YesYes Books, 2013
96 pp. $16.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Michael Mlekoday
I picked up Tanya Olson’s debut collection, Boyishly, because of its gorgeous cover (yeah, yeah, I know) and suggestive title, and I’m glad I did. The book is simultaneously widely allusive and firmly accessible, humorous and moving, bizarre and logical. Motivated by a kind of ultra-talk surrealism, Olson’s poems take on different voices and personae in order to explore both the personal and public constructions of gender, violence, and America—and, in the midst of all this cultural work they’re doing, they’re funny!
“Child of Wolves” accomplishes this combination of humor and gravity, as many of the poems do, by taking a simple conceit and working through its implications and potentials with a surreal logic. The poem begins with a not unfamiliar sibling rivalry—the speaker’s younger sister believes herself special, so the speaker is charged, as the older sister, with the task of reminding her that she “is the child of wolves left at our doorstep / to raise.” While this conceit starts out light enough, a girl teasing her younger sister, the lines between reality and joke are quickly blurred. When the younger sister suggests that “maybe we are both wolf babies,” the speaker, following her own logic, realizes: “I can only / trust the story the parents tell me / for I have no way to know / no older sister to witness my coming / to tell me the truth of my birth.” By taking the surrealism of the joke seriously, the speaker troubles simple notions of family, history, and epistemology.
While some of Olson’s poems employ this kind of surreal logic to highlight the strangeness of social constructs, others use syntax itself to do this work. In “What Else,” a poem whose form and content are inseparable, Olson breaks her sentences down to fragments in order, I think, to enact the fragmented and percussive rhythms of gender, childhood, and violence:
As a boy. I thought picking up
the gun would make me. No longer
a boy. As a boy with a gun. I thought
being elsewhere. Made me
a different boy. As a boy with a gun
and a different tongue. I thought
returning home. Would bring me home.
The broken syntax in the poem emphasizes the constructed nature of language, just as the speaker contemplates how gender and identity are constructed. Indeed, throughout the book, both gender and language are performances, rehearsals. In the title poem, for example, the speaker recalls “that summer I practiced / pulling my t-shirt on like a boy (2 arms neck) not a girl (neck 2 arms),” reducing the gender binary to a simple linguistic inversion. Olson’s meta-poetic technique and reflections on language are necessarily investigations of these other social constructs as well.
One of the great delights of Boyishly, for me, is that, despite (or perhaps because of) the poems’ talky aesthetic, the book is prophetic. John Brown asks St. Gertrude Stein to “write an America / that practices belief by believing”; Muhammed Ali asserts that “These are shifting times and nobody / appreciate the man who say so” as he observes more and more animals revolting against humans. How wonderful that a poem can dart gracefully from surreal humor to moments of quiet profundity, as in the poem “Caught in a Trap: The Dead Redux”:
I protest I cannot comprehend a world
created by hydrogen bombs, volcanoes,
and Xenu. She insists Darlin’, I believe in you.
You must learn to suspend your disbelief
and trust me until all the facts are in.
I say Baby, I am sleeping with a straight girl
who was once married to Michael Jackson.
There is little left but trust in this world.
And it’s Tanya Olson’s attention to language that makes me trust this book. These are careful poems which, at their best, are firmly rooted in the prophetic tradition of social critique. Boyishly is an impressive and promising debut.
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