Archive for the ‘Project: Olives of Oblivion’ Category


Sleeping on Fists by Alberto Rios


Sleeping on Fists
Alberto Ríos
Dooryard Press

It’s no secret that we here at The Olives of Oblivion are big fans of the chapbook, one of the fine traditions in poetry and bookmaking. Printed in an edition of 500, Sleeping on Fists has a letterpress cover, a beautiful frontispiece (shown below), and 16 poems printed on deckle-edged Rives Light paper. Tasty.

Sleeping on Fists appeared right before Ríos’s first full-length collection, Whispering to Fool the Wind, which was selected by Donald Justice for the Walt Whitman Award in 1981 and published by Sheep Meadow Press in 1982. Sleeping on Fists, however, is not Ríos’s first book; this honor goes to the very obscure Elk Heads on the Wall, which appeared in 1979 from UC-Berkeley’s Chicano Studies Program through their chapbook series. A slim 23 pages, Elk Heads on the Wall was the 4th title in this series (edited by Gary Soto), and had a run of 350 copies.

Born in 1952 in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, Ríos has earned a reputation as one of the finest poets now writing in the US. Border, perhaps more than any other word, best describes Ríos’s style and obsessions. The border between Mexico and the United States. The border between the mundane and the magical. The border between self and community. The border between the secular and the sacred. Ríos has spent much of his career exploring the implications of such borders, as well as exploring where these borders blend together. Indeed, the synthetic moment is where Ríos finds and creates his meaning-making as an artist.


Carlos is the name
by which loneliness
knows each of us.
Carlos the distant relative
worse off than we are
who drank the medicines
of poverty and died
not in his sleep
but wide awake
clutching the red chair
because alone
his most powerful act
was this.
Carlos who lives inside
pain in each of us
knowing the woman–
it was her brother that died
and that was all,
he was dead
and everyone was sorry
because her hands
were too heavy to lift.
Carlos at this moment
wanting desperately other women
looking out through my eyes
making my tongue his
speaking my words
hearing his meanings.
Carlos who is the name of a boat
and the fisherman and the anchor.
Carlos who is the cold
and the women and the night.
Carlos who wants only
to age with each of us,
to grow old, to be happy.



She didn’t raise her head for so many years
she forgot all about the sky.
Suspicions grew about the woman
who wore her purse close like an arm
in a third black sleeve.
But when she sat one afternoon
to wait for death in the plaza
she remembered the sky like her husband.
She waited. She didn’t look up.
Her intimacy now was the night
and it slipped into her
and wore her like a sleeve.

Several of these poems are reprinted in Whispering to Fool the Wind, which is a very common and inexpensive used title. For those of you in search of Sleeping on Fists, good luck. This title is quite scarce. Currently, there are no copies listed through the ABAA, nor are there any listed on abebooks or bookfinder. Don’t despair. Like any book on your list of dream books, it will be sitting on the shelf at your local bookseller’s one day for just a few bucks. For further reading, check out Ríos’s 2002 poetry title The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon Press).


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


Translations by American Poets


Translations by American Poets
Edited by Jean Garrigue
Ohio University Press

Without a doubt, one of the essential pleasures of the reading life is discovering writers in other languages. Do you remember the first time you read Neruda, Celan, Rimbaud, Amichai, Homer? Longinus spoke of the Sublime in terms of “transport,” and certainly there’s no better avenue to literary budget travel than by way of poetry in translation. What, after all, captures the complexities of a culture better than its poetic tradition?

Garrigue’s Translations by American Poets is an exciting and wonderfully diverse collection of, well, translations by American Poets. Perhaps Garrigue decided that a book with such a rich table of contents didn’t need to be dressed up with a fancy title. And make no doubt, the table of contents is rich. What’s most refreshing about this anthology is its assortment of odd bedfellows. Here are the Americans: Ben Belitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Roberty Bly, Louise Bogan, Philip Booth, John Malcolm Brinnin, Stanley Burnshaw, Hayden Carruth, Babette Deutsch, James Dickey, Robert Duncan, Richard Eberhart, Dudley Fitts, Isabella Gardner, Jean Garrigue, Barbara Gibbs Golffing, Francis Golffing, Arthur Gregor, Donald Hall, Anthony Hecht, Ruth Herschberger, Edwin Honig, Barbara Howes, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, Richmond Lattimore, Lynne Lawner, Denise Levertov, John Logan, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Stanley Moss, Kenneth Rexroth, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Louis Simpson, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, Stephen Stepanchev, May Swenson, Allen Tate, Theodore Weiss, and Richard Wilbur. These poets translate numerous poets, both popular and obscure, from several language, including Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

