Comparative Criticism of Charles Olson by Andrew Miller
Olson’s use of the stasis of the moon as a prominent phanopoeia in the two pieces selected for this close reading may seem a bit on-the-nose, but I was interested in how two similar openings can lead a reader through significantly different narratives.
In “Moonset, Gloucester, December 1, 1957, 1:58 AM” the poem opens with the two lines: “Goodbye red moon / In that color you set”. This opening is mimicked later in Olson’s writings with the piece “May 31, 1961”, with the opening phrase: “the lilac moon of the earth’s backyard”.
Both phrases set up the reader with an understanding that the Field is to be set within the context of that state of the moon. The first, a “red moon”, invokes a sort of power which a reader expects to consume the poem. A red moon feeling less settled, more mysterious than a yellow moon – or merely a moon, new or otherwise. Followed with the phrase that this red is the color that has been “set”, as well as being the color of the moon as it sets – leads the reader’s emotions to feel the power of this moon consuming the new day.
Juxtaposed from this however is “the lilac moon” which casts an image of calm, settled existence. Reading of “the earth’s backyard” furthers this notion, asserting that we are in a familiar and relaxing place. The following two lines then in “May 31, 1961” explain that we are here, also, at the moment when the moon is setting.
2 which gives silence to the whole house
3 falls down
Only the words “falls down” feel specifically energized and awakened – with greater impact as it is set in opposition to words such as “lilac”, “backyard”, and “silence”. “Moonset, Gloucester” instead used a single word, red, to deliver the reader into high energy. This departure is merely the setup however, resulting in the coming disparate poems.
“Moonset, Gloucester” becomes violent with the setting of this “red moon”.
3 west of the Cut I should imagine
4 forever Mother
Olson connects the moon and the mother in the next three lines, somewhat obtusely using the words “you set” and “I rise”, allowing for a good deal of interpretation.
5 After 47 years this month
6 a Monday at 9 AM
7 you set I rise I hope
Is this the birth of Olson? Was his mother killed in his delivery? Researching the matter has not turned up any answers as of yet. Olson’s second wife, with whom he did not have any children, died in an automobile accident in 1956, so I questioned what motives may have been found from that incident in this poem, but no connection seemed plausible for me. No answers are to be found in the second half of this poem either. Further bluster, but no resolution. Oddly, this section is where the path of each poem find yet another intersection with each other; not of content, but of context.
From an image of this thing – the moon – we are drawn into a dialogue. Within “May 31, 1961” the dialogue turns the tables on the reader’s initial perspective. Instead of viewing the moon from the earth, the reader finds themselves firmly planted on the lilac moon gazing upon the “silence” and “quiet” of the earth. Here, the reader hears what it is that the moon has to say to the earth and its inhabitants.
6 poor planet
7 now reduced
8 to disuse
9 who looks so big
10 and alive
11 I am talking to you
Conversation of “Moonset, Cloucester” is automatically energized and violent, as the way the poem’s first line opened had been.
8 a free thing as probably
9 what you more were Not
10 the suffering one you sold
11 sowed me on Rise
12 Mother from off me
13 God damn you God damn me my
14 misunderstanding of you
Then, with the final line, these poems diverge significantly again.
15 I can die now I just begun to live
As opposed to the final lines of “May 31, 1961” sleepy eyelids entering the new day: “lilac moon / old backyard bloom”. Olson follows through on his promise from the first line to the last in these poems. Similar subjects and structure – both poems being fewer than 25 lines (one page), invoke the shared human experience of the moon, and of conversation – result in drastically different narratives. First the reader experiences the anger of an aging person, who seems upset with their mother over having been born into the world; potentially without the mother remaining in it to help them along the way. In the second, the reader meets the moon and learns the perspective of what plant Earth might appear like to a body only viewing it at slumber, and conceptually at peace.
12 The shades
13 on the windows
14 of the Centers’
16 half down
17 like nobody else’s
18 lets the glass lower halves
19 make quiet mouths at you
Objectionist, as defined in his manifesto by Olson, is represented in both of these poems by giving an equal amount of emotional intent to the moon-object as to the human-animal-object. Similarly, a sort of consciousness is even bestowed upon “the windows” with their “quiet mouths” from “May 31, 1961”.