A review of

Backscatter

by John Olson

Central question: Can the weird world be made manifest through language?
Format: 196 pp., paperback; Size: 6" x 9"; Price: $18.95; Publisher: Black Widow Press; Editor: Joe Phillips; Book design: Kerrie Kemperman; Cover design: Derek White; Author’s early employment: transporting blood and frozen eyeballs for the University of Washington hospital; Author’s idea on the purpose of a poem: “It is a rehearsal for dying”; Age of author when published his first chapbook, Swarm of Edges: 49; Representative sentence: “At night the colors crawl down off the wall with their shrill contours smeared with excitement and tell us of goldfinches and jujubes.”

John Olson’s poetry is a linguistic burlesque show. Every aspect of the English language gets done up in feathers and spangles to shimmy and titillate, and you can almost hear the bawdy trombone accenting John Olson’s post-structuralist puns, his sonic shenanigans. He announces as much in the first line of this excellent compendium: “The exhilaration of poetry is in its gall, its brassy irrelevance and gunpowder vowels, its pulleys and popcorn and delirious birds.”

This exhilaration is far from what critic Ron Silliman calls the “School of Quietude.” With every word and part of speech, nothing is commonplace and everything is loud and out of school. Olson makes a poem by recording his superhuman sensory experiences as accurately as possible. Here is “Xylophone”: “a hive of bells / pollinating rhythm / and beryllium / beaten into rain.” Can you hear it?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

—Travis Nichols

Travis Nichols is a poet and fiction writer living in Seattle. His first collection of poems is forthcoming from Letter Machine Press, and his first novel is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. He edits the online magazine Weird Deer.

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