One aspect we at The Olives of Oblivion find particularly compelling about Translations by American Poets is that it’s organized by American poet, not translated poet, language, geography, or era. In Richard Wilbur’s section, for example, Andrei Voznesensky is followed by Anna Akhmatova, who in turn is followed by Francois Villon, Joachim Du Bellay, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. This makes for a constantly surprising and very readable anthology.

To make matters better, there are several inexpensive copies of Translations by American Poets on abebooks. We found about 30 copies listed from between 1 and 20 dollars. The copy shown here is particularly interesting because it’s signed by Garrigue not once, not twice, but three times. All the better for us.

Yvon Goll (translated by Galway Kinnell)


Where are these ships taking all our silence?
Where will they discharge the charcoal of our midnights?
The wild gold of our dreams?
Will they dump it into the trench of oceans
Into the human eye of storms?

I was the longshoreman who lugged the black evil
The oil of vice on his back
Bent under the tons of his destiny
Bowed down by the weight of his ridiculous flesh

I drank my sweat in long gulps
I chewed the crust of misery
I had to wash it all down with the fatal liquor
Schnapps made from death-root


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


Entering a Life by Ernest Trejo


Entering a Life
Ernesto Trejo
Arte Público Press

Originally from the Mexican province of Zacatecas, Trejo wrote and published books in both Spanish and English. Entering a Life, published a year before the poet died of cancer in 1991 (at the age of 40), is Trejo’s only full-length collection in English.

Trejo’s poetry deals directly with the world and its commonplace occurrences, and does so by grappling with the invisible, magic thread shared between people, objects, and places. As the title suggests, Trejo enters the stuff of life rather than dancing around it. Here’s the opening poem:


Against the elm
that spun its rumor
up and down the block
one afternoon
your bike leaned
like a drunk
among others
a pearl of sweat
on the handlebar

Your hero that summer?
The kid who climbed
the streetlights
and shattered them
one by one
with his baseball bat

Hair in the armpits
like weeds
in a vacant lot
Tyranny of tight shoes
your bones
stretching like a cat
at dawn

You bowed
to the crown of blood
your foot
by a rusty nail

you bowed to the stars
that came out
like shy students
and took their places

You bowed
to the warm shoulders
of desire
nudging you
like a brother
in the dark


“One Summer” creates a mystically gritty tone for the book, and Trejo continues this throughout the collection with poems that draw meaning from the tension that exists between the down-and-dirty and the ineffable. Here are two more poems, each of which show a different facet of Trejo’s range:


This morning, for no reason at all,
I thought of you.
There’s no mystery here.
You’ve been a tiny lump in my throat
all these years,
making house in the dark.

I imagine you in your other house,
posted behind the kitchen window,
waiting for your children
to step off the bus
and come to you, hungry.
A minute ago
you stumbled in and out of rooms,
looking for a way out.
But it was raining outside
and you too were hungry.



An arrowhead of birds heading South.
On a Greyhound bus, field workers
huddle at the rear and lip-synch
to their shiny radios.


At the bottom of a dry canal,
among tires, beer cans, a shopping cart,
a child’s lost ball, shoes, lamps,
what-nots, I saw the body of a woman,
impatient, like a Buick stuck in traffic.

Trejo has a suite of “E.” poems that could be the Mexican cousin to Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito” poems, that is to say, E. and Cogito are both ironical alter-egos that play the simultaneous roles of boogieman, hero, and anti-hero. Like Herbert, Trejo captures several moods and creates a ground for imaginative leaping, which can be felt just from reading a few of his E. titles: “E. at the Zocalo,” “E. Gives a Name,” “E. is in Love,” “E. Curses the Rich.”

