Anyone who doesn’t first remark on the physical heft of this book is the kind of person who describes that 6′ 7″, 300-pound dude who bounces at the local club as “that fellow with brown eyes.” With a page-count in licking distance of a Russian novel, this work is almost twice as long as The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Or to use a contemporary single-book comparison: three hundred and ninety-six pages longer than Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homosexuals. That OHSO has been allowed to walk the Earth at monster-size, without being hacked down to conventional poetry-book dimensions, is alone tribute to Mike Bushnell’s talent.
Bushnell is known for performing in war paint. Reading these poems, one can assume that he also writes while wearing it. OHSO belongs to a tradition that has not existed in American poetry since Ginsberg brought back Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” as the poetic outcry of a generation yearning to escape the double-Windsor knot of Post-WW II conformity. Bushnell expresses similar desire for release, albeit without the nascent social politics of the Beats. OHSO’s closest poetic relative seems to be Donald Johnson’s Ark in the way that it seeks to celebrate Self through transcendence of Self:
the big gulp tips while I guzzle it runs down
my chin it touches the collar I witness your
cellular I see the reflexive signs by the
headlights the candies are next to the
discounts and there is nothing wrong with
that I withdraw from the bank it’s okay this
is the marathon alive oh sweat oh gnat oh
gnarly burn little tiny sensations riding this
earth not birth but rebirth everyday we can
revolution within everyday it is the sound of
your voice no matter where it keeps me.
Fans of later John Coltrane can find a literary equivalent in OSHO. The book is most successful when the lines fly past the reader with the visionary frenzy of Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, a work whose most sympathetic adjectives include “noisy, abrasive, violent.” Bushnell, though lacking Trane’s rhythm section, achieves comparable mystical liftoff through performative placement of the words on the page.
As in the work of forbears like Williams, Olson, Blackburn, and others of the Black Mountain School, the lines don’t just unspool from left to right. Bushnell passes them between his fingers before allowing them to land vertically on the page. Some resemble a single, almost invisible, line of thread. Others are clumped in tangles that turn back upon themselves as poems within poems, almost refusing to move forward in Bushnell’s grand design:
here’s a stupid doom
At his best, Bushnell settles into a groove that gives him the whitespace to pursue his visions at Coltrane length:
eating in solitude
eating so little
cultivating freedom from passion
the crowd in concert
this power prided
free from ego
becomes worthy of becoming one with the
Bushnell does not always succeed in his expansiveness. His extended jams–many going on for more than twenty pages–at times contain flubbed notes that ruin the desired effect:
to bite right
it’s tiring to fly
we all have
One wishes that an editorial hand could have corrected such lapses. There aren’t many compared to the volume of text, but they linger in the mind of the reader, like a squeak from the troubled reed of a saxophonist in the middle of a lovely ballad.
OHSO‘s other failing is its use of computer code to punctuate poetic flights. Most are pages-long, filled with the raw code of someone’s web-cache, with nary a peep from Bushnell as to their meaning: “snc4/273656_100000012678231_1007766224_q.jpg”alt=””/></a>” (“Collapstrophe”)
Nick Monfort uses code in his recent #! . Unlike Bushnell, he explains in the Acknowledgements at the end of the collection that the “poems in this book consist of computer programs followed by input from running these programs.” One wishes Bushnell could have been as respectful of the reader’s experience. His code hieroglyphics feel like empty expressionistic gestures, or, worse, an inside joke from the webmaster at work.
OHSO‘s excesses are outweighed by its many fine moments. Readers not in the mood for a vision-quest can dip into the book’s torrent with cupped palms to retrieve the random delight of “there is no control in the / yawn face saying okay. ” This Zen miniature would not be out of place in the work of Aram Saroyan. Readers can also take surrealist side-trips via “Underwatrerword,” a series of poems (with varying spelling) interspersed throughout the book in which Bushnell luxuriates in a post-diluvian world with the zest of Chagall. In one, Bushnell swims with the reader to the tops of skyscrapers. In another, he treats the reader to a sub-aqueous circus where “some popcorn floats toward us / I swim up to catch it in my mouth.”
OHSO is Bushnell’s second collection. The work contains the shortcomings of a still-young artist, but also its passion. Across almost five hundred pages containing Facebook updates, scraps of online conversations, lines from commercials, it becomes clear that OHSO‘s physical heft is also its subject:
there is too much for it to mean
it is just a feeling
all those memories on top of each other
stacking up to flood the dam.
Bushnell writes not as ironist, as careerist, as MFA student pursuing a particular “practice.” He writes as bard up against the entire universe. Such intensity is rare these days. It will be interesting to see what this daring poet tries next.
William Lessard is a writer whose poetry has appeared in Sensitive Skin Magazine, Maintenant, Reality Hands, Millennial Garbage, and Human Stew. He is the co-author of NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web and NetSlaves 2.0. He has appeared in the New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Vanity Fair, NPR, BBC, Entertainment Weekly. He has contributed to NPR, Wired and the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @YoDollaBill