetoric, if you're going to take them up after all, to cover one's eyes and fly blind, to cut loose the burden on the eyes by severing their relationship to the hands: to operate on the principle that an airplane is no more than a tool for flying and not an end in itself. "Air and water, and not machinery, are the concern of the hydroplane pilot about to take off" (Saint-ExupŽry, p.51). Maybe, but once en route a pilot's concerns will undoubtedly waver as the machinery begins to wear and the hands to go numb. In order to maintain the principle, in order to maintain the spiritual nature of the activity, the rhetoric must shift from the open run of expression to the low gear of repetition, from taking off to returning to land.


Launching into the opening pages of one of Olson's novels, for instance, is like walking into a room half-blind, everyone seems to know in an accepted and casual way the details of the situation in play but you. You are the one put on alert. You understand that it is not simply that you are not seeing everything in the room, it is more that you alone did not know that something had happened before you'd arrived, and that certain items may have been removed from the room, and that something else, which now includes you in the room, is in progress. As the reader and the entrant there is only one path out of this position. You ask the question, and it leads you forward. The question is the simple essence of narrative, it is always its origin and can at times be the punctuation of its end, What happened? Where a narrative lives it lives in that question, and not its answer. And where the narrative remains unresolved by language, where this question might seem an empty and yet somewhat divine and exemplary one, is the shadowed margin where poetry overtakes narrative, that is, the moment, or moments, when one's engagement with a narrative act is merely to roll this narrative question right into its own meditation.    




the last chance salon

Through the coursings of "Reversal of Fortunes" Olson shifts and reduces the specificity of the repeated words and phrases by shifting not only their usages but their vectors as well. [travel | dime | fortune | spent] play off one another like capering electrons in a charged field, and the obfuscating cloud - which is in fact an elevation of objectivity, a model, over subjectivity, the familiarized parts each swerved by their baggage - takes precedence. It might be more suitable to call it the complicating cloud as its rise into the field of vision now instigates not disorientation but a crystallizing corroboration between the writer's visual readings and the readings off his instruments. Where am I actually headed? he must ask himself as meaning fogs up. Because as we talk about the reader we also talk about the writer, the reader reads the writer, and within this intercourse the writer cannot only write, the writer too must read.


The events, one realizes, are unclear, the events, and it seems there must have been events, can never be reconstituted as they were, nor is it useful to the poet, or the poem for that matter, to fix them falsely and move on. The work that remains is to analyze, in an almost objective way, through instrument readings, the language that now reconstitutes the events, words whose meanings have changed many times over since these events, these people and places, and this past, was real things [grandmother | gramophone | fishermen | streets | parkways | the town and its mortician].

           The repetitious recording of the river is vicious

           travel reversal of fortunes for spent children

The work begs two questions: in what condition are your instruments?
and what is the state of your data? It is worth remembering that the speaker is a "spent child." Spent, it has no more to give, but it may still take. Only a container of the physical memory remains, an emptiness of severe density, just as it is the word that is left gaping after language itself is emptied
out. Language and memory emptied of their history, attempting to define a present, become one another; each devours the other, like a starving corpse attempting to feed off itself. It's not always pretty, but it certainly
is unusual.



Of language and memory, more would remain, Olson seems to be saying, if only the action had been more sensual.

           [If they had just oiled my ruined body, if they had just

           laced long fingers between my piggy toes.]

If they had, he doesn't remember it. "The casual machine of childhood" ö a passive reading simultaneous to a passive recording, a gathering of data requiring now a form, data that unfortunately is not tactile enough to mend. The machine required to read the data, the language, into an intelligible interface, may at this point be obsolete. And what's more, the media is mixed, as is, and perhaps somehow with, the medium.

           Yet the vicious recording continues

           in photographs, gramophones of the grandmothers,

           tape recordings of the sisters.

Somehow: language. The sisters' fishermen, the strewn tape of what might be fathers but which is more likely broken records...


  listens to fortunes spilling from grandmothers.


           Or from rivers of gramophones, wholesome fishermen                   who are tape recorders...


           A dead town, a town of reversals and restrictions,

           of life spent on rivers littered with spent fishermen,                   broken recorders.


