Tanya Olson’s ‘Boyishly’

by Joellen Craft

by Tanya Olson
YesYes Books, $16, 96 pp.

If you buy Tanya Olson’s first book, Boyishly (YesYes Books, 2013), you’ll find yourself facing one dark eye, which stares from behind a spray of white feathers on the cover. Open the book to meet the gaze’s full-spread intensity, then turn that face away from you to read the epigraph, from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which strikes a less dramatic tone:

He was young; he was boyish;
he did but as nature bade him do.

Next, note the book’s format: the titles’ plain bold blocks are squished beside each poem’s airy lines. Names, here, are cramped alleys, separate, defensive, not really part of the poem’s life, a disjoint that echoes the distance between the dramatic cover and the lighter epigraph.

The book’s prologue poem, “Exclude All Other Thoughts,” redefines again the distance between expectations and urges, names and natures. Beginning with a reverent tone, the poem directs you to

Stay at the body’s side, both hands
upon the corpse, until nightfall

Pull its body to your body. Hold it
tightly to you. Think only of your words.

The corpse will thrash and buck
trying to free itself; think only
of your words

until the critical moment arrives…
…When you feel the tongue
fully between your teeth, bite down firmly,
cleaving through muscle.

A horrifying invocation and instruction, conflating desire, violence, and speech. But the quiet tone, which continues throughout the poem, says, No biggie. Tell them nature made you do it. The poem made you do it.

Such is the pleasure—visceral, surprising, directive—of Boyishly.

The first poems, enjoyable if rather conventional, take cultural figures as subjects and speakers, a familiar appropriation-as-mirror template exploring the difficulty of being in a body while also being aware of that body. The stakes go up in “What Else,” whose speaker wants to

be a boy. A boy. At his mother’s hip.
A boy between. His father
and the plow. A boy to remain.
What else.

When a boy. I ran fevers.
In these fevers. I ran circles.
Pursued. Front stairs up.
Back stairs down. No bright
lines. …

…What else to want.
But to be a boy and a boy and a boy.

The speaker in “What Else” seems autobiographical, more so for the emotion behind the dynamic lines and sentences. However, Boyishly’s range of characters and speakers argues against an autobiographical reading—the full cast includes Jonah from the Bible, the People’s Republic of China, a sailor bringing Siamese twins Chang and Eng from Siam to Halifax, NC, a bona fide giant, and Lady Wonder, the Mind-Reading Horse, among others.

But as the book progresses the poems do feel more personal; they have everyday settings and don’t reference icons or idols, like “Take, Save, Go”:

   My mother likes to go for groceries alone
but my dad is restoring an auto
   and would like to be left on his own

                            … when a woman
   weaved through the trees in the park
cut catty-corner full speed ahead,
   destroyed the jeep, and jumped the curb
into our house. The front of the car came to rest
   on my sister’s crib and the woman’s purse
ended up on my bed. She had been dead…

Though you’re in the world of the everyday, danger is still everywhere: the woman wrecks the house literally, while the imagery and line breaks imply a more subtle, adult wreckage. The words and line breaks create this danger—speech, like a body, isn’t easy to control and conduct, as the rhyme slides out of end-rhyme and the car slides off the road.

By mixing personal and widely diverse persona poems together, and exploring the creation of self and world in both, Boyishly recognizes that only by owning—through violence, through devotion, through love—our many tongues and where they came from, can we begin to steer ourselves, singularly and as a plurality. For, as Jonah points out in “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series,”

From inside the whale, you cannot guide
The whale. A whale will do as a whale will do.
Our role, instead, is to
…Hear the pitch
In his tenuous rumble, taste the acid
of his gentle lurp. Consider the feel
of baleen brushing against skin
and the way his rough tongue reopens
your atrophied, unremembered eyes.

And, as the speaker in “A Poem for Old John Brown” says, after explaining a feud between Mexican and Chinese immigrants:

This poem’s the story of America, John Brown,
and I wrote it just for you. It’s a big poem
of the story of America and I worked on it all night
to finish it just for you. Your America is a big, long poem,
John Brown, and I wrote it down tonight
so I could tell it, just to you.

Unlike Ginsburg and Whitman with their famous America poems, Olson doesn’t want to speak for, or even of, America. Like Gertrude Stein, who is invoked by name and referenced stylistically throughout Boyishly, Olson wants America to speak, and to listen. In this book’s enthralling mix of self-conscious narration and truthfulness, poems “die with a giant wad of love/ jammed up in [their] heart[s]” (“My Love Is Green, America”), honoring love in death, honoring the disjoint inherent in boyishly letting our natures rule.

However, while the book invites analysis, Olson ensures your primary experience is one of sincere attention, of visceral shifts, of merging and emerging. So when John Brown, who raided Harper’s Ferry in the 1800’s, writes Gertrude Stein a letter, “Dear St. Gertrude,” dated twenty years before the poet’s birth, the poem remains John Brown’s, not Olson’s. Brown ends by asking,

Through this night and all others,
keep us in your sight.

I remain,

Yours St. Gertrude.
Sincerely, Devoutly, With Nary a Doubt,

John Honest to God Brown,
Writing From America, Underground.

At times bizarre in scope, often heart-breaking, never betraying the speakers’ sincerity, Boyishlyenacts identity as fluid, claimable, multiple, and inherently valuable. As the prologue poem, “Exclude All Other Thoughts,” declares,

Handled this way, our journey together this evening
should prove to be nothing but an honor. Handled this way, our journey together this evening
should prove to be nothing but an honor.  

JOELLEN CRAFT lives in Durham, North Carolina. She teaches at Vance-Granville Community College and Duke’s Creative Writer’s Workshop, and co-runs Durham’s Two Writers Walk into a Bar reading series. Her poems and reviews appear in storySouth, Fugue, The Nashville Review, Grist, 2River View, The Pedestal, and Juked, who awarded her poems their 2009 poetry prize.