It may be of little surprise that Trejo was a friend and student of Philip Levine in Fresno. Both Trejo and Levine reject the marble pillar and favor the street corner, and both create a felt landscape of magic imagery that comes straight from the gut. Trejo and Levine co-translated a selection of the late Mexican poet Jaime Sabines’s poetry under the title Tarumba. Published in 1979 by Twin Peaks Press (San Francisco), Tarumba became an obscure title the moment it was released. The publishers of Twin Peaks–whose entire catalog consists of two excellent books–left the US for Holland immediately after Tarumba’s release. “What became of those copies,” Levine has written, “no one seems to know.” For years this title has been virtually impossible to locate. Luckily, the folks at Sarabande Books reprinted Tarumba in 2007. This reprint edition contains several new translations as well as an afterward written by Levine called “Ernesto Trejo and the Making of Tarumba.” For further reading, we suggest three Fresno poetry anthologies: Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 20 Fresno Poets, edited by David Kherdian (Giligia Press, 1970); Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets, edited by Ernesto Trejo (Silver Skates Publishing, 1987); How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets, edited by Christopher Buckley, David Oliveira, and M.L. Williams (Roundhouse Press, 2001). There are numerous copies of Entering a Life to be found both through our Bookseller Hall of Fame and through the database at abebooks. This title is still in print from Arte Público, and can be ordered for a mere 7 dollars from your local independent bookseller.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


20 Poems by Tomas Transtromer


20 Poems
Tomas Tranströmer
Translated by Robert Bly
Seventies Press (1970)

Regarded by many as one of the great poets of the 20th century, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Tomas Tranströmer’s work was new to readers here in the US. In 1966 New Directions 19 (edited by James Laughlin) featured 15 Tranströmer translations by Eric Sellin, thus marking the Swedish poet’s first North American ink. Four years later, Robert Bly published the first Tranströmer book in the US, 20 Poems, in his groundbreaking Seventies Press.

Born in a working-class Stockholm neighborhood in 1931, Tranströmer has lived a unique life as a poet. He has never been affiliated with a university, an artistic school or movement, a literary magazine, a publishing house, or the Swedish Academy; instead he made a living as a prison psychologist in a juvenile corrections institute. He has also earned a reputation as a skilled literary translator, entomologist, and classical pianist. He suffered a stroke in 1990 that has hampered the mobility of his right side, yet he continues his life as a poet (and performs one-handed piano recitals throughout Europe).

Tranströmer’s is a style best described as engaged with the liminal. He probes the connections between the realms of the conscious and subconscious, the visible and the invisible. His poems often begin in the empirical world and leap forth into the mysteries of the unseen. 20 Poems is deftly translated, and represents the period of Tranströmer’s writing that established him as an important and influential poetic figure.


They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.



Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.


Like many of Bly’s Seventies Press books, Tranströmer’s 20 Poems is becoming an obscure and expensive title. The paperback (featured here) runs between 30 and 100 dollars, and the hardcover generally runs well over 100 dollars. Consult our Bookseller Hall of Fame to find this and other Tranströmer obscurities. For those with shallow pockets, we recommend the following, all of which are in print and easy to find: Selected Poems: 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass (Ecco, 1987); The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly (Graywolf Press, 2001); The Great Enigma, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006).


The Olives of Oblivion was an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


Instructions to The Double by Tess Gallagher


Instructions to the Double
Tess Gallagher
Graywolf Press

There’s a magic town in the poetry universe called Port Townsend. This Washington state blip on the map is the original home to two absolutely essential North American independent publishers–Copper Canyon Press and Graywolf Press (originally called The Graywolf Press). Copper Canyon was co-founded by visionaries Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson in 1972, and has established itself as the largest, and perhaps most influential, poetry publisher in the US. Graywolf was started by Scott Walker in 1974 as a letterpress chapbook publisher and has since morphed into a popular, well-respected home for a broad spectrum of poets and fiction writers including William Stafford, John Haines, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Charles Baxter, and Tomas Tranströmer. Scott Walker resigned from Graywolf in 1994, whereupon Fiona McCrae (of Faber and Faber) took the reigns. Both Copper Canyon and Graywolf have reputations for publishing beautifully-designed, thoughtfully-printed books from a wide variety of authors. Graywolf currently resides in another independent-publishing mecca, Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Graywolf is in close proximity to Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press. And New Rivers Press is just a few hours away in Moorhead. Not shabby.