The focus is moved, by this poem, from the data to the manner in which the data has been collected and is now read. What that yields, the meta-data, is an analysis of the words and phrases we are using to recall what (the hell) happened. If we merely confront the data unparsed we are led, by the poem's established principle of associative transitivity, ab bc ac!, into a swollen river of nonsense, "into animal memory," where if no human voice wakes us we no doubt drown.


If childhood is also a machine, then the child as it embarks is not concerned with its mechanics but with air and water, all the forces that will act, not necessarily on the child alone, but on childhood, once it is aloft. Looking into the flight logs maybe we understand the best record of these forces acting external to the machine is not the spent machine, not the bumps and bruises, or severed cables, but the record made by the finer instrument of our language, how we attempt to tell the story. Childhood, one with the machine, flies, the machine disintegrates around the child and it is the child who is flying, this is what Saint-ExupŽry means when he says the pilot's concern is not the machine. Likewise the storyteller's concern is not the story. In every case the story has already happened. The story is a tool for our language, which is at this point to say our memory. Our memory may at first seem to be a gleaming object of remarkable design, but as we climb in and buckle-up it is only memory's function that has continuing interest. Everything else is banter in the intervals between storms.


In Olson's cacophony of terms fishermen are tape recorders just as grandmothers are easily made out to be gramophones, and vice-versa, a bi-directional metonymy of symbols that rather than approach meaning loop into tautology, the essence of incantation, "the grandmothers beat at their clothing," the gramophones spin in vicious circles, the tapes are played, they are reversed. The river is reversed.


A narrative form momentarily obtains, a pattern enough recognizable to extrapolate a familiar tale, moment to moment, but which is, moment to moment, undermined through incompletion, generating a new batch of associative, spewing, uncataloged data that both gathers in and exceeds by its breadth what has already begun to take shape in the poem.


Slowly, new terms are introduced [marriage | litter | pills | motel | restrictions], a new world same as the old world, every town has them after all, even every era, this mortician police-chief, Who (the hell) is he? and What (the hell) happened to him? "Vicious repetition," repeats the motion of Olson's hands.


In all incantations content gives way to ritual and this poem, losing its ponderous nature, at any moment may be made breakneck and the words very suddenly a downpour. At some point in reading and rereading the poem gives way like a saturated hillside rivering down into the valley, flowing outward to the sea, eddying out finally below a placid storm, leaving us in the final moment with, "A quiet town, rain water, burdens light as a feather." In the enactment of the ritual all anxiety is spent and something like sleep arrives. The poem goes dormant. The word dream for the first time waltzes in on the penultimate line and we coast to a soft stop as there is now in the most elemental of forms, airy, light, even empty, something to say: a simple prayer fluttered to the heavens like doves of peace or, like doves of peace, to nowhere at all, who knows where birds go once they are set free.



          In your last dream, He will lift you on the Prophet's robes

          and will admit you into gardens, through which rivers flow.

It is not even sentimentally delivered, quite deadpan, and ends not with an ellipsis but a period, the cold lifting of the sentence, as coldly as it was carved. One is released, evidently, through this simple prayer, from any burden that one might have felt in the course of unraveling the narrative of this poem, or any narrative for that matter, excepting the one of the garden and the Prophet and the river which we know and need not unravel. Thus, your last dream.


    the coloring fields

Saint-ExupŽry suggests that our language, at hand and familiar enough to use daily in order to construct a world around us, is a language created over the course of our history, a language that when used fails without fail to enunciate what we grapple with as our present experience, but instead raises like a phalanx of red flags all of what lies unconfronted in our past.


Once again seated, and strapped into the casual machine of childhood - now the airplane, its own sort of recording device - Toby Olson is cruising the topography of the impossibly oversized map of some vast landscape. He does see things and he tells us what he sees. He does not hesitate to tell us that he sees a woman hidden in a lava declivity, for instance, but this is not what his language is telling him is all that he sees. He might have been better off had he left language out of it altogether. What he is able to make out below him, time and again, points only to the inadequate, unspecifiably missing or lost, unapproachable, uncertain, impossible "way / back to you." The tumble of the tired useless frustrated words inflicts its own straining ache of yearning on the reader, overcome by a sort of unsatisfied vagueness "in the shadow / under the shadow."


The vagueness persists in spite of the existence, we are told in the poem, of films, records, photographs, and memory. It seems everything is recorded, in some form, somewhere. It's to these readings he turns when he otherwise                  has no bearings and is enveloped hopelessly only

           in this constant droning

           of the engine like the world's turnings.

