“The Distances” is a meditation on love and human alienation, but the poem does not present its argument or define its terms in a straightforward way. The poem begins, “So the distances are Galatea,” with the conjunction “so” suggesting that the reader has walked into the middle of a conversation. Something has been left out, and this is typical of Olson’s poetry—he often juxtaposes fragments so that the reader must draw the connections or attempt to fill in the blanks. The reader may wonder what kind of “distances” the speaker has in mind and how such distances are connected to the mythological Galatea. The poem is a sometimes cryptic, sometimes disturbing, but finally profoundly moving meditation on the “distances” that human beings put between themselves and others, and the powerful force that “knows no distance,” love. The philosophical discussion is illustrated by references to a Greek myth, a newspaper story from Florida, Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael, the Greek god Zeus, and the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Caesar Augustus.
The poem opens and closes with references to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. In the myth, Pygmalion, the King of Cyprus, falls in love with the unattainable Aphrodite, goddess of love. He sculpts an ivory image of her, places it in his bed, and then prays to Aphrodite for compassion. The goddess brings the statue to life as Galatea, an actual woman who becomes Pygmalion’s wife. Following these brief references to the Pygmalion myth are...
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