Instructions to the Double was a groundbreaking publication. Not only was it Gallagher’s first full-length collection, it was Graywolf’s first title. This book is the perfect storm of book art and poetic achievement. The book image pictured above is a first paperback printing from the first edition. It’s often a gross misstep to romanticize the past as a better, or more simple, or more pure time for book publishing, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the implications of the Instructions to the Double colophon page:

This volume is published in an edition / of 1,500, 150 of which are bound into / quarter cloth and paper over boards. The Kennerley type / was set by hand, and the Curtis Tweedweave text / was hand-fed through a 1904 C&P platen press. / Frontispiece drawing is by Laura Battle, and / based on a photograph by Helen Morse. / November 1975-June 1976

What the colophon page tells us is that this book was chosen with care and enthusiasm, for to hand-set a 86-page book is nothing less than a labor of love. The commitment and time involved must have been massive, and as the colophon indicates, the process took 8 months to complete. The trend in current desktop publishing is to make ’em cheap and crank ’em out. Many contemporary poetry titles are selected through book contests, which means that the revenue raised for the book is done exclusively through submission fees, which in turn suggests that the title might not be one the publisher has any moral, ethical, or artistic commitment to. This is not to disparage desktop publishing–the advantage of desktop technology is that it offers publishers the platform to produce many more books at much lower prices with fewer working hours. In fact, desktop publishing can now be a simple one-woman operation. And The Olives of Oblivion supports the efforts of bookmakers everywhere. There is, however, one remarkable aspect of handmade books that surpasses all other forms of book-making: the knowledge that the book you hold in your hands was, at every turn in its process, assembled and cared for by another’s hands. In this sense, the book literally passes from one set of hands to another.

Pictured to the upper left is the cover of Instructions to the Double in its second edition (paperback). Pictured below is Laura Battle’s drawing that appears in the first edition’s frontispiece, which is based on the Helen Morse photograph.

The poems in Instructions to the Double continue to be regarded as some of Gallagher’s finest. Not only did the writing in this book establish Gallagher as a promising poet, it helped establish Graywolf as a serious and important new press. Throughout her career, Gallagher has surprised her readers with a broad range of styles and subject matter (check out Moon Crossing Bridge). From unabashed, autobiographical love poems to dark elegies, from linear narratives to dense and philosophical meditations, Gallagher’s poems leap from the beautiful to the violent and back again in the quick turn of a phrase. The working-class Pacific Northwest of Gallagher’s childhood also plays an essential role in shaping the poems found in Instructions to the Double. Indeed, landscape and industry are the backdrop to this unflinching, lyrical collection.

This title reminds us that the best poetry of our time will likely find itself in the hands of very small publishers willing to spend countless unpaid hours (and willing to risk financial ruin) making and supporting the books they believe in. The next time you see someone turning their nose up at an independently-made book from a no-name press, just imagine that person holding a copy of Instructions to the Double.


His lungs heaving all day in a sulphur mist,
then dusk, the lunch pail torn from him
before he reaches the house, his children
a cloud of swallows about him.
At the stove in the tumbled rooms, the wife,
her back the wall he fights most, and she
with no weapon but silence
and to keep him from the bed.

In their sleep the mill hums and turns
at the edge of water. Blue smoke
swells the night and they drift
from the graves they have made for each other,
float out from the open-mouthed sleep
of their children, past banks and businesses,
the used car lots, liquor store, the swings in the park.

The mill burns on, now a burst of cinders,
now whistles screaming down the bay, saws jagged
in half light. Then like a whip
the sun across the bed, windows high with mountains
and the sleepers fallen to pillows
as gulls fall, tilting
against their shadows on the log booms.
Again the trucks shudder the wood framed houses
passing the mill. My father
snorts, splashes in the bathroom,
throws open our doors to cowboy music
on the radio, hearts are cheating,
somebody is alone, there’s blood in Tulsa.
Out the back yard the night-shift men rattle
the gravel in the alley going home.
My father fits goggles to his head.

From his pocket he takes anything metal,
the pearl-handled jack knife, a ring of keys,
and for us, black money shoveled
from the sulphur pyramids heaped in the distance
like yellow gold. Coffee bottle tucked in his armpit
he swaggers past the chicken coop,
a pack of cards at his breast.
In a fan of light beyond him
the Kino Maru pulls out for Seattle,
some black star climbing
the deep globe of his eye.



