John Olson
Calamari Press ($13)

by Ellen Twadell

John Olson's The Night I Dropped Shakespeare on the Cat is hard to classify, hard to read, and hard to stop thinking about. There are numerous short chapters. There are sparse illustrations by artist Derek White. There are words. Mostly, there are words. Words without context or story, or so it seems.

Is it stream of consciousness? Not quite, because throughout the span of the book Olson emphasizes certain ideas and words. Is it poetry? The density of each page says no, but the attention to individual words demands the reader's attention on the same level poetry does. Is it fiction or memoir? There are compelling short spurts of story in which the author seems to be drawing on personal experience, but these are few and far between in a sea of language. While the pages resemble prose, Olson deliberately arranges sentences that make no grammatical sense. Something else is going on here.

Olson is interested in words. He is interested in how sounds and images represent ideas and things. By the end of the book Olson is more comfortable being explicit with his relationship to language, but the first moment of epiphany—when it becomes evident that he is using the word "jackknife" repeatedly, simply because he likes the word "jackknife"—is the moment the book makes sense. Yet Olson repeats words not at random, but spaces them like gems in a bracelet. He uses words that evoke the visual in a lush way: "Water turquoise and green . . . Water streaked with whorls of delinquent oil." Derek White's complicated composite illustrations, sparse at first and progressively denser towards the middle of the book, punctuate the prose.

What exactly are pictures doing in this sea of text? Even if they don't feed a narrative they participate in an idea of language. Olson evokes the visual with words because written words are visual creatures. Letters or characters have their own shapes. They can evoke images in the mind and bring about a burst of sensory recognition with one sense alone. Words and pictures are more closely related than both writers and artists perhaps admit.

Olson is also interested in the way words look on the page, or sound to the ear. He has a collection of double-letter words: jackknife, bubble, Mississippi, sweet. He has a few words that he repeats for their own sake, because they're words he likes, or finds interesting, or they mean something to him: crustacean, gravity, knot, creamy. At some moments, he becomes explicit: "Is any of this making sense? It is nutty to make an art out of language. Language and art are accelerated by creaminess. You know this."

Perhaps the point is that words mean something, and for many people words are very personal. They have associations that are unique. They can exist without narration or context. It is possible that we are not looking at just words, but Olson's love letter to them.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006-2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006-2007