Dropping acid has certain disadvantages (your body may turn into a cloud of molecules), but John Olson discovered and offers us an alternative: Arthur Rimbaud. In his recent autobiographical novel Mingled Yarn (2021) he writes about what his fictional avatar experienced when he first read the French symbolist poet in 1966:
magical effects achieved by joining incongruous or discrepant words which provoke the mind into making unlikely relationships, and by making sudden shifts in thought and packing a feral verbal environment into a tight paratactic structure Rimbaud achieved a power of evocation so remarkable that each poem is like a glimpse into the fourth dimension.
John Olson’s alter ego longed to do the same: “I wanted to create a verbal object so weird people might think it dropped out of a flying saucer.” He felt that, though he could see what Rimbaud was doing, he couldn’t do it himself. Dada Budapest, however, proves quite the opposite. This 389-word book of mouthwatering (yet at times also somewhat daunting) prose poems is a rather effective and rigorous exercise in hallucinatory Rimbaudian poetics.
When I was 18 back in 1991, I too experimented with LSD. During my last trip my body didn’t turn into an aerosol (that’s what happened to John’s avatar in Mingled Yarn) but into one of Braque’s paintings. I know what John’s talking about. Like him, I quit after that. Like him, I have been looking for alternatives. Perhaps Dada Budapest can be read as John Olson’s alternative to LSD: each poem a door to another dimension? But why would anyone want to exit quotidian reality? What’s wrong with this dimension? The title of John’s book might offer an explanation.
Coincidence or not, Budapest happens to also be the capital of Hungary: at present one of the most xenophobic and homophobic countries of Europe. Reading through Dada I couldn’t help but feel that what I was offered is what another visionary poet, Will Alexander, calls “medicine for the throat:” the antidote to and alchemical escape-hatch from a postmortem culture, not unlike the mentality as the one promoted by Hungary’s right-winged prime minister, Victor Orban, or by the former president of the United States. I’ll touch upon the mechanics of this “medicine” and how it relates to mainstream US-culture in a short while, but let’s first dive a bit deeper into the specifics of John’s Rimbaudian meanderings.
One may feel seduced into thinking that poetry is easier to manage than psychotropic drugs, but steel yourself: John’s lingual hallucinations are covered in a more than mild salsa.
In one of his linguistic trips for instance, a penny-pinched Allen Ginsberg calls John up (p. 337) from the afterlife explaining him that even the by-him-imagined Ginsberg has money-issues. John carries on telling Allen that US society is not improving, on the contrary, it’s deteriorating: “endless war, 37 million Americans on food stamps, privately contracted thugs, tent cities etc.” Instead of Ginsberg asking John to rescue him Orpheus-style from the land of dead, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has no interest in coming back to life: “I like being dead. It’s like being high on laughing gas,” Ginsberg tells him. Can “coming back to life” be read as coming back to the US? Perhaps Eurydice/Ginsberg is better off in Hades, as Rilke seems to suggest in his Sonnets to Orpheus? Elsewhere in Dada Arthur Rimbaud himself sends John a letter saying he has learned to swim in the Mississippi river and watches videos of Nirvana on YouTube.
Strolling through the book, Dada Budapest reads as if you’re in an old-fashioned and dimly lit estaminet somewhere in Northern France. Next to you on a barstool, a savage-looking and mildly inebriated interlocutor slash amateur-stand up comedian lures you into conversation with something deceptively mundane such as his urological challenges or the poster of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase hanging on his bathroom wall. Before you know it, however, you’re finding yourself in a neurological roller coaster: head-spinning Freudian free associations catapult you into profound existential and cosmological contemplations, all with a confessional slant. Or as in the seven Heideggerian pieces (p.308-326), you’re kicked into a pool of serious ontological problems. Something did indeed drop out of a UFO, travelled through your eyes or ears and boom (!) barged into your brain. Things slow down a wee bit with prose poems such as Buffalo Bill in the Holly Land or Dinner at Hotel Universe (giving the reader a breather) that read like flash or sudden fiction (John prefers the latter term).