So now it’s your turn,
little mother of silences, little
father of half-belief. Take up
this face, these daily rounds
with a cabbage under each arm
convincing the multitudes
that a well-made-anything
could save them. Take up
most of all, these hands
trained to an ornate piano
in a house on the other side
of the country.

I’m staying here
without music, without
applause. I’m not going
to wait up for you. Take
your time. Take mine
too. Get into some trouble
I’ll have to account for. Walk
into some bars alone
with a slit in your skirt. Let
the men follow you on the street
with their clumsy propositions, their
loud hatreds of this and that. Keep
walking. Keep your head
up. They are calling to you–slut, mother,
virgin, whore, daughter, adultress, lover,
mistress, bitch, wife, cunt, harlot,
betrothed, Jezebel, Messalina, Diana,
Bethsheba, Rebecca, Lucretia, Mary,
Magdelena, Ruth, you–Niobe,
woman of the tombs.

Don’t stop for anything, not
a caress or a promise. Go
to the temple of the poets, not
the one like a run-down country club,
but the one on fire
with so much it wants
to be done with. Say all the last words
and the first: hello, goodbye, yes,
I, no, please, always, never.

If anyone from the country club
asks if you write poems, say
your name is Lizzie Borden.
Show him your axe, the one
they gave you with a silver
blade, your name engraved there
like a whisper of their own.

If anyone calls you a witch,
burn for him; if anyone calls you
less or more than you are
let him burn for you.

It’s a dangerous mission. You
could die out there. You
could live forever.


There are several copies of Instructions to the Double on abebooks for less than 10 dollars. In fact, there are several first editions (the paperback, not the signed-limited hardcover) for under 20. Thanks to the good folks at Carnegie-Mellon University Press, Instructions to the Double is available as a new reprint in their Classic Contemporaries Series. There are two excellent selections of Gallagher’s work currently in print–Amplitude (Graywolf) and My Black Horse (Bloodaxe). For those with a pocketbook the size of Texas, consult The Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame for Gallagher’s first publication, Stepping Outside (Penumbra Press, 1974). Stepping Outside is very scarce, and ranges in price from 800 to several thousand dollars. If you look long enough, any book you’re after tends to find its way to a yard sale or to the cramped shelves of your local Goodwill Inc. The next time you’re at your favorite local bookseller, ask the resident bibliophile about the rarest book he or she ever found at the Goodwill. You’ll be amazed.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


Apricots by Carl Adamshick


Carl Adamshick
(no pub., no pub. date)

One of the great traditions in publishing is the chapbook. The term chapbook comes from the 16th century and, according to the New Shorter OED, is defined as a small pamphlet of tales, ballads, tracts, etc., hawked by chapmen. So the tradition continues. The poetry aisle at any book store worth a damn will undoubtedly have shelves stuffed with all sorts of chapbooks–from stapled, photocopied manifestos made at the local copy shop to thousand-dollar, letter-pressed, hand-sewn, limited-edition artworks crafted by the world’s finest artists.

Either way, the result is the same: something small and finite opens to the realm of the infinite. In his Santa Cruz basement, George Hitchcock literally published every poetic genius of his time in his seminal kayak magazine. These ragged, hand-made volumes were filled with strange clip-art and colorful block prints, and showcased emerging poets such as Frank Stanford, Charles Simic, Philip Levine, John Haines, Sharon Olds, and just about anyone else who struck out on their own to do something different. Following the example of Hitchcock, Robert Bly and James Wright started The Fifties, an out-of-pocket dissident magazine of poetry and opinion that ground against the literary and social status quo. Though kayak and The Fifties weren’t exactly chapbooks, they continued the same tradition in alternative publishing as set forth by the street vendors of the late 1500s.

This book measures no larger than 2×3 inches, is held together by two staples, and contains 6 lyric poems, each of which explores a different metaphysical quality of an apricot. Carl Adamshick’s Apricots is a study in the poetic series. Smaller and lighter than a passport, this tiny volume undoubtedly takes a reverential bow to Vasko Popa’s “The Little Box,” which also uses a controlling image (the little box) as a launch-pad into the unknown.

Here is the opening to the final poem in Apricots:


I love incorrectly.

There is a solemnity in hands,
the way a palm will curve in
accordance to a contour of skin,
the way it will release a story.

