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Micro Essay “Lake Superior”

Lorine Niedecker “Lake Superior” by Andrew Miller

I entered into “Lake Superior” as a displaced Michigander, whose final earthly wish is to have my ashes set a float on a lake breeze, landing where they may along the coast. Niedecker has provided me a far better eulogy for that eventual event than Hemingway’s “The Big Two-Hearted River” ever could. For two pieces set within a similar time and place, one speaks far more to the Heidegger, Olson, et al. temporal sense of logos – as opposed to the “logic and classification” (ascribed by Spanos, to Aristotle) found in the latter.

  • In every part of every living thing
  • Is stuff that once was rock

The theme of commonality vs. classification is striking to me throughout. In the beginning the reader is meant to accept the universality of carbon (ostensibly so) – their very blood courses with the same minerals that make up the earth.

5          Iron the common element of earth

Here I wonder if the reader is only to accept that “iron” (as in ore) is a common element, which is of course suggested in the next line:

6          in rocks and freighters

or if in fact the reader may take this a step further and see “iron” (as in the act used on clothing); as in, to flatten everything and make it even. Of the two, which is the more Olsonian ideal of logos? By lines 10-12 we see this sort of cooperation between entities:

10        The waters working together

11                    internationally

12        Gulls playing both sides

Interestingly, this point where the poet brings a sense of cooperation and commonality to fruition is also where the reader realizes how the Gulls portend classification, and thus competition. Internationally transitively means multiple nations; while in “playing both sides” the reader understands that these multitudes are in competition.

It is lines 13-18 that the reader is introduced to the ultimate antagonism occurring here. Pierre Esprit Radisson was the first known European to survey the now famous Pictured Rocks on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Niedecker ascribes a quote to him, calling the area:

14        “a laborinth of pleasure”

Unmistakable in the post-modern form is the (mis)spelling of the word labyrinth. Using the word labor within Niedecker’s spelling suggests that Radisson conceives of this area as one of utility, industry. His ultimate fate ends with torture at the hands of the Mohawk Indians – who in life he had betrayed. Thus the reader knows now what they are up against and throughout the poem, Niedecker uses the theme of temporal sensuality, generally portrayed through natural scenery, in opposition to judgement and competition portrayed as nationalism and religious fervor.

Each section of the poem set apart in this serialized format that is almost like the rowing of an oar, circling back around into the same water, only slightly different because the reader, the rower, has moved one stroke further along in the lake. Lines 19-23 describe a canoe as having been made of Seder not Cedar, and the reader must consider the new category of religion being put upon the land. Following on this, the next section (lines 24-26) the sign of the cross is set upon the “Beauty: impurities in the rock” – a judgement made by who? Possibly Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit priest who founded Sault St. Marie on behalf of the French and is referenced in lines 27-35. Those same Seder [sic] woods cast as “ribs” – fitting both of boats and of bone, both once more referenced in the same passages on Marquette.

This round and round of nature > native > voyager (voyeur?) continues through Joliet, Englishmen, Schoolcraft, Chippewas and the Soo. Not until lines 50-56 does the reader (possibly) meet the poet themselves:

 

50        Greek named

51        Exodus-antique

52        kicked up in America’s

53        Northwest

54        you have been in my mind

55        between my toes

56        agate

With this section the reader learns that the poet themselves are struggling between the temporal and the logical, the mind and the touch of the toes. This precedes my favorite section to read out loud because it is so pleasing to my ears:

57        Did not man

58                    maimed by no

59                                stone-fall

60        mash the cobalt

61                    and carnelian

62                                of that bird

Finally, a pure aural aesthetic that engages the reader with energy and movement without expecting any direct translation. This shift in form remains a pronounced feature throughout the final four sections of the poem and seem to encourage ever more playfulness with words. As the history of the region comes nearer in time to the poet and the poem’s writing, the poet shows themselves more and more to the reader. Ultimately the historical content of the poem, the temporal sensations, and the poet become one.

Lines 79-100 show in quickened pace this back and forth, the deermeat called back by the poet’s dear. The voyagers crossed – of time space and religiosity – while “we successfully passed”; until “we hurry / home”. Ultimately what the reader seems most clearly to come away with is how the Olsonian/Niedecker logos of “lake” is superior to anything else ascribed within.

Micro Essay #2 – Comparative Criticism of Charles Olson

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’

15        place

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”.