It's significant that the disorienting, numbing force is fantastically, internally auditory.


           thinking to fall

                down into animal memory

           inhuman and finally alone.

As if without the specificity, the narrative, the "hearth light aglow" that is assumed to be the privilege of human memory and which slips away on the intractable glacier of tortured thought, this pilot drifts vaguely out onto a landscape that is societyless. Without fellows he staggers through the arctic emptiness of vast tracts of repetition. He is lost not only in geography but in language, language that, as a record, is time. Not only are his visual cues thrown off but his instrumentation as well. "Like it was awesome like," a phrase the essence of inarticulation,

                a gestural language without

           me and my mom like turning

           into a past absent

           of all memory sufficient

           unto nostalgia.

The uses of actually articulating nostalgia, which may or may not be corroborated by memory, are highly overrated in comparison to the use of mere exclamation: it is not a story because there is no story to tell.

The sky was blue and the sea was white. I felt I ought to tell someone about it since I was back from so far away! But I had no grip on what I had been through. "Imagine a white sea...very white...whiter still." You cannot convey things to people by piling up adjectives, by stammering.

           You cannot convey anything because there is nothing to
           convey... I respected the peak of Salamanca. That is my
           story. And it is not a story.

Saint-ExupŽry, p. 67


The mother-recovery methodology of Andrei Tarkovsky's movie Mirror, the working title of which was White, White Day, is a useful analog to Olson's two instrument poems. The filmmaker's concern is with wind (as it sweeps across a field toward the young mother), fire (as the young mother stands in the foreground of flames consuming a barn), and water (in a variety of deluges above the young mother): the dramatic moments of the indomitable earth in conjunction with the presence of the similarly seeming indomitable mother most bodily present and most successfully dramatized within the context of these acts of nature. The figure stands in each instance between a soft, almost silent spectacle and frame after frame of undeveloped film, where the mark is made. Notable here is that Tarkovsky's tools are nature and an actress, one being thrown at the other, and the shadow then onto film; Olson throws language at memory, the stand-in for a figure, and the indistinct negative space is then etched into paper. In neither case, it hardly needs pointing out, is life born into the three-dimensional present. The formerly young mother, Tarkovsky's or Olson's, is reimagined in both fantastic as well as readily specifiable moments, in mini-narratives both of remembered dreams and remembered realities. Her image is made not where her body stands but where what is thrown at it throws it, not the plane suspended in three dimensions in the air, but the flat watermark stain on the sand, now behind the sun, through the lens.

           The body is lifted now casually into the sun;

                the grandmothers beat at their clothing.

           Perhaps the flowers are falling

           into the hair of the sisters,

                     the mothers who stumble

           into the cameras' perspectives.

Tarkovsky and Olson are able to fix afterimages, etched shadows, purely symbolic portraits of the mothers or grandmothers they never quite knew; they are able to see in the stain they have thrown the fragility and frailty and temporality of a person though she is altogether not there; each imagines now in retrospect, maybe even by virtue of the portrait made through his imaginative effort, giving filial comfort which he at least at some point too late in the narrative both yearned to provide and which he felt was expected of him, like, wouldn't that be awesome, but like very painful, but which fulfillment it seems was never in the cards anyhow. Life is not made. What happened? becomes at this somewhat disillusioning point in the process the sharper focus of each inquiry.


Olson sees a film, vaguely, or stills, somewhere of something, and imagines that he might have been a comfort in both the dreamlike scenario of the desert and in the more specified momentary locale of Brittany, for instance, in a place where he knows that they stood, once, and where it might have happened if it was ever to happen: in the weather, on the landscape, among the clouds, these abstracted positions of questionable but technical certainty. We were here. With a map you never know really where you were, you only know where the map says you were. Well who (the hell) made the map?

           We were looking out to a far horizon

           like me and my mom were like inside

                in another story entirely

           a Rothko painting of the earth's hues

          in changing greens and the sky's blues

           over Brittany coming

                   down upon us who were trying

With both artists there is the sense of a certain huff and puff of dissatisfaction, that the methodology has not turned up the answers quite, and that it will continue to fail. Olson seems to yearn at these moments for what would be more painful; Tarkovsky, too, clearly wants a redemption either more sensual or more inflictive. At which point the effort moves forward, because it is nothing if not hard-headed, by the less manipulated means of repetition and incantation,

           ...a plundering

           from a past inadequate

           in this constant droning

           of a language

           that I might be touching

           you on the earth...