This should be the pilgrimage.
The touching of a source.
This is what sanctifies.

This pleading. This mercy.
I want to be a pilgrim to everyone,
close to the inaccuracies, the astringent
dislikes, the wayward peace, the private
words. I want to be close to the telling.
I want to feel everyone whisper…

There’s a truism in book hunting that goes something like any book you want is for sale somewhere. At the moment, Apricots appears to be totally off the grid. Fear not–this sequence of apricot poems is reprinted in its entirety in Volume XXV Number 2 of The Mid-American Review under the title “The Ingrown Room.” To see more of Adamshick’s handiwork, head over to, the thoughtful and popular food blog where he writes the column “A Word from the Kitchen.”

The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that flourished circa 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


What the Trees Go Into by Marcia Southwick


What the Trees Go Into by Marcia Southwick
Burning Deck (1977)

Few things compare to a letterpress chapbook, especially those from Burning Deck. Here, in Marcia Southwick’s debut publication, the reader is first confronted by the simplicity and beauty of the letterpress cover design (the trademark of Burning Deck), then with the surprising heft of such a slim volume, and finally with the outstanding quality of the writing itself. The perfect balance of the book as a physical artwork and the book as a work of literature.

There are several joys of finding such a book at your local bookseller, but a few in particular are reading the colophon page and examining the review slip (which came with this particular copy). Here’s the colophon note:

This book was designed and printed on Warren Antique by Leigh Dingerson. There are 350 copies numbered 1-350, and 26 copies signed by the author and lettered A-Z. This is copy 235.

And it goes without saying that the 235 was neatly hand-written in the empty space left by the typesetter, which in this case was with blue ink. The review slip of this book is particularly interesting. Here is an excerpt:

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Marcia Southwick is now a fellow in the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri. She edits, along with Larry Levis, a new literary magazine, The Missouri Review, whose first issue will appear this year…

It’s difficult to imagine the contemporary literary landscape without The Missouri Review, and it’s strange to think back to a time when Larry Levis was an emerging writer who spent some of his time starting up a literary magazine.

Book-as-artifact aside, this is truly an astonishing poem, which the review slip summarizes as a long poem which takes some of its material from The Golden Bough and Radin’s African Folk Tales. The poem centers on a female character’s courtship, marriage, and eventual death. Here’s the first section of the poem:


The last snow
is lifting itself off the awnings
and I am thinking

if anything is bleeding
I do not want to see it.

In some ways
I am like the woman
who sends out her soul
in the form of a wasp

and in some ways
you are like the man
who catches the wasp.

When he closes his hand,
she sleeps.
When he opens his hand,
she wakes.

Now I can hear the rain
being quietly released
like grains from a sack

and I can hear you talking:
the tribes
who molded their skulls for beauty
used instruments
no more ingenious
than the common mousetrap

and remember,
in some villages
when the hunters leave
they make their women sleep
facing the direction
of their departure

and Goodnight; then you leave,
tying a live bird
to my bedpost.

Promise me something.
Tomorrow, when you come back
to release the bird,
please make it carry
my fever along with it.


There a few copies of What the Trees Go Into on abebooks for around 25 dollars. And The Olives of Oblivion suggest that you get while the gettin’s good. Burning Deck books are becoming more and more collectible, and in book collecting, the ones who wait are those who pay the most. If you’re the dog-earing, a-book’s-just-a-book type, then fear not. This poem was reprinted in Southwick’s first full-length collection, The Night Won’t Save Anyone (University of Georgia Press, 1980), and can generally be found in paperback at abebooks for less than 10 dollars.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


What the Grass Says by Charles Simic


What the Grass Says
by Charles Simic
kayak (1967)

What the Grass Says, Charles Simic’s first book, is an unpaginated smörgåsbord of different-colored paper (white, green, and pink), eye-blurring block prints by Joan Abelson, and what certainly amounts to some of the best poems published in 1967. This combination of disparate elements is the trademark of kayak guru George Hitchcock (aka Jorge Hitchcock)–poet, painter, political dissident, publisher, editor. If you don’t know kayak magazine, then head to your local library or antiquarian bookseller to look at some old copies of what is undoubtedly the best postwar literary magazine to come out of the United States.

