As with other poems Charles Olson wrote in the 1950’s, “As the Dead Prey Upon Us” is composed in open form using a variety of stanza patterns, from long strophelike paragraphs to short, lumpy passages dense with imagery. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay, published in 1950, sets forth his strategies for writing poetry, which include the use of the typewriter as an instrument for designing how a poem is to be read as well as for picturing the precise patterns in which a poet’s ideas form and fuse together into lyric language. Thus, a “projective” poem should be read as an arrangement of language in which the mental processes of conceiving and composing poetry are reenacted. “Closed form,” Olson argued in his essay, smoothed away the precise details of thinking in poetry and manufactured a generalizing, abstract mode in which all the details of imaginative articulation are lumped together and given an overriding and uniform rhythm of speech.
“As the Dead Prey Upon Us” begins with the perception that the ghosts who haunt humans represent those parts of people that have not had the chance to live fully. The ghost may signify a repressed or constrained part of someone’s personality or an unresolved conflict nagging at the back of the mind. Hence, when the speaker complains that his mother’s death continues to haunt him, he begins by observing that the dead are unacknowledged facts of self. One is free of them only when one has confronted each of them and given them their freedom, that is, allowed them to enter consciousness and to find their relation within the rest of one’s awareness. These repressed events or memories are “the sleeping ones,” and the speaker bids them to awake and thus to “disentangle from the nets of being!”
The poem is divided into two sprawling sequences of unnumbered stanzas, although only the second section bears a Roman numeral, II. Usually, Olson will mark off the segments of discourse in a poem according to a simple pattern. Part 1 of a long lyric sequence sets up the conditions in which a thinking process will ensue, in which a variety of isolated elements taken from different sources in experience, including dreams, are carefully sifted and their internal relations worked out. Once this operation is complete, a second section or part begins with a richer, more figurative proposition that sets out to interpret what the first part has “assembled.” The second discourse thus synthesizes, imagines, and philosophically investigates the “formal” construct, a process in which the new form is woven into the context of other knowledge possessed by the poet. An Olson poem is thus the carefully staged reenactment of how the mind works to understand itself when seized by creative activity, such as dreaming.
In this instance, the speaker is aroused by the irritating insistence of a dream he has had of his dead mother. Olson’s mother had died five years before, on Christmas day, 1950. Other poems on her death (such as “In Cold Hell, in Thicket”) attest both the closeness of his relationship to her and his need to understand her loss. The speaker has awakened and now recounts his dream to himself (and to the reader) in an effort to decipher its twisted plot.
The progression of stanzas introduces the reader to the other features of the dream: a visit to a tire store, where he may have observed the mechanic working under his car while replacing the tires; a vision of his mother surrounded by other dead souls in the living room of his house, where a film projector is...
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showing a film against one of the walls; and in another room, an American Indian woman walks a blue deer around in circles, a deer that speaks in an African American dialect or like an old woman as it looks for socks or shoes to wear, “now that it was acquiring/ human possibilities.” This latter image of the evolving deer generates the discussion on the “nets of being,” the laws that govern human identity and set it apart from other orders of nature, animals, and angels. To be human, the speaker notes, is to be limited to the “five hindrances,” the five senses of the body from which awareness derives.
Human awareness is a niche in reality that dreaming expands and contradicts. The speaker must try to resolve the differences between what he has dreamed from his unconscious and what he understands as waking awareness, the world perceived by sense and logic. To Olson, the continuum of real human thought should begin with sense and reason and extend into myth and visionary insight. The speaker’s dilemma is that he is of two minds that do not connect except here, in this poem, where the reader finds him puzzling out the meaning of a dream in his waking state. The situation is ironic, the perfect representation of the problem of divided nature Olson wishes to resolve.
The self-analysis of the speaker moves quickly through a cascading procession of different stanza shapes; the deeply indented ones are in counterpoint to the stanzas arranged along the left margin. Each time the thought darts inward, the speaker is seized by a new fact taken from memory, or that has flashed from the psychic depths. The passions of the speaker rise as he grapples with his theme of inner division, the spirit-haunted psyche that plagues his dreams and troubles his waking life.
In part 2, the dream state is likened to an underworld of souls lying at the bottom of the mind; hell is interior, a psychological cave within the mind’s recesses where spiritual events occur out of the range of conscious attention. This dimension of the dream mind transforms the world of sense into a magic realm of distorted, quick-changing, mysterious properties, most of them made from what was once daily, routine experience, as when the automobile comes alive and mounts the speaker in his dream and then becomes a white chair. The speaker talks freely with the spirits who mill around in his house, a scene reminiscent of Odysseus’s descent into the underworld in the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). The blue deer is an animal soul “becoming” human. Yet, the poem ends as things return to their original identities as mother, son, and a blue deer that “need not trouble either of us.”
Perhaps the most intriguing device in the poem is the use of the dream itself, both as a second reality and as a level of figurative language whose meanings are not merely fantasy but a dimension of hidden meanings, repressed by some function of consciousness. The poem operates as a vehicle in which this second language of the dream is interpreted into lyric speech. The poem draws language from one side of the intellect into the other, as if from an exotic corner of mental space into that of conscious life. The poem reproduces how lyric language is made: Items from the peripheral, shadowy voices of the unconscious are drawn into an argument in which their significance is revealed and incorporated into the rational structure of the poem.
The elegiac form of the poem uses a string of narrative fragments as the links to be joined, in which the mother’s appearance in the dream will be understood. All elegies work by remembering the deceased, but Olson’s poem considers the remembering process a therapeutic necessity of the griever. As is often the case with Olson’s speakers, his persona here has an investigative attitude toward his situation; he remembers events as if they were clues to a mystery, the solution to which will relieve him of a psychological burden. Things that make no sense at first begin to unfold another world within, as cars turn into beasts, animals talk as they approach human stature, and magical transformations occur at any moment. In essence, everything in the poem has a “soul” and is alive and sentient, capable of expressing its true nature in the dream state.
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Maud, Ralph. Charles Olson’s Reading: A Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Olson, Charles, and Cid Corman. Charles Olson and Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence, 1950-1964. Edited by George Evans. 2 vols. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1987.
Rifkin, Libbie. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
Rumaker, Michael. Black Mountain Days. Asheville, N.C.: Black Mountain Press, 2003.