It’s a great pleasure to present here four poems from William Olsen’s new collection, his fifth book of poems, Sand Theory, forthcoming in April with Northwestern University Press/Triquarterly. Bill is a colleague and and a friend from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program where we both teach, yes, and where we meet up roughly twice a year in an atmosphere of intense literary camaraderie that somehow combines the ethos of a Left Bank cafe and a New York subway station at rush hour. For years we have listened to each other read in the College Hall Chapel or Noble Lounge, watched the new books come out, observed each other working with students — Vermont College constructs relationships that are like lightning bolts, distant flashes of brilliance, brief, poignant, and indelible, which is also how I think of Bill Olsen’s poems.
I can tell you, simply, that the Leelenau Peninsula is a place I go to not only to write but to write about. I used the old fashioned “en plein air” method at first with many of these: you go outside, you write down what you see in a notebook, and you go home and try to put down the right words for what blew you away out of your own confined life. I think in these poems I was trying just for a few looks at the natural world, how the mind always has and still can find inclusive models for itself in its surroundings. Which in this case are striking “original”– nothing like the Michigan Dunes, their relative youth (3000 yrs), the youth of the glacial lakes (some 800 years old). Or how their stability is destabilized and re-stabilized every season. I think that nature poems, or eco-poetics, are often politically driven, and that is great. I just wanted in these to preserve what it is like to look at places and things while they’re still around. — William Olsen
Four Poems from Sand Theory
By William Olsen
The hills the lakes the shorelines only
three thousand years old. Some faces
have this same settled freshness every time.
Few voices do. I have been trying to walk
out of my body all my life. The flesh
doesn’t belong to itself. Not a breath
we can understand so why this trust?
Understanding itself is a shape-shifter.
Even if I must accept your mortality,
I stay in love like nowhere else I stay.
It is what sand would look like if it could just
escape itself and grasp the diffuse and clump around
pilings like stumps of teeth ground by tide,
risen to whatever inhuman trial it is
to have threadbare wind for a coat and a body
that has no eyes and no face to love,
bent in scarcely rooted supplication.
When have we not seen it praying
in its own loose unison of piety,
in its strength to waver and stay put and outreturn
the hulking one-time-only beachfront condos—
I’ll worship something that would return to all this.
Repeatedly this need to be somewhere real again
comes upon land with features that never settle,
this treasure so openly fragile it’s beginning
to dawn on me that we should all be singing—
no place like this anywhere in the world,
even the ground one stands on taken up,
what it means to escape damnation and holiness
and be forever risen into being used
right here at my glowing naked toes.
We walk right over all this we love the sight of
that in it we can love our transience,
our hills, their lakes no older than our species,
as it turns out earth never belonged to itself,
till even despondency seems hopeful evasion.
So why this trust, this sudden drop from bluff
to lake where sky resides and spars of buried trees
are disinterred from dunes, the beached hulls
of ghost barns are open houses, bare rafters
almost fallen in on their blessed ghost cows?
Why do ears settle on lone islets of seething birches,
tremblings near an even vaster trembling?
For however much I meant to find a human likeness
down on its knees, its hands churched together,
there’s more room than ever for the booming distances
and sand enough for wind to blow beyond
all of us who abandoned, betrayed, trampled repeatedly
haywire paths, shown nothing new, no, this,
right here where there is no dogma or heresy,
shimmering just a little above the earth,
in its strength to waver and yet stay put
lifted by sun and rain into being used,
hanging on and letting us come and go.
Lake Leelanau Goes Still One Day in Fall
The ear wants what it hears to rain in language,
The rain wants images to puddle, flow,
Canoe, thrust paddles through lacustrine looking glass,
Shudder, touched, smoothed beyond sigh
Once flow wins back clarity, that afterlife
That wears its while with absolute unconcern,
Ripples ironed out by transparent cease,
The oldest memoir of language, fluidity
Liquefying sadness, its concentric rings,
The lovely roundness of those spoken vowels,
The vegetal phonemes alive in meadows,
In rooted reveries that obliterate ideals,
Here where fishes fly and clouds congress
With pebble-cobbled bottom worlds
Stocking sky with crappies, trout, and bass,
Undulations leveling to bluest pupil,
Lappings lulled to inaudible lullaby,
Glide of last spring’s goslings grown to geese,
Windexed cessation of windrow waves,
Glacial sorrows melted, the bewilderments,
Even the slightest, even the most garrulous
Frog’s gargoyle consonants gobbled up,
Gutter-mouthed gutturals, gusts and gales
Gone to glaze, an aimless, amiable gaze,
The furies flatlined to catoptromancy,
Calm and compromise materialized,
Leavetaking leaves loosened from leasehold
Mirrored, and carried by their own reflections.
I left an office lamp alive for ghosts,
let go any hope
and tried to sleep.
But sleep left me on
like a night-light.
Some passing car
would be seen on its way,
some lasting meteor
anyone can see
some moon like an unsent letter,
some long-distance glance
stare from the bottom of the deepest
Dear self, please say the sun.
The sun sets.
Say the moon,
the moon rises.
All these years
don’t bring it an inch closer,
no telephone back to childhood either.
but not yet.
A few stars have no distance,
their arrangement is lenient,
a moon sawn in half,
that half hanging on,
a cleaver over every waker and sleeper,
what on earth can I do,
waves lapping out lake
good and all alone,
where are they going,
what have I done?
Through the trees
their audible transparence,
always the first and
ever the last,
a few boat lights rocking,
wide awake is motion,
all’s to come and the ordinary wait
is a vast devotion but first,
with merciful instruction.
— William Olsen
A Note on the Author: William Olsen is Professor of Creative Writing at Western Michigan University and a member of the poetry faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Avenue of Vanishing, Trouble Lights, and Vision of a Storm Cloud, all published by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books.
These poems were all published previously: “You” in Poetry Northwest, “Lake Leelanau Goes Still One Day in Fall” in Gettysburg Review, “Dune Grass” in Dunes Review, and “Goodbye” in Little Review.
Praise for Sand Theory
“With each book, William Olsen’s work centers more intensely upon ordinary experience. And with each book Olsen’s work becomes at once more empathetic and more visionary. The real world in Sand Theory is not a world of mere appearances. It is real. Temporality makes it so, as does mortality. And yet Olsen maintains a permeable boundary beyond which is what? The eternal? The spiritual? Whatever name one chooses, its illuminations shines through these poems.”—Stuart Dybek
“Sand Theory is a book of poems that sound as if they belong to the life after this (and I am reminded of Rilke’s musing that one should be given a day and a room, after death, in which to write) and as such the book does not belong to a singular voice (astonishing as it is) but to the very idea of voice, what it means, and meant, and why this trust; so when this book gives good advice about hanging on, or ‘merciful instructions’ for letting go, know it is a book that is talking you back to life, as it leaves you breathless.” —Mary Ruefle
“To walk into Bill Olsen’s poems is to enter a mind so weirdly curious, you can’t be released to sadness, not yet: it’s just too surprising. But this book–half microscope, half telescope–shadows grief, our shared and ordinary life where an old neighbor obsessively gathers twigs to wish back the tree, where the moon is regularly ‘sawn in half,’ where sprinklers give off ‘little wet speeches.’ What else? It’s brilliantly instead and odd.” —Marianne Boruch
See also In Praise of Darkness, an Exchange with David Wojahn,
(Post design by Mahtem Shiferraw)