After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff, edited by Sharon Thesen and Ralph Maud, (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014), pp. 294, $24.95
Charles Olson had things to say and he said them compellingly, but he was also a private person. He compartmentalized his friendships, so that one friend or group of friends, though aware of the existence of others, was often kept in the dark about the nature of conversations that passed between them, either directly or in the form of letters, which Olson favored as much as the spoken word.
However, none of Olson’s friends were apparently aware of the poet’s correspondence— or, indeed, his intimate personal relationship—with the Pennsylvania-born artist, book designer, writer and independent scholar, Frances Boldereff, until George Butterick, curator of the poet’s papers at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, discovered their letters during a preliminary cataloging of Olson’s papers at the poet’s 28 Fort Square apartment, in Gloucester, two years before his death, in 1970. Tom Clark’s 1991 biography, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, disclosed the existence of this crucial relationship. But it was Butterick who initially reached out to Boldereff, whose letters from Olson he was given permission to photocopy for the archive at Storrs, where Clark was then allowed to consult them before meeting personally with Boldereff, in January of 1987 (Boldereff’s papers subsequently became part of the Archives and Special Collections at Storrs). In 1999, Wesleyan University Press published Charles Olsson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, a major compilation of letters from 1947 to 1950, edited by Olson scholars Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen, followed in 2014 by After Completion: The Later Lettters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff (Talonbooks), which collects the remainder of the correspondence, from late 1950 to 1969, just before Olson’s death from liver cancer (Boldereff died in 2003).
It is especially intriguing to consider that Olson began his two most extensive and important correspondences, the one with Boldereff and the other with poet Robert Creeley, within three years, between 1947 and 1950, and though Olson spoke about Creeley to Boldereff, he appears never to have mentioned Boldereff to Creeley. According to Creeley’s biographer Ekbert Fass, “Olson never once in his voluminous correspondence with Creeley referred to his epistolary muse and lover… In turn, he was hesitant to talk to her about his new male associate with whom, before long, he began to exchange letters at a rate exceeding those he traded with her.” Such was the extent of Olson’s ability—and need—to compartmentalize.
Who was Boldereff and precisely what is the nature of her importance to Olson?
To answer this question, there are no better authorities than Thesen and Maud, whose two exemplary volumes of this correspondence add more to our understanding of Olson, especially during his formative years as a poet, than any biography or previous scholarly work. According to the editors, Boldereff, who, on November 22, 1947, initiated the correspondence by writing Olson an enthusiastic response to his first book, Call Me Ishmael, “believed she had found not only a kindred spirit but a lifeline, a persona, a twin.” And to Olson, who responded with equal enthusiasm, “Frances became muse, sibling and Sybil.” Thus began a correspondence as intense as it was to become sizable, interspersed with assignations, missed or postponed trysts (“stonewalling,” a frequently stood-up Boldereff would call it), and encounters of equally erotic and frustrating nature. As the editors write, “This was the voltage that charged Olson’s writing at the time,” when he had completed “Projective Verse,” but not yet begun work on the Maximus Poems.” But what this correspondence “with its responses and challenges” demonstrates, they stress, “is that an intimacy of two strong minds helped to engender Maximus.” So that, in concert with his sexual desire for his correspondent, Thesen and Maud contend, “[Olson] desired her insight, acumen, scholarship, curiosity and canny knowledge of the direction of the underground stream of his thought,” adding, “there was no one else like Boldereff in Olson’s life.”
Furthermore, according to Thesen and Maud, “it was Boldereff who encouraged Olson in the notion of a poem as a “construct of energy,” and, therefore, Boldereff who stands behind the ideas in ‘Projective Verse.’” Learning of Boldereff’s inspiration and the impact of her thinking on Olson at the time does not diminish the poet’s own struggle to come to terms with both a new and open poetry (“stay OPEN at all costs,” Olson wrote Boldereff on October 5, 1950, “stay OPEN and IN”), and, equally a way out of what Olson called “the old soul,” another term for the “humanism and its errors” he and Boldereff believed had been rendered obsolete by the horrors of the war, ultimately leading to “the deadness of American postwar culture;” not to speak of the debasement of language through propaganda on the part of both the Allies and their Axis enemies, manipulations Olson knew well from his work in the Office of War information.
