The Poem

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“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 references to “a German inventor in Key West/ who had a Cuban girl, and kept her, after her death/ in his bed.” These lines allude to an incident reported in the Key West newspapers in 1952, in which police arrested an eighty-three-year-old man, Karl Tanzler, who had fallen in love with an ill Cuban girl, removed her body from its grave, preserved it, and kept it for eight years in his house. The police found the corpse dressed for bed, with fresh flowers in its hair.

From this bizarre modern version of the Pygmalion story, the poem moves to its most obscure section, in which “sons” go “down La Cluny’s steps to the old man sitting/ a god throned on torsoes” in search of “a secret” that can perhaps “undo distance.” “La Cluny” may refer to the Musée de Cluny in Paris or to the Abbaye de Cluny in Mâcon, France, but the geographical referent is less important than the psychological theme. In Call Me Ishmael, Olson traces the theme of the rebellious or exiled son, separated from the father, through various ancient myths and connects this theme with the idea that the “deeper part” of the human self is obscure and buried. To discover this deeper self one needs to “go down” into the depths of the psyche, where one will find, “throned on torsos,” the father, “your own grim sire, who did beget ye, exiled sons.” The separation of father from son, suggests Olson, is psychologically entangled with the distance between the superficial self and the deep self.

Threaded throughout the poem are repeated references to “old Zeus” and “young Augustus,” and just before the poem’s end the speaker imagines “[Julius] Caesar” stroking the cheek of his adopted son, “young Augustus [Octavian].” At this point all of the stories are conflated: “old Zeus” hides “young/ Galatea”; “the girl who makes you weep” is both Galatea and “the corpse [kept] alive by all/ your arts”; and Julius strokes the “stone face” of “young Augustus.” The poem ends with a kind of prayer that love will “yield/ to this...

(This entire section contains 627 words.)

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man/ that the impossible distance/ be healed.” The prayer is answered with Aphrodite’s words: “I wake you,/ stone. Love this man.”

Forms and Devices

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Although “The Distances” is rich in imagery and allusion, most of the forms and devices of traditional poetry are absent. Olson uses no rhyme, no meter, and no stanza breaks, and he violates conventions of syntax, spelling (“torsoes” instead of “torsos”), capitalization, and punctuation. His lines are unpredictable in length, in spacing, and in their left margins, which may begin at any of four different tab settings. In some ways the poem has the look of the American poet William Carlos Williams’s well-known “triadic stanza,” in which the left margin of each line is indented farther than the previous line’s, so that each three-line stanza looks like a descending set of steps. Olson, however, is not as regular as Williams in his use of the pattern; his margins move in an entirely unpredictable manner. The lines are heavily enjambed, and punctuation is sparse. In fact, no periods appear until the poem’s final line. In addition, none of the stories is fully told. Instead readers are given bits and pieces of narrative. All of this forces the reader to read slowly and to reread. The unpredictable line breaks and irregular spacings suggest a hesitating, uncertain voice groping toward meaning. This uncertainty is further stressed when, at two points, sentences with the syntax of statements conclude with question marks.

The jagged, broken quality of the poem’s form is offset, however, by several patterns of repetition and contrast. The most obvious of these is the pair of names “old Zeus” and “young Augustus,” which are repeated together or singly six times in the poem. The paired names stress the “distance” between both old-young and human-divine, but they also personify the kinds of desire—for “mastery” and “control”—that people mistake or substitute for love and that end up creating “the distances.” The different stories referred to in the poem repeat a similar theme, which Olson stresses by blending details of the Pygmalion, the Key West, and the La Cluny stories into one another.

Pygmalion and the German inventor believe that they can create an object for their love, while the “sons” in La Cluny learn nothing and “go away” disappointed because they expected to find, and hence to possess or control, the “secret” that can “undo distance.” One final structural contrast in the poem is the juxtaposition of abstract, metaphysical language, as in “Death is a loving matter, then, a horror/ we cannot bide,” with vivid, concrete images, such as the German inventor with the dead Cuban girl in his bed. Olson’s is an erudite, intellectually demanding poetry.


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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.