Reality Test

Secure Portable Space
by Redell Olsen
[110pp, 7.50, Reality Street Editions, 63 All Saints Road, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3BN]

A 'reality test' would test for what?' Olsen asks. She explores this question in the three poem sequences and performance piece which make up this book. By using artifice - a disorientating variety of forms to ensure we are always aware of the shaping hand on the material - Olsen attempts to shed some light on this question.

The poem 'Noir
1940-51' shoe-horns film-script into the formal restrictions of poetry, notably the line-break:

EXT:outside we are running: so it looks half remembered - fuzzy edges along      half-
                                                                       in light crossways
     so cut in two like strips 

The technique is to layer artifice on artifice. The glaringly visible cut which forces us across the blank page from 'deserted
' to 'in light crossways' alerts us to the organisation of data - we are shown the seams. The content is also artificial - directions for a film, left unrealised in words. Or unrealisable: 'it looks half remembered' is hardly a direction, or at least difficult to achieve in a film; it would never make it off the page. So are we to read the extract as direction, or as complete? We experience this indecision again in the middle ground 'cut in two like strips' occupies, referring both to poetic and to filmic techniques.

Olsen is at pains to show us that she is interested in exploring the tangle, not trying to undo it. In this extract, separate discourses meet, not in a subtle dance of the intellect, but in something resembling a brawl in a night club:

     over shadows / existing on heat

                       rolls shirt to up
     after too long in the flesh:
                                                           orchids /

     memorised devious / warm capture

                       by voiced-over
     car careers vaguely /
                                                             - clouds   (20)

The fragments ('- clouds') and slashes (the choice between 'over shadows / existing on heat' is hard to make as the parts don't seem to share anything - and as the slashes pile up, adding alternatives, the distinction becomes harder to draw) show a lack of resolution; interpretations are only 'vaguely' drawn.

The lyric poem is often a secure portable space - a piece of writing, recognisably a poem because of its form (most obviously line breaks), small enough to be carried, physically or mentally. But this type of poem feeds us 'the crap of lyric pigeon': the perfectly constructed thing is complete, and therefore not interesting. Olsen prefers poetry which allows the reader in. She pictures her poetic project as outlining an area rather than filling it; 'little circles instead of / dots'. What happens is 'out of shot', and the 'object escapes attention'. We enter a space where it is not clear how we should read or what we should be looking at; multiple interpretations are allowed. An example is 'Era of Heroes', which is the transcript of a performance piece, the performance of which she describes. So the printed piece exists as the ghost of what it was, or could be. The result is also 15 pages of names; what you do or don't make of it is up to you.

The inability to settle on meaning (lack of resolution) focuses attention on our interaction with the text. We notice the meanings we offer words. We come to understand that artifice can be experienced, interacted with. Just as a spoon can be used for different activities, so can these words. And so Olsen shows us that artifice is not separate from reality.

Olsen's poetry shifts forms, and refuses to fit neatly into any one. She also mixes density with simplicity and even banality to throw off a coherent reading. In 'Corrupted by Showgirls', the well-known plots of Hitchcock films are merged into one long piece of prose without punctuation:

musician's life is ruined because he resembles a hold-up man tries to prevent the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist flashbacks explain why one woman shot another hideously scarred woman runs a blackmailing ring woman helps police find husband who is in hiding because he saw a murder war vet gets involved with the wife of a blind painter shipping executive   (25)

It is impossible to decide where one plot becomes another. For example, 'he resembles a hold-up man' is a possible sentence. However, we need the 'hold-up man' to 'prevent the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist'. The 'hold-up' also refers to the effect on our reading - we are undecided as to which possible sentence to accept, and linger. In this way Olsen subverts the forward motion of plot. She prefers to concentrate on the moment than to subsume or omit it in favour of the drive to conclude, of an over-arching vision. 'Not to anticipate narrative but to find it congealed'; Olsen's poetry is meditative.

'Era of Heroes' lists the names of heroes, and out of the context of their stories we wonder what their ability is. Often they seem dated (take the proper 'Hale of the Herald', or the tame 'Thunderhoof'), flat as national symbols ('Star-Spangled Kid') or terribly mundane ('David'); and the sheer number of them creates equality. By removing their plots and placing the names in series, Olsen renders the heroes powerless, and exposes the limitation of plot; it doesn't allow for alternatives.

           Thomas White 2005