It is this struggle to achieve new cultural terms, for “something in poetry,” the editors write, “that [Olson] believed had either been hidden or taken from it;” indeed, a revolutionary new world view, that had occupied the correspondents separately before they met and with renewed engagement as their correspondence and their intimate relationship progressed. Such is the burden of the initial volume of letters, as Olson became the poet we would know him to be and Boldereff continued to elaborate her “utopian feminism” of “joy not possession,” underpinned by “the gendered gestures that compose an archaic world view,” as the editors characterize what Boldereff herself referred to as “the task of modern woman.” It was this, along with her powerfully original scholarship on Joyce, that resulted in her groundbreaking 1959 study, Reading Finnegans Wake.
By the time we approach the bulk of the letters in After Completion, much has happened to the two correspondents, personally and intellectually. Olson and his first common-law wife Constance had moved from Washington, D.C. to Black Mountain College, where Olson was to teach and eventually lead the experimental community until the college closed in 1956. They had a daughter Kate and then separated. Meanwhile, Olson had begun a relationship with Betty Kaiser, a Black Mountain music student and the mother of his son, Charles Peter, moving to Gloucester and then to Buffalo, where he taught at the state university and where, in 1964, Betty died in an automobile accident, after which Olson moved back to Gloucester, from where he traveled to London, Rome, Spoleto, and Berlin as his fame grew. As Olson’s star was in its ascendency, Boldereff, never affluent, endured serial job loss and excruciating poverty. While still engaged in major work on Rimbaud and Joyce, she relocated from Woodward, Pennsylvania to Brooklyn, back to Pennsylvania then to Lawrenceville, New Jersey and back to Woodward, re-marrying in the process. During these years after Olson’s return to Gloucester, the Maximus Poems entered their major phase and Boldereff published Reading Finnegans Wake, followed by what was to become her masterwork, Hermes to his Son Thoth: Being Joyce’s Use of Giordano Bruno in Finnegans Wake (1968), both of which books, lovingly inscribed to Olson, remained in his library.
Reading these letters, which are as erotically charged as they are intellectually engaged, one might wonder why Olson and Boldereff never made the move to live together, though they spoke of it often. In fact, when Boldereff suggests they have a “closer relationship,” Olson demurs, the editors write, concerned that “moving it forward…into closeness,” they quote Olson, would endanger “the depth & power of letters between us, the imaginative wildness of the communication would be disturbed.” Trenchantly, Thesen and Maud conclude: “Fearing the consequences of a domestication of his relationship with Boldereff, Olson is also trying to protect his marriage—at this point to Connie Olson and then later to Betty Olson—from his attachment to Boldereff,” adding that “the possibility that they might live together was broached and rejected later on, by each of them in different ways and under different circumstances.” And yet, paradoxically, Olson could write Boldereff in 1958: “I have loved you the whole time—and have hung myself (not to speak of Con and now, Bet) believing, the whole time, I would one day live with you, at least give over to the love, and let it have life to live itself in, instead of staying bottled up in me, and thus doing the harm such wrong does do.”
It is possible that Olson, who appeared to be the least domestic of men, felt safer in his marriages, especially from a lover like Boldereff, who challenged him intellectually at every point—and may also have challenged him sexually—a woman who had clearly read as deeply and extensively as Olson had and wrote with equal brilliance. There were a couple of trysts after Betty’s death, the editors report, “but it seems the lovers decided it was as it had always been: that to live apart was the more productive thing.” After one particularly difficult rendezvous in New York toward the end of Olson’s life, “where he talked all through the night,” Boldereff remembered to Tom Clark: “He was in terrible psychic suffering, but I couldn’t respond. There was no contact between us. I felt, there’s no human being there, just a husk. He was experiencing a real loss of his own identity, which he was hoping to get back through me. Alas, it did not work.”