Every effort begins with a little wishful thinking, and in time the effort dives through the medium of imagination deeper into lingual, or even literary, ritual. Whereas imagination might be an assemblage of forms directed generally at its subject, something based in hope, ritual is a tool with a more unalloyed purpose. It is an insistence. And like a drill, it has direction.


In its composition, that is to say, "in another story entirely," memory swims in a nature-defined "soup" of Rothko reds, greens, and blues, outside of language, now photodeveloped by the mind into a picture that appears stable, or at least sustainable, where "the whole sky was an awesome home / and we were at comfort in it." But understanding that this image too is made only of language, perhaps even with a kind of growing horror, Olson swings his eyes back from this uncertain view out the glass back to the cockpit's instrument panel "only to find I was there and here," that the visuals have been false and altered his actual position. The instruments again tell him he is not where he thought he was from what it seemed he saw out the window but rather that he is only "fragility drifting," one presumes through time, telling him not only that he too will pass but that he has been suckered by his only ally, his articulatable human mind, that now through its efforts of articulation is icing into animal memory a solitary document. The plane disappears into a frozen mountainside and no one ever knows. In the gloom of this revelation Olson realizes that every flight must be, if one is to survive, a repetition of the one before it. No matter how precisely one constructs the narrative that one is heading out into the wild blue yonder one is in every case, from the moment of liftoff, only on a mission to return to the surface. "Finally upon paper," the poem rests at the point of this revelation: in ragged flight, in the storm, somewhere between an unembraceable articulated shadow-figure and the all-is-lost blue wash of the sea.

Horizon? There was no longer a horizon... Vertical, oblique, horizontal, all of plane geometry was awhirl. A hundred transversal valleys were muddled in a jumble of perspectives. Two ideas came into my mind. One was a discovery: for the first time I understood the cause of certain accidents in the mountains when no fog was present to explain them. For a single second, in a waltzing landscape like this, the flyer had been unable to distinguish between vertical mountainsides and horizontal planes. The other idea was a fixation: The sea is flat: I shall not hook anything out at sea.

Saint-ExupŽry, pp. 58-59


Twice in "My Little Plane" Olson repeats the line "though having suffered for my gain" inverting the more commonly upbeat "having gained for my suffering." Striking this minor key is one result of putting on paper the unnarratable experience, the story that is not a story but is rather an attempt at a present language, "this heated nostalgia / which is night's hoard and endless..." Saint-ExupŽry comes away from his own struggle, that is, with a cyclone, "with very little booty indeed," and it is merely his rhetorical question:

How can one tell an act of the will from a simple image when there is no transmission of sensation?... The physical drama itself cannot touch us until someone points out its spiritual sense.

Saint-ExupŽry, p. 68

Earlier, he explains:

My hands were not my own. I looked at them and decided to lift a finger: it obeyed me. I looked away and issued the same order: now I could not feel whether the finger had obeyed or not. No message had reached me. I thought: "Suppose my hands were to open: how would I know it?" I swung my head round and looked again: my hands were still locked round the wheel. Nevertheless, I was afraid.

Saint-ExupŽry, p. 64


How can we know, when we are working in language, whether we are feeling the words or we are merely looking at the words? And when we turn our eyes away from the words, what then? Without reflection on the tool we are using we won't know whether our hands are gripping the wheel or have already released it. That is serious. The lack of feeling, that is to say, the lack of meaning, or sense, in whatever struggle we are engaged in is not a greater freedom so much as it is a very dark place. "There was only ÎI shut my hands.' There was no danger, no cyclone, no land unattained." Whatever damage the tool has sustained, whatever the single phrase all of thought is reduced to, it remains less the tool's condition that concerns its operator than what he or she can still do with it. In the end, when the pilot was incapable of any action and was in danger of losing control of his machine, it was the recitation of four words that kept the plane in the air. However weathered, language must fight its battles. Chief among those, it must drone its way toward our present experience, sputtering over the flat madness of the unchartable incantatory color field of the horizonless sea, "[ing] for refuge unto the Lord of the daybreak." Because without the reflective capacity to order our world, that is, to use our records rather than merely to consume them, we won't know the difference between flying and falling. We will only know fear, and whether or not we have outlived the others.