“The Kingfishers” is both thrilling and exasperating, inspiring and challenging. The date of its composition has become as emblematic as anything in the poem: 1949. Just four years after the bombing of Hiroshima, just four years after the gates of Auschwitz were broken open and the unfathomable lies of what happened there were revealed, the same year as Mao’s forces triumphed in China (Olson’s “La lumiere de l’aurore est devant. Nous nous devant nous lever et agir” [The light of dawn is before us. We must arise and act.] is from Mao). Sixty years later, and on the verge of celebrating Olson’s centennial, we are still confronted with the dogged question at the heart of this poem, “shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?,” a line that has the status of Adorno’s questioning of the possibility of lyric poetry in the wake of the “final solution” (the systematic extermination process). Is our Western heritage salvageable?
A stirring, iconic voice rises up in this poem, one phrase tumbling upon the next, hectoring, charged, bursting through the dead silence and complacency often associated with this proto Cold War moment in U.S. history. Olson’s rhetorical power is a blast against conformity, against the postwar methodology of “prosperity” through repression. “What pudor pejorocracy affronts”: our decency, if we still have it in the human dethronement of that moment, 1949 (or 2009) is offended by the worsening rule of government. And Olson breaks beyond “the Western box” with his opening, signal, invocation of Heraklitus: all is change, stasis is Thanatos (a death wish). And so the poem enacts this very Heraklitian change/movement/dynamic/parataxis; it invokes a poetics of dynamic movement, where each phrase takes on new meaning in new contexts. One thought is overlaid on another, a veritable palimpsest, like they say.
I’ve read the poems many times over the years and I still don’t follow it, keep diving back in for more. You can never step into the same poem twice (to conflate Olson and Heraklitus). The poem is a bracing test of nonlinear reading: because it quickly loses the reader trying diligently to “follow,” since it demands another approach, one that doesn’t follow the leader but the lieder (why am I writing this way for you, Arkaadi, since my puns can’t be translated into Russian?). Guy Davenport calls the poem as a whole an ideogram, marking its unmistakle, and not entirely happy, Poundian lineage. The poem is weighted/freighted by those Poundian need-to-know (or do you?) uncited references, as for example the appropriations from Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (“the priests rush in among the people,” “of green feathers feet, beaks and eyes / of gold”).
And at or near the center: “I thought of the E on the stone”: this is not Frank O’Hara referring casually and without consequence to graffiti on Second Avenue but an allusion to the Inscrutable Inscription on the Stone at Delphi. But this is the weight that for Olson we cannot cast off: of the enigma of our cultural histories, which form us and from which we are formed. We are not one but many, and from the many threads the fabric of our possible lives will be woven. Do we weave it or let it be woven for us? Will dawn follow this dark night?
We come late to a world that we feel, less and less, is of our making: we are estranged from that which we feel we are, by right of nature, familiar; as if our own hand was not part of our body, or our own society no longer a polis, no longer “ours” (to extend a fragment of Hekalitus quoted by Olson in his Special View of History).
Near the end, Olson quotes a couplet from Rimbaud’s Season in Hell (“Alchemy of the Word”): “Si j’ai du goût, ce n’est guère / Que pour la terre et les pierres” (“I only find within my bones / A taste for eating earth and stones” as Paul Schmidt translates it). Rimbaud, Heraklitus, Mao, Prescott, Delphi are, for Olson, points outside the deadness that inscribes “us” in the “West” in the wake the war. They are stones with which we might build a new world, word by word; but they are also the weights of that other demonic world (of which the New World is not innocent). This dead-mid-century poem marks a liminal moment between a controlled Poundian montage (ideogram) and the possibility for a more open-ended collage that might come after.
“The Kingfishers’”acknowledgment of the crisis for Western culture in the wake of the war is the postmodern turn, where the call of the poet is so much bird feed. “The kingfishers! / who cares / for their feathers / now?” As Jack Spicer would say a decade later, “No / One listens to poetry.”
“The Kingfishers” is collected in Collected Poems, ed. George Butterick (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987). A great deal has been written about this poem, documenting its sources line for line, see especially: Ralph Maude, What Does Not Change: The Significance of Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997); George Butterick, Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ and the Poetics of Change in American Poetry 6:2 (1988): 28-69; and Guy Davenport, “Scholia and Conjectures for ‘The Kingfishers’ in The Geography of the Imagination (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1981).