On "Cole's Island"
The remainder of the summer of 1964 was otherwise devoted mostly to poetry, now to be Olson's final, enduring close companion. Working from Jeremy Prynnes typescripts, he assembled, and in September sent off to Jonathan Williams, a text of Maximus IV, V, VI, the difficult, unwieldly, cosmic-exploratory midsection of his epic, representing the central effort of the past six years of his life. Meanwhile new verse of the summer, variously somber and agitated in reflection of the psychic trauma of recent months, yielded fragmentary groundwork for the epic's third and last volume. Most notable was the muted, ominous "COLES ISLAND," a document of a dream run-in with an allegorical specter of death in the wilds of Essex Bay backcountry. In the dream Death was dressed up as a country gentleman strolling his property, encountered by the wandering poet in the midst of investigations of local topography. The dream poem seemed an omen, another tacit warning of the dangers of infringing carelessly on the domain of mortality--something the obsessive researcher had been doing much of his life, though only lately had he learned something of the stiff penalties such trespassing could bring. In "COLE'S ISLAND," when landowner Death and intruder Maximus sized one another up, Death seemed much less unsettled than the poet by their sudden, chilling propinquity.
From Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poets Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Tom Clark.
Walking with his son on Cole's Island . . . Maximus has his first encouter with Death himself:
My impression is we did
that is, Death and myself, regard each other. And
there wasn't anything more than that, only that he had appeared,
and we did recognize each other--or I did, him, and he seemed
to have no question about my presence there, even though I was uncomfortable.
The old estrangement temporarily returns, and Maximus is athwart precisely that experience which first fed the intuition that some other world, in which this discomfort is avoidable, is possible: the self need only become to itself an image of transcendent reality to avoid the encounter with death.
From Charles Olsons Maximus. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
‘COLES ISLAND’, influenced perhaps by Chaucer’s dream poems, describes a visit to ‘a queer isolated and gated place’ where game live unmolested by humans. The poet and his son are innocently observing the scenery when a stranger steps out from the woods; he is dressed more formally than Olson and he seems to be a sportsman. But beside this he is the figure of Death and ‘a property-owner’. Maximus feels uncomfortable since he is trespassing; yet the country gentleman does not question his presence there. The two men ‘regard each other’ for a moment, then Death moves on without any drama occurring. Going about his normal business — the ‘will / to know more of the topography’ of the island, Maximus has crossed a barrier into Hades (coal’s island) and come back alive. Is Death’s materialisation and reaction a warning or a reassurance? With a fine balance, Olson’s poem maintains the neutrality of dreams.
From Selerie, Gavin, "Charles Olson." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.
Return to Charles Olson