“In Cold Hell, in Thicket” by Charles Olson

From the YouTube description: “Charles Olson reading ‘In Cold Hell, in Thicket’ (1950) sometime in the mid-60s in Gloucester, MA—late night, recorded for Robert Creeley. Audio courtesy Ron Silliman and PennSound audio archive.” This great video uses found footage from Britton, South Dakota, 1938-39.


In Cold Hell, in Thicket

In cold hell, in thicket, how
abstract (as high mind, as not lust, as love is) how
strong (as strut or wing, as polytope, as things are
constellated) how
strung, how cold
can a man stay (can men) confronted
thus?

All things are made bitter, words even
are made to taste like paper, wars get tossed up
like lead soldiers used to be
(in a child’s attic) lined up
to be knocked down, as I am,
by firings from a spit-hardened fort, fronted
as we are, here, from where we must go

God, that man, as his acts must, as there is always
a thing he can do, he can raise himself, he raises
on a reed he raises his

Or, if it is me, what
he has to say

I

What has he to say?
In hell it is not easy
to know the traceries, the markings
(the canals, the pits, the mountings by which space
declares herself, arched, as she is, the sister,
awkward stars drawn for teats to pleasure him, the brother
who lies in stasis under her, at ease as any monarch or
a happy man

How shall he who is not happy, who has been so made unclear,
who is no longer privileged to be at ease, who, in this brush, stands
reluctant, imageless, unpleasured, caught in a sort of hell, how
shall he convert this underbrush, how turn this unbidden place
how trace and arch again
the necessary goddess?

2

The branches made against the sky are not of use, are
already done, like snow-flakes, do not, cannot service
him who has to raise (Who puts this on, ths damning of his flesh?)
he can, but how far, how sufficiently far can he raise the thickets of
this wilderness?

How can he change, his question is
these black and silvered knivings, these
awkwardnesses?

How can he make these blood-points into panels, into sides
for a king’s for his own
for a wagon, for a sleigh, for the beak of, the running sides of
a vessel fit for
moving?

How can he make out, he asks,
of this low eye-view,
size?

And archings traced and picked enough to hold
to stay, as she does, as he, the brother, when,
here where the mud is, he is frozen, not daring
where the grass grows, to move his feet from fear
he’ll trespass on his own dissolving bones, here
where there is altogether too much remembrance?

3

The question, the fear he raises up himself against
(against the same each act is proffered, under the eyes
each fix, the town of the earth over, is managed) is: Who
am I?

Who am I but by a fix, and another,
a particle, and the congery of particles carefully picked one by another,

as in this thicket, each
smallest branch, plant, fern, root
—roots lie, on the surface, as nerves laid open—
must now (the bitterness of the taste of her) be
isolated, observed, picked over, measured, raised
as though a word, an accuracy were a pincer!
this

is the abstract, this
is the cold doing, this
is the almost impossible

So shall you blame those
who give it up, those who say
it isn’t worth the struggle?

(Prayer
Or a death as going over to–shot by yr own forces–to
a greener place?

Neither

any longer
usable)

By fixes only (not even any more by shamans)
can the traceries
be brought out

II

ya, selva oscura, but hell now
is not exterior, is not to be got out of, is
the coat of your own self, the beasts
emblazoned on you And who
can turn this total thing, invert
and let the ragged sleeves be seen
by any bitch or common character? Who
can endure it where it is, where the beasts are met,
where yourself is, your beloved is, where she
who is separate from you, is not separate, is not
goddess, is, as your core is,
the making of one hell

where she moves off, where she is
no longer arch

(this is why he of whom we speak does not move, why
he stands so awkward where he is, why
his feet are held, like some ragged crane’s
off the nearest next ground, even from
the beauty of the rotting fern his eye
knows, as he looks down, as,
in utmost pain if cold can be so called,
he looks around this battlefield, this
rotted place where men did die, where boys
and immigrants have fallen, where nature
(the years that she’s took over)
does not matter, where

that men killed, do kill, that woman kills
is part, too, of his question

2

That it is simple, what the difference is—
that a man, men, are now their own wood
and thus their own hell and paradise
that they are, in hell or in happiness, merely
something to be wrought, to be shaped, to be carved, for use, for
others

does not in the least lessen his, this unhappy man’s
obscurities, his
confrontations

He shall step, he
will shape, he
is already also
moving off

into the soil, on to his own bones

he will cross

(there is always a field,
for the strong there is always
an alternative)

But a field

is not a choice, is
as dangerous as a prayer, as a death, as any
misleading, lady

He will cross

And is bound to enter (as she is)
a later wilderness.

Yet
what he does here, what he raises up
(he must, the stakes are such

this at least

is a certainty, this
is a law, is not one of the questions, this
is what was talked of as
—what was it called, demand?)

He will do what he now does, as she will, do
carefully, do
without wavering,
without

as even the branches,
even in this dark place, the twigs
how

even the brow
of what was once to him a beautiful face

as even the snow-flakes waver in the light’s eye

as even forever wavers (gutters
in the wind of loss)

even as he will forever waver

precise as hell is, precise
as any words, or wagon,
can be made

—Charles Olson (1950)

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