Here are just a few samples of Hitchcock’s handiwork from What the Grass Says:

Hitchcock’s style as a painter, poet, and publisher is equal parts irreverence, folk art, surrealistic escapade, and earnest meaning-making, all of which are twinged with a deep sense of political skepticism. Hitchcock published some truly visionary books during his tenure as judge, jury, and executioner at kayak. Clicking on the above images will give you a sense of Simic’s incredible first book, as well as an insight into the kinds of poetry Hitchcock sought out for both his magazine and book series.

One of Simic’s most famous poems, “Stone,” appears in What The Grass Says:


Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill–
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.


All of this from a poet for whom English is a second language. No surprise to the The Olives of Oblivion that Simic was recently bestowed the honor of Poet Laureate of the United States (formerly called the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Unless you’re willing to shell out 60 to 200+ dollars, you’ll be hard-pressed to find What the Grass Says. Many of these poems, however, were reprinted in Simic’s full-length collection Dismantling the Silence (Braziller, 1971) as well as his subsequent Selected Poems: 1963-1983 (Braziller, 1985), which was revised and expanded in 1990. Dismantling the Silence is floating around on abebooks for between 10 to 30 dollars, and Selected Poems is available in numerous inexspensive editions at abebooks.

If you really get a wild hair, seek out Charles Seluzicki (Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame) at Trace Editions. He has worked with Simic for several years and has printed exquisite fine-press limited editions of Simic’s finest writing. In addition to editing Trace Editions and working as a full-time antiquarian bookseller, Seluzicki has also gone through great pains to compile a bibliography of Simic’s early career as a poet, translator, and editor.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


The Singing Knives by Frank Stanford


The Singing Knives
by Frank Stanford
Lost Roads (2008)

Since The Olives of Oblivion started collecting volumes of poetry, we’ve searched high and low for Frank Stanford’s scarce chapbooks. Stanford’s individual volumes, largely, have been out of print for decades. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, Stanford’s epic masterpiece, has floated in and out of print since its publication in 1977. If you’ve never gazed upon this 15,283-line leviathan, then rush to your local bookseller and order a copy immediately. The Battlefield is currently in print for 20 dollars thanks to Lost Roads Publishers.

(Below: cover images for The Battlefield in its first and second editions, respectively.)

We all have dreams we awaken from, dreams in which miracles have occurred. Yet upon waking we cross over into our empirical existences and find ourselves mourning for those miracles as they wave to us from the other shore. This is the feeling The Olives of Oblivion had a few months ago while picking through the new arrivals at our favorite local bookseller. We thought we saw a book with Frank Stanford on the spine, but knew it simply couldn’t have been true. But there it was on the shelf, refusing to vanish, the long-awaited-for reprint of Stanford’s seminal first collection, The Singing Knives (originally published by Mill Mountain Press in 1971). There has been much speculation and rumor about Stanford’s literary estate and the future of Lost Roads, and the occasional buzz about individual volumes coming back into print, but we had no idea the gears were actually in motion. Luckily, for all of us, the dream of finding Stanford’s books is becoming a reality again. The miracle we carry into our waking hours. Not only has Lost Roads reprinted The Singing Knives, they have also reprinted Stanford’s ninth collection, You. If anyone has the ear of the current editor at Lost Roads, please let her know that we here at The Olives of Oblivion are clamoring for more! In his 29-year life (1948-1978), Stanford’s poetic output was colossal. There are 6 additional out-of-print Stanford books out there, and this major author needs to be read by more than just devotees and bibliophiles.

The Singing Knives, like so much fine writing out of the South, is a lyrical witness to place and people. Staford’s writing is dark, comic, violent, and beautiful; it leaps from a world so vividly and persuasively imagined that you feel as if Stanford is reporting with utmost honesty and urgency about life in the underworld. In this collection we meet Baby Gauge, Born In The Camp With Six Toes, Ray Baby, Jimmy, Charlie B. Lemon, Mose Jackson, BoBo Washington, the Gypsy, and the midget, among others. During the poem’s opening gambit, Stanford takes us from our world into his, and neither author nor reader ever looks back. Here are the opening stanzas from the lead-off poem:


There was Born In The Camp With Six Toes
He popped the cottonmouth’s head off

There was Baby Gauge
He tied the line to his wrist
He tied it to the alligator gar
He rode the fish

