My Olson Elegy

I set out now
in a box upon the sea. Maximus VI

Three weeks, and now I hear!
What a headstart for the other elegists!
I say, No matter! by any route and manner
we shall arrive beside you together.
Envy, Triumph, Pride, Derision:
such passionate oarsmen drive my harpooneer,
he hurls himself through your side.
You lie and wait to be overtaken.
You absent yourself at every touch.

It was an adolescent, a poetboy,
who told me—one of that species, spoiled,
self-showing, noisy, conceited, épatants,
voice breaking from the ego-distance like
a telephone’s, not a voice indeed
but one in facsimile, recon-
stituted static, a locust voice,
exhumed, resurrected, chirring
in its seventeenth year, contentedly
saying, “And I’ve just completed
section fifteen of my Olson elegy.”

Landscape on legs, old Niagara!—all
the unique force, the common vacancy,
the silence and seaward tumultuous gorge
slowly clogging with your own disjecta,
tourists, trivia, history,
disciples, picnickers in hell;
oh great Derivative in quest
of your own unknown author, the source,
a flying bit of the beginning blast,
sky-shard where early thunder slumbers:
the first syllabic grunt, a danger,
a nameless name, a tap on the head; you,
Olson!, whale, thrasher, bard of bigthink,
your cargo of ambergris and pain,
your steamy stupendous sputtering
—all apocalypse and no end:
precocious larvae have begun to try
the collected works beneath your battered sides.

See them now! dazzling elegists sitting
on their silvery kites on air
like symbols in flight, swooping daredevils
jockey for position, mount a hasty breeze
and come careering at your vastness
to tread among the gulls and plover
—but the natural cries of birds do not
console us for our gift of speech.
Embarrassed before the sea and silence,
we do not rise or sing,
wherefore this choir of eternal boys
strut and sigh and puff their chests and stare
outward from the foundering beach.

King of the flowering deathboat, falls,
island, leviathan, starship night,
you plunge to the primitive deep
where satire’s puny dreadful monsters,
its Follies and its Vices, cannot reach,
and swim among their lost originals
—free, forgotten, powerful, moving
wholly in a universe of rhythm—
and re-enter your own first Fool,
inventing happiness out of nothing.
You are the legend death and the sea have seized
in order to become explicable.

—Smell of salt is everywhere,
speed and space burn monstrousness
away, exaltation blooms in the clear:
fair weather, great bonanza, the high!,
swelling treasure, blue catch of heaven.
The swimmer like the sea reaches every shore.
Superlative song levitates from lips
of the glowing memorialists,
their selves flash upward in the sun.

Now you are heavier than earth, everything
has become lighter than the air.

Irving Feldman, “My Olson Elegy” from Collected Poems 1954-2004. Copyright © 2004 by Irving Feldman. Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: Lost Originals (1972)
More Poems by Irving Feldman