Nocturnes: David Olsen, Dempsey & Windle
David Olsen is the American author of four full-length poetry collections published in UK and four poetry chapbooks from the US. He is also a playwright, a writer of short fiction, and former freelance journalist who has lived in Oxford, England, since 2002.
A quick glance through the contents page reveals that the threads of this collection are woven out of a collage of music, painting and poetry. The ‘Overture’ is opening time at the pub. Two sections of roughly equal length are titled ‘Nocturnes I’ and ‘Nocturne II’. Sandwiched between the two is a section titled ‘Chiaroscuro’ which explores the shadows of memory.
Naturally, there is a distinct night-time atmosphere to much of the book. In the first section we catch a glimpse of some of the professions that make up the night-time economy: waiters, bar-tenders and actors. The settings are pubs, theatres, and all-night cafés. There is also an engagement with art: Stéphane de Sakutin’s ‘Woman Descending Stairs’, Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Fear’. Other poems in this section include a description of nightfall in the swampy coniferous forests between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and a spot-lit display in a boutique window at night. ‘Siege at Night’ is Olsen’s ekphrastic response to a documentary photograph of a public protest outside the White House in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
‘04.28’, a poem about dreaming and waking in the early hours of the morning stood out for me in this first section. In it, we pick up on the fragment of a thought coming out of sleep and then, wide awake, the poem ends on a clever final stanza:
Nearly awake now.
For the first time in months,
I think of Fiona, a petite
brunette with ice-blue eyes.
We were on a station platform.
She was earning a diploma,
so I rode in another carriage
to give her time to read.
I open my eyes
and turn toward the clock.
The LED reads 04:33.
The colon blinks
in time with my heart.
The aptly-titled middle section offers up poems that utilise strong contrasts between light and shade to bring home their message. In ‘Echo in C# Minor’ Olsen’s wish to “sing [his] life in C major….with playful improvisations” diverges from its plan by transitioning into “C-sharp minor”. Commenting on this, Olsen states: “Destiny’s a smirking illusion.” In ‘Driftwood’, detritus from the sea becomes “a gift to be taken home” and in ‘Blur’, the “blur” of a Rothko composition becomes clearer the more you look at it. The idea of contrasts is extended to include selections of serious and light poems. Among those poems that are in a lighter vein, Olsen writes about the simple joys of life such as eating ice-cream (‘Gelato’), summers in France and the summers of his youth in California (‘Beaujolais’), taking a photograph of his beloved (‘Say Cheese’) and dreaming how she would look in “that fetching dress” (‘Boutique’). These poems are beautifully crafted with words that have been chosen carefully for maximum effect.
The poems in ‘Nocturnes II’ are more abstract and philosophical than those in ‘Nocturnes I’. They are also more personal. In this section, ‘Night Tremors’ caught my attention for its striking use of language:
I know I’m keeping you awake;
I hear the stifled sigh as patience
erodes to a faulted bedrock.
It’s just an ankle’s twitch –
as when my flipper foot
taps the pedal to keep
a coughing engine running –
but it’s enough to quake
the bed and break the silver
threads in the web of sleep.
Like ‘Siege at Night’ in the first section, Olsen returns to relevantly recent newsworthy events in the final part of the book with his poem titled ‘Le Cœur de la France en feu’. In it, he documents the time when the roof and steeple of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire during the early evening of April 15, 2019. The title of this lament, which is brimming with shared memories spent in the shadow of the bell towers and flying buttresses, was taken from the cover of a special edition of Paris Match magazine.
Trees, clouds and artists are the descriptive threads that knit these poems together: oaks, planes, aspens and pines grow in the shadows of “a zinc sky”, “an indigo sky”, “enlightening clouds” and “blue-grey clouds” whose colours are found in the paintings of Van Gogh, Rothko, Renoir, Rockwell and Whistler. Writing as someone who enjoys looking at clouds, I was struck by the powerful image on the front cover but disappointed that its provenance was not mentioned in the book itself.
There is a pleasing lyrical vein to these quiet poems that speak more loudly to us when we look beneath the surface.