In the same vein as what John Olson writes in Mingled Yarn about Don Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry: “opening that book was like entering an amusement park full of thrilling rides and carnival freakery,” Dada has a similar feel. The reader travels through a country as hypothetical and inhabited by inorganic creatures as in Roberto Matta’s supernatural paintings. Or one can say that the book itself is a UFO designed to suddenly beep the unguarded reader up, and rematerialize her back into a planet as the one created by another surrealist artist, the French-Belgian surrealist Henri Michaux. In the latter’s novels, a world takes shape in which non-existent fantastical animals (which metaphorically are, perhaps, the previously mentioned “weird verbal objects”) seem to dwell. In John’s weird verbal objects one also meets delicious literary characters such as Henri Miller or Neal Cassady who reminds me of the original steward of Surrealism, Andre Breton’s dear friend, Jacque Vaché.
Coming back to how John’s “medicine for the throat” relates to US-culture, I’m reminded of James Hillman’s alchemical ideas about literalization in the West (with Jungian analysis as a sort of process of de-literalization), and Joseph Campbell’s conviction that poets and artists in general are contemporary society’s shamans. Even an anthropologist as Margaret Mead, or a more difficult to classify thinker like George Bataille have written extensively about how Western cultures are rich in material culture and technology, but famished when it comes to myth and symbol. This one-sidedness leaves the individual to her own devices when dealing with death, birth, gender, sex, the feminine principle, meaning and other monsters. It’s no coincidence that poet and editor Clayton Eshleman interviewed Hillman back in 1980 on exactly this topic (Sulfur Anthology p. 194). He has written more about the role of the poet as contemporary shaman in his 2001 collection of essays Companion Spider.
We westerners lack effective rites of passage, healing and other social rituals, embodied mythologies, grass-root storytelling practices and so on. In his Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henri Miller writes that nowhere is the separation between man and nature so complete as in the US. This is an interesting and daring statement. Bataille explains in his Absence of Myth that this separation is because of, well … mm-hmm: an absence of myth (duh!).
All these thinkers point out that the West cultivates a concept of the person as reduced and atomized, a reality aptly fictionalized in French author Michelle Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island.
Before this review gets too syrupy (and God Forbid, too long; think of the ever shrinking attention-span!), and I might be accused of fostering some sort of return to nature à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau (I don’t because I also believe in the West’s achievements: for instance, anesthesia during surgery or taking flights for intercontinental travel. With Marian Woodman, I feel it’s a matter of balance and one-sidedness in the culture – but this is, after all, a review and not a manifesto, so excuse me here), I’ll conclude with two quotes. One short and sweet is Joseph Campbell’s:
The function of the artist is the ‘mythologization’ of the world.
The second, perhaps more musical and melodic, is from the French psychoanalyst of fire, Gaston Bachelard:
… substance is a dream of youth; the salutary substance is a disease consoled, an articulated health. To know it sympathetically, it is necessary to praise it, it is necessary to write about it in the natural exaggeration of the imagination, with the powers of a tradition ceaselessly rejuvenated in this strange confidence which skips a generation and which unites the grandson and grandfather. We will have to remember the archaism of such confidence when we want to measure the audacity of a spagyric medicine that ascribes medicinal virtues to nonhuman minerals, for salts extracted directly from the world of stones. If a substance, in order to enter the realms of virtues, needs such confidence, such explicit valuation, one may well attach its dithyramb to it. It is therefore coupled with a true literary fact, it is an act of literature. Alongside a reasonable materialism is an equivalent passionate materialism.
Accompanying one’s experiences – however embarrassing or exhilarating the experiences may be – are dreams, poems, images. These are the literary phenomena of real substances. These literary phenomena deserve special study. They shed some light on the mysteries of the human heart.
– From La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté, by Gaston Bachelard, pages 221-223
I think this is exactly what Seattle’s “sacred clown” (metonymically as per the tradition of the North American plains’ Indians’ Sioux and Cheyenne) and poet John Olson did in Dada Budapest: he mythologized the world and offered the reader an Orphic escape-hatch (being the lingual dithyramb, which, in essence is the alchemist’s philosopher’s stone) out of the Hades of literalization and rationalist reducation. Poetry, as the very recently deceased Michael McClure said, is a tool for liberation. Read Dada Budapest and liberate yourself from the straightjackets of the literal and the quotidian. The brand of the knives with which you’ll cut the straps is called metaphor and metonymy. Good luck!