As the Dead Prey Upon Us

By Charles Olson 1910–1970 Charles Olson
As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!
 
I pushed my car, it had been sitting so long unused.
I thought the tires looked as though they only needed air.
But suddenly the huge underbody was above me, and the rear tires
were masses of rubber and thread variously clinging together
 
as were the dead souls in the living room, gathered
about my mother, some of them taking care to pass
beneath the beam of the movie projector, some record
playing on the victrola, and all of them
desperate with the tawdriness of their life in hell
 
I turned to the young man on my right and asked, “How is it,
there?” And he begged me protestingly don’t ask, we are poor
poor. 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
 
                               my mother, as alive as ever she was, asleep
when I entered the house as I often found her in a rocker
under the lamp, and awaking, as I came up to her, as she ever had
 
I found out she returns to the house once a week, and with her
the throng of the unknown young who center on her as much in death
as other like suited and dressed people did in life
 
O the dead!
 
                    and the Indian woman and I
                    enabled the blue deer
                    to walk
 
                    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
 
                    and we helped walk it around the room
                    because it was seeking socks
                    or shoes for its hooves
                    now that it was acquiring
 
                    human possibilities
 
In the five hindrances men and angels
stay caught in the net, in the immense nets
which spread out across each plane of being, the multiple nets
which hamper at each step of the ladders as the angels
and the demons
and men
go up and down
 
                                 Walk the jackass
                                 Hear the victrola
                                 Let the automobile
                                 be tucked into a corner of the white fence
                                 when it is a white chair. Purity
 
is only an instant of being, the trammels

recur
 
In the five hindrances, perfection
is hidden
                                 I shall get
                                 to the place
                                 10 minutes late.
 
                                 It will be 20 minutes
                                 of 9. And I don’t know,
 
                                 without the car,
 
                                 how I shall get there
 
O peace, my mother, I do not know
how differently I could have done
what I did or did not do.

                                 That you are back each week
                                 that you fall asleep
                                 with your face to the right
 
                                 that you are present there
                                 when I come in as you were
                                 when you were alive
 
                                 that you are as solid, and your flesh
                                 is as I knew it, that you have the company
                                 I am used to your having
 
                                 but o, that you all find it
                                 such a cheapness!
 
o peace, mother, for the mammothness
of the comings and goings
of the ladders of life
 
The nets we are entangled in. Awake,
my soul, let the power into the last wrinkle
of  being, let none of the threads and rubber of the tires
be left upon the earth. Let even your mother
go. Let there be only paradise
 
The desperateness is, that the instant
which is also paradise (paradise
is happiness) dissolves
into the next instant, and power
flows to meet the next occurrence
 
                                 Is it any wonder
                                 my mother comes back?
                                 Do not that throng
                                 rightly seek the room
                                 where they might expect
                                 happiness? They did not complain
                                 of life, they obviously wanted
                                 the movie, each other, merely to pass
                                 among each other there,
                             where the real is, even to the display cards,
                             to be out of hell
 
                             The poverty
                             of hell

O souls, in life and in death,
make, even as you sleep, even in sleep
know what wind
even under the crankcase of the ugly automobile
lifts it away, clears the sodden weights of goods,
equipment, entertainment, the foods the Indian woman,
the filthy blue deer, the 4 by 3 foot ‘Viewbook,’
the heaviness of the old house, the stuffed inner room
lifts the sodden nets
 
                                 and they disappear as ghosts do,
                                 as spider webs, nothing
                                 before the hand of man
 
                                 The vent! You must have the vent,
                                 or you shall die. Which means
                                 never to die, the ghastliness
 
                                 of going, and forever
                                 coming back, returning
                                 to the instants which were not lived
 
                                 O mother, this I could not have done,
                                 I could not have lived what you didn’t,
                                 I am myself netted in my own being
 
                                 I want to die. I want to make that instant, too,
                                 perfect
 
                                 O my soul, slip
                                 the cog
 
 
II
 
The death in life (death itself)
is endless, eternity
is the false cause
 
The knot is other wise, each topological corner
presents itself, and no sword
cuts it, each knot is itself its fire
 
each knot of which the net is made
is for the hands to untake
the knot’s making. And touch alone
can turn the knot into its own flame
 
                          (o mother, if you had once touched me
 
                          o mother, if I had once touched you)
 
The car did not burn. Its underside
was not presented to me
a grotesque corpse. The old man
 
merely removed it as I looked up at it,
and put it in a corner of the picket fence
like was it my mother’s white dog?
 
or a child’s chair
 
                                 The woman,
                                 playing on the grass,
                                 with her son (the woman next door)
 
                                 was angry with me whatever it was
                                 slipped across the playpen or whatever
                                 she had out there on the grass
 
                                 And I was quite flip in reply
                                 that anyone who used plastic
                                 had to expect things to skid
 
                                 and break, that I couldn’t worry
                                 that her son might have been hurt
                                 by whatever it was I sent skidding
 
                                 down on them.
 
                                 It was just then I went into my house
                                 and to my utter astonishment
                                 found my mother sitting there
 
                                 as she always had sat, as must she always
                                 forever sit there her head lolling
                                 into sleep? Awake, awake my mother
 
                                 what wind will lift you too
                                 forever from the tawdriness,
                                 make you rich as all those souls
 
                                 crave crave crave
 
                                 to be rich?
 
They are right. We must have
what we want. We cannot afford
not to. We have only one course:
 
the nets which entangle us are flames
 
                                         O souls, burn
                                         alive, burn now
 
                                         that you may forever
                                         have peace, have
 
                                         what you crave
 
                                         O souls,
                                         go into everything,
                                         let not one knot pass
                                         through your fingers
 
                                         let not any they tell you
                                         you must sleep as the net
                                         comes through your authentic hands
 
                                         What passes
                                         is what is, what shall be, what has
                                         been, what hell and heaven is
                                         is earth to be rent, to shoot you
                                         through the screen of flame which each knot
                                         hides as all knots are a wall ready
                                         to be shot open by you
 
                                                                               the nets of being
                                         are only eternal if you sleep as your hands
                                         ought to be busy. Method, method
 
                                         I too call on you to come
                                         to the aid of all men, to women most
                                         who know most, to woman to tell
                                         men to awake. Awake, men,
                                         awake
 
I ask my mother
to sleep. I ask her
to stay in the chair.
My 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.

Charles Olson, “As the Dead Prey Upon Us” from The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems. Copyright © 1987 by Charles Olson. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press.

Source: The Collected Poems of Charles Olson: Excluding the Maximus Poems (The University of California Press, 1987)

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Poet Charles Olson 1910–1970

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Subjects Living, Death, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Religion, The Spiritual, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Imagery

Biography

Charles Olson was an innovative poet and essayist whose work influenced numerous other writers during the 1950s and 1960s. In his influential essay on projective (or open) verse, Olson asserts that "a poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Death, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Relationships, Family & Ancestors, Religion, The Spiritual, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Black Mountain

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Imagery

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