There was Ray Baby
He stole the white man’s gold tooth
He knocked it out with a two-by-four
He rode the moon-blind horse…


And here is an ecstatic outpouring from “The Singing Knives”

…I dreamed I stepped over a log
And there was fire in my foot
I dreamed I saw a turkey and two wildcats
Jumped on me at the same time
I dreamed Jimmy was pouring ice water
Over my head at noon
I dreamed I heard somebody
Singing in the outhouse
I dreamed the mad dog bit the Gypsy
And they tied him to a tree
I dreamed I was buried in the Indian mound
And moon Lake rose up
I dreamed my father was wading the river of death
With his heart in his hand
I dreamed Jimmy rowed out the front door
With a hawk on his shoulder
And I was in the bow kneeling down
I dreamed the blacksnake rode the guitar
Down the river
I dreamed the clouds went by
The moon like dead fish…


Clearly, this is the kind of writing that speaks for itself. What more do we want than to enter a realm so believable and fiercely imagined that it changes the one we live in? If you are looking for a good sampling of Stanford’s poetry, then check out The Light the Dead See (University of Arkansas Press, 1991), which is edited by the poet Leon Stokesbury. The Light the Dead See is a good selection, and it shows just the very tip of a very important iceberg. If you’ve got your rich uncle’s credit card, then hop onto one of the links at The Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame. Stanford’s out-of-print volumes, even those in second printings, tend to sell from 100 to 1,000 dollars.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.


Alive or Dead by Heinz Piontek


Alive or Dead
by Heinz Piontek
Translated by Richard Exner
Unicorn Press (1975)

The Olives of Oblivion have a few golden rules when it comes to slumming around used book bins, one of which is to buy every book published by Unicorn Press. Like any risk-taking publisher, Unicorn published the occasional dud; but for the most part, Unicorn published consistantly interesting titles, including Philip Levine’s 5 Detroits, an untitled selection of Gunter Eich, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Outer Banks, Gunnar Ekelöf’s Molna Elegy: Metamorphoses, Daniel Berrigan’s Prison Poems, and John Haines’s Twenty Poems, just to name a few.

The books in Unicorn’s German Series have a classy cover motif–two-color vertical stripes and an understated box displaying both the author and press name. Stacked next to each other on the shelf, these books take on a life of their own–crisp design, interesting poets, uniform size, slim page count. And the pages in the books are smyth sewn (not just glued to the spine), a feature far too uncommon in the flimsy editions made by today’s desktop publishers.

The most interesting aspect of Alive or Dead is that it represented, for the first time, Heinz Piontek’s German poetry to an American audience. Here are two of Exner’s strongest translations:



Someone intimates that he
is against the times.

Someone carries a banner
protesting banners.

Others have equilateral
triangles in their heads.

Enlightenment grows apace.
It is getting dark.

New books beget new

The future, I hear,
is a redhead.

We’ll discuss the future


Someone knows what’s up.
He’s a student.

Old people never tell anything
but old tales.

A seminarian and a usurer
in St. Petersburg:

The classics: splendid stuff
for crossword puzzles.

Nothing is quite so annoying
as what is good.

You cannot always
just chase flies.

To carry a hatchet under your coat
will soon come in style.

Everyone talks of affluence.

I hear there are
superfluous people again.


Everyday the nightsticks rob
someone’s innocence.

Every day we understand each other less.

Dailies are still delivered
every day.

Peace is a comedy.

To emigrate
no longer serves any purpose.

Simple statements don’t get any




Bad weather hanging like hay
from the trees.

And the passwords: that yes is not yes,
that I’m readied for the noose–

More precisely: what I neglected,
what went up in smoke–

our garrotte–

No more messages
from across the mountains.


An apple, with a green peel.
And a glass of Tyrolean wine.

It stops raining.
Yesterday I was desperate.

Now the air is beginning to clear.
My courage grows.

And in advance
I destroy words,

with which I could sail
across the mountains.


Piontek’s writing is one of irony and political wariness. The poet seems all too aware that social power and language have the potential to fail us. Yet the voice here isn’t one of helplessness; it is one of indictment and resistance, and, ultimately, of meaning-making and emotional risk. Though it had a short print run, Alive or Dead is available for around 5 to 15 dollars on abebooks.


The Olives of Oblivion was  an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.