August 2014

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff edited by Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen

Tom Clark's biography Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life first brought to light the relationship and accompanying correspondence between the poet and an unnamed woman that directly influenced Olson's essay "Projective Verse" along with early beginnings of The Maximus Poems, her words and ideas providing initial sparks for his writing. Similar to his letters exchanged with the poet Robert Creeley, Olsonís correspondence with the woman played an essential role in his development as a poet. She was decidedly crucial to Olson as his muse and lover during a time of fervent upheaval in the direction of his creative life. Clark, however, declined to identify her, so she remained a rather mysterious character lurking in the background. 

Shortly after publication of Clark's biography, Ralph Maud founded the Charles Olson Literary Society and began regularly issuing the Society's Minutes. It is composed of various documents and assorted minutiae left out of the already substantial slump of published material concerning all things Olson. Along with a barrage of nitpicking complaints regarding factual and textual errors found in the biography, Maud usefully followed up on Clark's initial forays into Olson's relationship with the unnamed woman, and in short time, unabashedly revealing her to be the independent Blake/Joyce scholar Frances Boldereff. 

Among the torrent of Olson material either edited or written by Maud (no less than half a dozen titles in a dozen year span), came Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, edited by Maud and Sharon Thesen. Yet that volume only captured the early, most pivotal years when letters were passing between Olson and Boldereff at the highest pitch. After Completion: the Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff, again edited with Thesen, finishes off the project by providing an account of the latter half of the relationship's arc. 

When compared with the earlier volume, there's significantly less Olson "The Poet" on display in these later letters. The correspondence ceased to provide the same intense levels of inspiration for his work as it had early on. It is no longer incessant testing ground for birthing new writing. Instead, Boldereff's own ideas and work shine the brighter (one significant highlight of which is Boldereff's translation with accompanying commentary and interpretation of Arthur Rimbaud's early poem "Credo in Unam," which she sends Olson in a letter on August 2, 1954). Unfortunately, more often than not -- and far more often than most readers will find to make for compelling reading -- the correspondence defaults into a display of fairly stereotypical gender roles of the period. 

While Olson and Boldereff take turns toying with the possibility of sharing a life and household together, they never ultimately come to agreement upon making such a commitment. For months Olson withholds informing Boldereff of both the termination of his marriage to his first wife, Connie, and his simultaneous seguing into his second with Betty Kaiser, a student at Black Mountain College, who was, at the time, already pregnant as a result of their affair. Boldereff increasingly distances herself from looking, as she had earlier, toward Olson as a masculine power source of creativity that she, as a woman, might support and encourage. Publishing her books -- which she undertook at her own expense -- increasing financial worries and her return to school for a library degree, combined with the raising of her daughter, are ever greater priorities.  

The letters often become markedly temperamental as each correspondent fails to match the expectations of the other. Real zingers abound. For instance, in a January 27, 1955 letter Boldereff has at Olson: 

It is not what you think -- I am so busy I did not even remember you had failed to answer all of my letters -- I am very disturbed about you -- I am at the moment very unhappy about your magazine, your writing, your relation to life, in fact everything. I disapprove, lock stock and barrel.

In closing she quips: "do not be a Jesuit to your own soul, Charles --"

While Olson, after receiving word on Sept 9, 1964 from Boldereff that she's found "someone more truly Maximus," energetically responds on Sept 12, 1964: 

That's the worst news possible -- and I don't have any idea what it is going to be like to live without the thought of you as mine. But one thing I'm sure of: I am Maximus, and your husband, whoever he is and however fine I am, God help me sure he must be, simply because he says he is, and proves it to you, is not. He is somebody else and don't please ever continue to mix such things. I am absolutely angry there, that you have no business ever ever ever using -- any more than God help me I pray I ever have -- you, mixed over with somebody else.

Olson's mixture of damning and praising Boldereff, but definitely damning (as Maud overenthusiastically comments: "Now we get a chance to hear Olson roar!"), continues on for several pages and then, as is Olson's want when charged up, breaks into verse pledging himself to her: 

... I love you, and hope altogether for every thing you do, and for
all the future. Your lover (forever
                        the only man,
                        who knows enough,
                        to tell you
-- off! Your own Charles Olson...

Lovers to the end, Olson and Boldereff remained faithfully bonded by the central role that imagination and art played in each of their lives. Their mutual admiration for each other's intellect was left untarnished by any personal failure.  

In this volume of letters, it is Boldereff who appears the stronger of the two on all accounts. She never wavers in her interest in Olson as both a man and an artist. The same cannot be said of Olson. He repeatedly falters. His letters are full of belated apologies, while hers brim with hoped-for engagement from Olson in exchanging of ideas and critical thought. Thereís no doubting her as a hearty equal to Olson's Maximus. If there's any benefit to come from having this correspondence made available, it should surely bring about greater attention to the sharp interrelating of Joyce and Blake accomplished by Boldereff in her books. Her work receives too little the acknowledgement it richly deserves.

After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff edited by Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen
Talonbooks
ISBN: 978-0889227064
304 pages