Death and Pejorative Vision in Charles Olson, Part 4
September 7, 2017
Ok, this post is quite a bit longer than the other ones in this series. But there is no cutting to be had here. Let’s go.
A key line in the “‘Homeric’ Hymn” is “Life/ is not of the earth. The dead are of the earth.” This statement is explained in the first two lines of “As the Dead Prey Upon Us”: “As the dead prey upon us/ they are the dead in ourselves.” The dead are in ourselves as spirits. The outward self is the “net of being.” This opening stanza sets the stage for the tenseness of the pejorative apocalyptic vision that follows. The work is a more developed vision of death than “A Newly Discovered ‘Homeric’ Hymn,” and through its tension achieves the effect of Olson’s kinetic energy theory that is detailed in “Projective Verse.”
It is through a close call with death in the form of an automobile wreck that the speaker transcends the material world for a revelation of wisdom. He is able to see humanity and its destiny through the vision. The actual instrument of his vision is his mother who is dead but who comes back into his life to sit on her rocker under the lamp. The speaker sees dead souls wandering around the living room. When he questions their presence the vision abruptly changes to a collage of technological gadgetry:
And the whole room was suddenly posters and presentations
of brake linings and other automotive accessories, cardboard
displays, the dead roaming from one to another
as bored back in life as they are in hell, poor and doomed
to mere equipments….
Here is the first of many statements on the decadence of society as a result of technology. Along with this is the motif of the “net of being.” This net is humanity’s physical life as it has made it. We are trapped in our shells of existence. In order to escape we must “disentangle the net of being.” Thus the true hell is for it is equated with the mother’s living room, which is a material manifestation.
The vision itself is divided in two elements, which are interspersed throughout the narrative sequence. The first deals with the pejoracy of the material level of existence itself. The symbol of the oppression of natural “man” by technology is the blue deer and the Native American woman (Remember this poem is from the ‘60s, thus the language):
and the Indian woman and I
enabled the blue deer
and the blue deer talked,
in the next room,
a Negro talk
it was like walking a jackass
and its talk
was the pressing gabber of gammers
of old women….
The one symbol of hope, then, in the whole vision is the blue deer, ordinarily an animal swift of foot but now hobbling around like a jackass (clearly a reference to a caricature not the actual surefooted animal). As the speaker despairs of his own life, his descriptions of the animal change to that of a “filthy blue deer.” All hope is lost for humanity in its natural state. The speaker pleads for death: “O my soul, slip/ the cog.” This plea becomes an obsession with the speaker. Technology, which really becomes a manifestation of humanity itself, or the “net of being,” drives the speaker to his death wish.
O souls, in life and in death,
awake, even as you sleep, even as in sleep
know what wind
even under the crankcase of the ugly automobile
lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of gods,
equipment, entertainment. . . .
The second element of the vision concerns the realm of the dead, revealing Olson’s strong Catholic belief in heaven, hell, and purgatory. Hell is constantly equated with both poverty and material existence. The net symbolizes a person’s life. It has a number of knots in it that are described with fire imagery throughout: “each knot is itself its fire.”
The untying of the knot, then, preoccupies the mind:
each knot of which the net is made
is for the hands to untake
and knot’s making.
In addition to the knots in the net, there are five hindrances. In these hindrances perfection is hidden. The five hindrances transcend the physical world and, in fact, affect both realms of existence:
In the five hindrances men and an angels
stay caught in the net, in the immense nets
which spread out across each place of being, the multiple nets
which hamper at each step of the ladder as the angels
and the demons
go up and down….
The obvious reference is to Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28, but here, instead of a vision of encouragement we read a message of gloom.
The five hindrances tie in with the description of purgatory. They keep one from heaven. These sins must be burned away:
O souls, burn
alive, burn now
That you may forever
have peace, have
what you crave
Life is a net that entangles us. These nets are flames of hell. Only through the process of untangling the knots of the net can one enter into purgatory to have the five hindrances burned away.
Our destiny as humans is determined by ourselves. Through our technology we have created our own hell. It is a hell of poverty—the poverty of our humanity. We can, however, reshape our destiny and shoot
through the screen of flame which each knot
hides as all knots are a wall ready
to be shot open by you
The speaker, then, has shaped his destiny, perhaps by his works through the sacraments, and “slipped the cog.” There is no indication that slipping the cog refers to suicide, but it is permanent death, which brings one back to the automobile crash. Did the speaker actually die in the wreck? Whether he died at that time or not he has entered paradise:
I ask my mother
to sleep. I ask her
to stay in the chair.
is in the corner of the fence.
She sits by the fireplace made of paving stones. The blue deer
need not trouble either of us.
And if she sits in happiness the souls
who trouble her and me
will also rest. The automobile
has been hauled away.
The chair has already been equated with purity and the blue deer has no place in a spiritual existence.
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