pulp (2007-06)

Words That Open Doors

Catching up with poets Marilyn Kallet and Ted Olsen

by Jeanne McDonald

Who among us has not been a poet at some point in his or her life?   The child who writes a birthday rhyme for his mother, the man who pens a passionate verse for his beloved, a mother who tries to express her love for her children?

Most of us can plead guilty to a heartfelt, albeit amateur, effort to express our innermost feelings, but even though meter and rhyme and syntax can be taught, the best poets are born, not made. Fortunately for us, Knoxville has a fair number of those born to the medium, one of whom is Marilyn Kallet, who holds the Hodges Chair for Distinguished Teaching in English at the University of Tennessee. Now, just in time for St. Valentine's Day, Kallet will be reading love poems at UT's Hodges Library on Monday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m.

Ted Olson, another poet of note who teaches at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, where he is Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies and English, will read from his latest collection, Breathing in Darkness (Wind Publications) Saturday, March 3, at 4 p.m., at Carpe Librum Bookstore.

Kallet's most recent publication is a translation of The Last Love Poems of Paul Eluard (Black Widow Press), some of which she will be reading on Feb. 12. Translating from the original French, Kallet has captured Eluard's voice "...in its personal, linguistic, and aesthetic context," says Booklist-- no small achievement. In the introduction to the book, Kallet remarks: "Translations never keep still. They whisper and nag at the translator, 'Don't settle. Bring this closer to the original. Find a more musical phrase. Tighten the line.'"

Eluard met his first wife, Gala, at a tuberculosis sanitarium when both were only 17, and even though Gala left Eluard for the artist Max Ernst and subsequently moved on to the controversial artist Salvador Dalì, Eluard continued to write to her for nearly 30 years. His poetry during that era illustrates, says Kallet, "a determination to... create in poetry the 'human door' that opens both a magical world of invention and a 'common exchange between us.'"

That "world of invention" is reflected in the lush imagery of his words in "Negation of Poetry," in which he writes, "I took from you all the worry all the torment/ That one can take through all through nothing/ Could I have not loved you/ O you nothing but gentleness/ Like one peach after another peach/ As melting as summer."

Eluard's exhilarating poem "I Love You" ( Je t'aime ) encompasses the endless possibilities a lover foresees at the height of passion: "I love you for all the women I have not known/ I love you for all the time I have not lived/ For the odor of the open sea and the odor of warm bread/ ...I love you to love/ I love you for all the women I do not love."

There is passion of another sort in the work of Ted Olson, a southern poet and storyteller who also performs traditional and contemporary Irish, American and British songs. Olson finds exoticism and drama in ordinary events--the structure and interaction of families, the observation of birds and animals, the mystery of passing strangers. His spare, tightened lyrics occasionally flash with blinding brilliance in a world that often seems stark and dusky, and poems that seem simple support weighty, thought-provoking matter, as in "Gifts": "You, dear stranger, may avoid meeting me/ by crossing the street--walk where no one is/ if you want to; if you venture my way/ I've got something special, a daffodil/ plucked from an abandoned yard, just for you/ ...Neither of us need acknowledge it now,/ but our gifts--not yet and perhaps never/ delivered--have already been exchanged."

With ordinary words he paints a complicated landscape for his readers, often surprising them with unexpected endings, the way things happen in real life. "The Cold," a prose poem, is just such a piece: "Crows dropping like hail from black clouds preyed on the field's once-kept secret, prying into snow for storehouses of seed. Hiding behind my window, watching those creatures desecrate another's den. I caught myself desiring to intervene: I thought, I must not tolerate this injustice, this stealing of all a mouse had left. My sensitivity surprised me--Father believes that no business however well it has been safe-guarded deserves protection from what will happen anyway; 'can't save everything,' he informed us at supper one Christmas. For years I wondered if my name is on his list; uncertainty froze my soul. Yet today, I ventured into the cold to chase the crows away."

Carl Sandburg once called poetry "...the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment." Both Kallet and Olson are experts in allowing us such glimpses and leaving us to ponder the inevitable unforgettable images that follow.