Gloucester is a Mecca for a certain kind of tourist. The Charles Olson tourist. I went there just to get a sense of the scale of the town and to see some of the things he described in his Maximus Poems. You drive up a road called 128 and as you pull into Gloucester one of the first things you see is Fort Stage Park. The day I came in was blustery and breakers rolled in off the sea and smashed against the rocky beach. The tourist center was closed. I drove to the other end of Fort Stage Park and overlooking it was a very big brick mansion. It was too big to describe. Just “plain” big, but rather ornate and ridiculously sublime.   Most of the people of Guatemala could have fit inside.

I then drove up the road and got to a castle that was said to be the home of America’s second most prolific inventor. No Edison, I guess.

That was closed, too.

I drove into town and got a fill-up at a Citgo close to Main St.   I asked the boy if he had ever heard of Charles Olson.

“I lived here my whole life. Never heard of him.”

He was probably 15 to 18 years old.

He then did give me directions to the bookstores, and to the church that had the lady holding a ship.

I couldn’t follow the directions but I went over to a Wal-Greens and parked in front and began my trip walking east up Main St. Stopping in a record shop I asked if she knew of any bookstores. She said there is Dogtown Books. I went across the street and went in. Bob Ritchie, the proprietor, told me he gets about a dozen Charles Olson tourists every year. He sold me a hand full of postcards and a map of Dogtown and then called the poet Gerrit Lansing to see if he could come out and give me a guided tour. Lansing was not at home.

Ritchie drew Olson’s house and the several churches on a map and off I went. I stopped in at the Sawyer Free Library at Dale and Middle streets. I was again lost so asked the librarian to point out the Unitarian church. She said just go down Middle and you will see it. Many churches on the street! A synagogue, an Episcopalian, and some others. Then this huge monstrosity of the Unitarian church. Weirdly big. Indescribable. Clapboard, but bigger than any other wooden house I’ve ever seen. Behind it is the first Unitarian graveyard (1806). Dilapidated gravestones with barely discernible names and dates beneath the light green moss. On a sign in front of the Unitarian Church was a circle of symbols — Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, etc. indicating that they were all valid and equal. If so, then none are, I reflected, and went on to Prospect Street where I was told to turn right until I saw the Catholic church. Eight minutes later I came upon the Portuguese Catholic church. This looked much smaller than the pictures of it would have led me to believe. Our Lady was still holding the fishing vessel. Over 5000 Gloucester fisherman have drowned since the inception of the town.

Then I drove to the Waterfront and looked at Charles Olson’s house. Primo spot right on the water in a neighborhood full of fish manufacturing and warehouses. Gloucester is America’s first fishing port and is still in business. Out in the harbor I could see Ten Pound Island. A tiny plaque on the house said, “Charles Olson, Poet. 1910-1970.”

I picked up the newspaper The Gloucester Times. The headlines were about a letter from 1766 that had been stolen and that had been discovered for sale at E-bay. The editorial was about Gay Marriage. The unsigned editorial argued that activist judges should not be able to legalize gay marriage without putting it to a common vote. The common vote, it suggested, would go against gay marriage. At present there are about 6,000 gay marriages in Massachusetts. Outside of Massachusetts one gets the impression that it is a solidly blue state. However, apparently some red exists, too.

There was another article about many gypsy types living in Dogtown and there was even an illegal cabin that had been build in this heavily wooded area. Drugs and other problems. The article was about a possible curfew that had been put forward at the town council.

Charles Olson’s Gloucester is one of the first psychogeographical epic poems. Towering above his vision of Gloucester are the Unitarian church and the church of Our Lady holding a fishing boat. Walking through Gloucester one has the impression of walking through an allegory.

In Houston one has the feeling of driving through the Yellow Pages. Enormous billboards line every major street and scream their services at you. In Gloucester one has the impression of walking through a poem.

