Show without Telling: Stay by Tanya Olson

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I purchased Tanya Olson’s first poetry collection, Boyishly (YesYes Books, 2013) for the intriguing title, but I was totally unprepared for the astonishment within. Once read, I could not quell this book’s lingering images. In the preface poem, “Exclude All Other Thoughts,” Olson brings us mouth-to-mouth with a corpse in an intimate fable of how to keep the dead, dead. In “My Love is Green, America,” she tells us: “It is just a fact. / You can die with a giant wad of love jamming up your heart.”

The title of Olson’s second book, Stay (YesYes Books, 2019), seems apt, given the staying power of Boyishly. This new collection certainly does not disappoint, but it’s quite a different read, and to this reader, more demanding. For one thing, Boyishly, for the most part, had some narrative continuity, at least within each poem. The poems in Stay are more often associative streams with narrative scaffolding. Another thing: in Boyishly there was punctuation, or where there wasn’t, there were line breaks. There are no periods, or any punctuation whatsoever, in Stay and often no line breaks or spacing between sentences.

This is not to say you will have to work your ass off to get pleasure from Stay. There is plenty to enjoy with a casual reading, lines that will enchant you with nonsensical sounds such as these from “ever you desire,”

all the pretty songs the birds
offer jug jug the boys offer

jug jug Me say war jug jug
Everywhere war so simple

But if you want maximum pleasure from this collection, then, you will want to listen closely. You might decide to page back to the previous poem to connect this almost pleasant sing-song chant with these lines from “camerado close! o you and me at last,”

                               Mr President what
would have happened if I had said
Don’t go surely a boy can hear
his sister’s Don’t go through
the rah rah all around

I’m not claiming to understand what Olson is doing in every poem here. Some have baffled me on multiple reads. I turned to Olson’s own words about Stay, in this interview with Keith Montesano in First Book Interviews:

[Stay] explores what it feels like when the world and its people seem to be moving further apart. That’s what interests me about America right now: the way drones and fear and Guantanamo and inequalities make us drift apart, make us feel more alone, less connected.

There is an ever-present awareness of danger and wrongness here, matched equally with kindheartedness and deadpan humor. More than once I asked myself, “Is she being difficult and obscure, or direct and hilarious?” Often both. Olson revisits beloved subjects again and again—boats, myths, birds, family, and other poets (Ocean Vuong, Phillip B. Williams, among others). The meaning of “stay” has enormous range in these poems, as in “Sometimes Birds Spontaneously,” where she says,

Stay when they ought
to go Winter over
Stall the departure Neglect
to molt Practice a song

Some of the poems in Stay are blatantly shocking and unforgettable, but even the most uncomfortably murky poems left their impress on me. In the interview quoted above, Olson uses the words fear, inequalities, more alone, less connected. In Stay, these words never appear. The poems show without telling.

Further, Olson’s drumming cadence, use of repetition, wide-angled personifications, and stunning imagination are all at play here, often magnificently so. In “Sometimes Birds Spontaneously,” Olson imagines a world where birds have agency. They can heal their wings / Handle it themselves, and,

Accuse another bird
Of witchcraft Sorcery

That bird implicating
another I Saw You
On the back of that fox

In “First American,” Olson plays with the idea of being “the first / of the Female American Suicide Bomber team” by offering up this gruesome-but-tender version of of the bomber sneaking up on, finding, and striking the target, containing one of the best line breaks I’ve come across:

I will wait until he sleeps Click 

Was that the sound of a gun cocking? No, it goes on,

the TV off Lift the sheet Crawl
behind Tuck his buttocks in my lap Top
my arm across his girth Pull him to me
until our hearts are aligned Cup his breast
Thumb the nipple Sing This
is what it’s been like What every day
has been like Then Release
How we vaporize Almost
together Deadman’s switch
they call it Giving in Letting go

Olson’s work probes deeply into the American psyche. Many of the poems are written in others’ voices, both in persona poems and as narrative pieces. As in Boyishly, Olson uses dialect in several poems, a practice she defended in an interview with DeWitt Brinson at [PANK]:

Brinson: Why the dialectic grammar? What do [you] hear in it that needs to be shared?

Olson: I love both southern and Irish grammar, sentence constructions, and vocabulary and use them a lot […] because they rub against standard speech patterns.

Olson clearly wants us to hear the voices of Southern blacks in her long poem “Other People Call It America.” The poem starts out with “The Reverend CL Franklin’s” migration north from sharecropping in “Sunflower County” to “Memphis Buffalo Detroit” and then shifts into a moving scene inscribed in our collective memories,

Ms Franklin sang
the first black president
into the White House
Wore her coat Wore her hat
Sang him right in the front door

Later, the poem also takes off in an entirely different direction:

That’s progress right
Something like it
Ever North Ever North
R-E-S- Detroit
all gutted buildings
R-E-S- Flint awash
in leaded children

In what seems to be the most autobiographical poem in the book, “txt me im board” we find the speaker on a plane, monitoring her nephew’s Instagram posts, with deep concern about how cultural norms of masculinity will inform his future:

Nearly every picture a selfie
Him 12 Slumped Staring
Rilly board txt me And he
looks bored too That teenage look
Set mouth Hard eyes
Fending off Girding for battle
It breaks my heart
Him practicing this
His trying it on

In the same poem, the speaker recognizes her own white privilege, while also being wary of being gender stereotyped (“I may be a girl / who looks like a boy”) while traveling:

I am flying And when flying
I pull on my I’m not angry
I’m not brown face as soon
as I enter the airport Pull on my
Trust me I’m really a woman face
Wear it the flying day through

Unlike their often tough subjects, Olson’s poems are chock-full of affection and empathy. Her philosophy of love is covered succinctly in “Amo Amas Amat Amamus”:

For the secret to love is The other person’s craziness
can’t make you crazy You are never going to find somebody
who isn’t crazy So you need to work on finding someone
who when everyone else thinks Lord I could never
live with that leaves you thinking Don’t worry baby
To me you’re fine Just fine

I found a lot of wisdom in Stay. These are some of my impressions of this astonishing work. Of course, I don’t know if they are right or wrong, but that’s okay. Read Stay. Have your own thoughts. Like she says in “If Ghosts”:

a ghost reads this poem
to the ghosts of the poem

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and the poetry reviews editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the full-length poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. More from this author →