The former lovers and correspondents of twenty-two years would never see each other again; and yet Olson was to write Boldereff, on May 28, 1969, seven months before his death: “My dear sweet Frances—Just in another burst of love for you (they come in such gusts my whole nature at this moment (as I write) bursts on you) Love, Charles PS I adore you”
With Connie remarried and Bet dead, a bereft Olson, while assuring Boldereff of his undying love during the final years of their correspondence, is nevertheless engaged in an intense correspondence with a much younger scholar and poet, Joyce Benson, enlivened by assignations with her in Gloucester and elsewhere, according to Clark. There is another affair, conducted mostly in London, with an American heiress, who had important ties to Beat and Black Mountain writers, and a relationship in Gloucester, his final, it appears, with a young poet, who shared his Fort Square apartment and continued to live in it after Olson’s death. While having struggled successfully to integrate his poetic and historical vocations in the Maximus Poems, and his politics through concerted local activism, Olson appeared never to have been able to achieve a lasting union, remaining, at best, conflicted and ambivalent about love, though there is no question that he experienced powerful moments of ecstasy with Boldereff.
By this time Olson’s health was seriously failing. A year earlier, during the summer of 1968, after Olson had reported illness, Boldereff had written with concern: “Please tell me what your doctor says; what can he do; what can’t he do?” Blithely, Olson had replied. “and though I have still to ‘behave’ (the problem seems simply to be to take care to be taken care of—food & that stuff; and equally not ‘socialize’ too much!”) But those of us who were close to Olson at the time, knew it was more than lack of proper nourishment (when he was not binging late at night in local restaurants, he often ate his food directly from a can—and even wrote about it in a letter to the editor of the Gloucester Times), or Olson’s heavy drinking, that constituted the problem. Olson suffered from emphysema, yet he continued to smoke; and though often surrounded by friends at home or visitors from many parts of the globe, there was a deep loneliness in the poet, which is evident from the final Maximus Poems, in which he describes walking disconsolately up and down the seaside Boulevard of a community he had once loved and had great hopes for, but which had become, as he wrote in another letter to the editor, a “city of mediocrity and cheap ambition,” in its apparent rejection of its marine industrial heritage, while attempting to chase the tourist dollar: “destroying/ its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.” The dejected poet, who left Gloucester for Connecticut in September of 1969, may well have also been fleeing death, for he was soon to be diagnosed with inoperable cancer, dying six weeks later in New York.
As much as the drama of this unique relationship grips the reader—and the letters are as full of the sting and bite of disappointment as they are of the elation of eroticism—there is something about them that transcends the merely relational. As writing, they are often incandescent, as Olson, goaded by Boldereff, challenged equally by her ardent correspondent, hones his projective, propulsive prose to perfection. His essay on Lawrence, “The Escaped Cock: Notes on Lawrence and the Present, or, the Real,” developed during their exchanges, can be taken as a trope for the dialectic at the heart of this correspondence, just as it proposes a revolutionary view of the narrative.
Olson writes: “I take it that CONTEST is what puts drama (what they keep harping on still as story, plot) into the thing; the writer’s contesting with reality—to see it, to SEE; that climax is not what happens to the characters or things (which is, even at the finest, a rigged puppet-demonstrandum) but is, instead what another, my peer, called “a broken stump,” this contest and its issue, the ISSUE of the man who writes. The issue is what causes CHANGE (the struggle inside, the contest there, inside, exhibited). At root (or stump) what is, is no longer THINGS but WHAT HAPPENS BETWEEN THINGS, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us—and the terms of what we are.” This, then, is “no bare incoming of novel abstract form,” as Olson wrote in “Letter 27” of Maximus, but instead what was powerfully enacted in the letters themselves, what the two lovers grappled with as they engaged each other to the limit of their abilities, contesting and thereby changing.
(This review appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)