Meeting Death on Cole’s Island

Charles Olson, Image Source: Poetry Foundation

Charles Olson is often regarded as the founder of the Black Mountain School of poetry which widely applies what John Osbourne calls a “peculiarly energized version of free verse” (170), known as “projective verse.” In Olson’s manifesto “Projective Verse,” he speaks at length on the idea of projective verse and open form poetry. As Cary Nelson notes in the introduction to Olson’s poems, “Olson often sought to record the mental process of composition in his poetry” (9). This sentiment can be seen in Olson’s “Cole’s Island,” in which the speaker meets Death while out on a walk with his son. The poem acts as a narrative in which the speaker attempts to relate this meeting. The character of Death is the central figure on which the poem hinges and represents the death of a moment and, perhaps, the fleeting nature of composition.

The poem begins by setting up the scene in which the speaker meets Death:

            I met Death – he was a sportsman – on Cole’s

            Island. He was a property owner. Or maybe

            Cole’s Island, was his. I don’t know. The

            point was I was there, walking, and – as it

            often is, in the woods – a stranger, suddenly

            showing up, makes the very thing you were do-

            in no longer the same. That is suddenly

            what you thought, when you were alone, and

            doing what you were doing, changes because someone else

            shows up. […] (1-10)

This image of this stranger in the woods stumbling upon the speaker, who is out on Cole’s Island with his son, and interrupting a moment of perceived solitude establishes the main crux of the narrative and sets the tone for the rest of the poem. This idea is further established through Olson’s use of syntax, as the speaker often interrupts himself with the asides visually breaking up the flow of thought.

The speaker goes on to further describe the scene that had been interrupted: “I had noticed/ a cock and hen pheasant cross easily the/ road I was on and had tried, in fact,/ to catch my son’s attention quick enough for him/ to see” (23-27). Olson’s use of the pheasant image is interesting when we read it alongside some of the other lines from the poem that speak to the theme of eyes, sight, watching, and observation.

Throughout the poem, Olson’s word choice is often pointing back to this theme of watching or sight, specifically in the relationship between the speaker and Death. At the very end of the poem, the speaker says:

                        It was his eye, perhaps, which makes me

render him as Death? It isn’t true, there wasn’t anything

that different about his eye,

            it was not one thing more than that he was Death instantly

that he came into sight. Or that I was aware there was a person

here as well as myself. And son. (57-62)

The speaker’s initial thought that perhaps it was the stranger’s eye that made him think it is Death is perhaps an allusion to the Angel of Death, who is sometimes described as being covered with eyes, so that nothing escapes him, both in some Jewish and Islamic traditions. This association between Death and watching is expanded with Olson’s word choice often tying the two together throughout the poem concluding with: “We did exchange some glance. That is the fullest possible/ account I can give, of the encounter” (63-64). And looking back to the image of the pheasant, the object that holds the speaker’s attention before he is interrupted by Death, may also draw on the image of eyes and sight. Here, the pheasant is possibly alluding to Argus, the giant with a hundred eyes in Greek mythology, for which the Argus pheasant is named as it’s plumage resembles eyes. This is plausible given that Olson, as Cary Nelson points out, often draws on “classical allusions and references” (9).

Argus Pheasant, Image Source: Animals.net

One possible explanation for the linking of Death with the notion of watching or observation might lie in Olson’s own writing on projective verse. Cary Nelson claims that “Olson often sought to record the mental process of composition in his poetry” (9). Olson himself, in his writings on projective verse, said that “The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem” (1057). Perhaps Death, in “Cole’s Island,” is meant to represent the irruption to – or death of – the creative process, as he interrupts the speaker observing the pheasant with his son. Or, alternately, the speaker’s lengthy narration of this momentary shared glance between himself and the character of Death may itself be allegorical to the creative process of composition. Here Death is the object of recognition, as the speaker so readily recognizes him as Death in the poem.

Questions:

Who or what is Death meant to represent in “Cole’s Island?”

Is this a poem about composition?

 

 

Works Cited:

Olson, Charles, “Cole’s Island.” Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Edited by Cary Nelson, Vol. 2, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.

Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”

Osbourne, John. “Black Mountain and Projective Verse.”

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