You still see fishermen loading and unloading material as they go to and fro. Many excellent paintings of the harbor by what looks like 19th century painters line the walls of the library. Giant rocks line the harbor. They are stupendous. Perhaps 100 feet across. One rock.

Initially I thought that my namesake and I would have much in common. I, Minimus, however, am swamped by Maximus. I also do not believe that the concept of time should completely be overcome by the concept of space. Theologian Paul Tillich writes, “”Time without direction is time under the full control of space” (Theology of Culture 31). Straight lines tend to curve when they reach into the infinite.

According to Johannes Kepler a line infinitely extended on both sides eventually becomes a circle and meets at a single point.

Similarly, a plane at the point of infinity bends and comes back and becomes a roll of flame.

Where I think that paganism went wrong is in the lack of a concept of infinity. This is perhaps where Charles Olson’s mind began to bend back into paganism.

I read Art & Geometry: A study in Space Intuitions and gleaned the notions above from the book (it’s a Dover classic and is only 6.95). William M. Ivins, who wrote the book, got me to thinking about how our whole concept of Athens is disorienting. Olson’s attempt to get us to think about Tyre and Gloucester is similarly skewed.   When I read the myths of Greece with their squabbling soap operas, their petty politics, frivolous sexual practices, ridiculous epic poems without any sense of anything other than might is right I wonder if it’s the anti-Semitism that has prevented us from realizing that the best aspects of our culture in reality comes from Jerusalem.

When people speak of classical culture — I think about what the Jewish culture does — Genesis, Leviticus, the stories of Moses. They are an adult culture who walked on flames and understood infinity.

And this is where Charles Olson goes wrong. The haptic sense of the primitive Greeks has nothing on the infinity of the ancient Hebrews.

The Greeks sacrificed cattle. The Jews sacrificed themselves. Working out the feeling of the sacrifices of these two groups would take a book, but suffice it to say that it’s different. The Greeks were opportunists who sacrificed in order to get something. The Jews operated on another plan altogether.

Our Christian culture to the extent that it remains has almost nothing in common with the ancient Greeks. It’s the Jews. Why do our buildings in the Capitol resemble Greek buildings? Why do we think we look back to that lot and to the primitive conceptions of those people?

The Jews understood infinity (I know what I mean by this but I got the idea from Ivins and I can’t really articulate it quite yet on my own). The Greeks did not understand infinity (I have only the vaguest sense of this but again the idea is Ivin’s and he makes a very good case for it). Yes, the Greeks did give us Euclid, but it is Kepler and co. who give us this notion of infinity and how an infinitely large circle will become a straight line, and a straight line will ultimately become a circle. Ivins comments,

“So far as seems to be known, it was the first geometrical, as distinct from philosophical, formulation of the doctrine of continuity. It was an idea the like of which cannot be found in Greek mathematics” (85).

Our best poets such as William Blake could not have been born in a non-Christian culture, could they? Eternity in an hour? I don’t think the Greeks thought along these lines. Ivins comments,

“Unlike the ad hoc god of the Greek philosophers, He was not merely a hypothetical answer to metaphysical difficulties, He was real and thus a cause of such difficulties. After the death of Julian, when this thinking creative God, Himself subject to the laws of thought, became the undisputed official God of the Empire, the ancient world was doomed. If we would understand the passing of the Greeks we must remember, among other things, the implications of the fact that they had many gods and no theology” (57).

As Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, what animated him as he crossed the non-Euclidean surface of the Atlantic and plunged into the heart of the Caribbean? As I looked out over the Gloucester harbor, I thought of these things, and of myself, an extremely minor thinker tucked away by a small river in upstate New York, I, Minimus of Delhi.

 

Kirby Olson

Kirby Olson

Kirby Olson studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (among others) at Naropa University. His poems have appeared in First Things, Poetry East, Partisan Review, Chronicles, Cortland Review, and many other journals. Olson has also authored several books including criticism and fiction. He is a professor at SUNY-Delhi in the western Catskills.

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