Monday, March 02, 2020

The Last Mastodon A Chapbook by Christina Olson

The Last Mastodon
A Chapbook by Christina Olson
ISBN: 978-1-931307-43-7
Rattle Foundation, Studio City, CA 91604

This collection is the consequence of an invitation Christina Olson received to serve as poet in residence for a paleontology conference and exhibition, “The Valley of the Mastodons,” at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. The resulting poems have a jumble of images and subjects because as she puts it in her concluding poem, “A Story About Bones”:

as it turns out, paleontology & poetry
            are not all that different
both the excavating of a shard
            here & there, an attempt to see what fits
the painstaking assembly of meaning from fragments
            maybe if you get lucky: a tooth, pointed –
the people in their practical clothes & boots
            sometimes even the same tiny brushes
& at the museum I keep calling the collections stacks
            but instead of poem let's just say word cage

            While many of these word cages have been published individually and may be enjoyed in isolation, I think The Last Mastodon should be approached as a poetic sequence, as “a single poem composed of a number of movements which, as often as not, are fully comprehensible only by their relation to other movements and to the poem as a whole.”[1] When it is read as a sequence the poem’s organizing metaphor is a natural history museum and each poem a different diorama. Fittingly this museum tour begins with a “Catalog of Damages;” if the specimens had not been damaged, turned into fossils, we wouldn’t be visiting a museum, but a zoo.
At the beginning of this catalog Olson implicitly invites us to admit that we share her ignorance and, possibly, some of her arrogance, an arrogant indifference that comes along with a conventional history that is white:

All these years not knowing
the difference between mammoth

and mastodon: just another
human so proud in her indifference.

That her proud indifference is “white” become clear when halfway through the catalog Thomas Jefferson appears among the teeth and bones of those extinct pachyderms:

Jefferson thought the West still crawled
with mastodons, sent Lewis & Clark to thin the herd.

and he quickly becomes a major exhibit:

Jefferson owned Sally Hemmings,
I could never make small talk with my father

I told you this was a catalog of damages.
Oh god, the mouth is such a weapon.

Because of his interest in mastodons Jefferson’s inclusion flows naturally into the paleontological theme of the poem, but Sally Hemmings seems extraneous at first. However, as you continue through the exhibits the reason for the inclusion of the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship becomes obvious: once Jefferson turns up in this paleontological poetry along with poems like, “Origin Story: Max the Mastodon,” the Hemmings’ skeletons in his closet naturally turn up with him.
            In the second poem of the sequence we are told that a collection of human bones is a cemetery while a collection of fossil bones is a museum. Both examples of bone collections get a major introduction in the third poem of the sequence “Who Gets to Be a Fossil.” The simple declarative sentences of this poem’s 18 stanzas are mounted like bones on the armature of a museum skeleton.  The first two of them are statements of lithic equivalency:

Max the mastodon gets to be a fossil.

Thomas Jefferson gets to be a fossil.

The poem ends with these three bones:

Max the mastodon belongs to the Western Science Center in Hemet, California & people pay to look at him because he is a very impressive mastodon fossil, the biggest found west of the Mississippi River.

Thomas Jefferson is buried at Monticello, behind a wrought iron fence that prevents unwanted visitors.

Sally Hemmings was buried in a site in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, which is now covered by the parking lot of the Hampton Inn on West Main Street.

Don’t those bones make you question, if you weren’t already, what Mrs. Studebaker taught you in high school about American History/

Olson has so many references like those to Thomas Jefferson and Sarah Hemmings (because she was his slave Sally was the diminutive address used by Tommy for Miss Hemmings) that I began to suspect she had read The Hemmingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. If so, she has reduced that book (worth a reading of its own) to some of its essential bones. They are powerful bones; here are three more of them from the seventh poem in the sequence, “Animals Doing Things to Other Animals”:

Sally Hemmings was Martha Jefferson's half-sister. Jefferson never remarried after Martha's death at age thirty-three.

In one version of the truth, Jefferson did not remarry because he loved Martha and honored her deathbed promise.

But this is also true: Jefferson did not need to remarry. He had Sally.

By now, because of this poetry, I think we should begin to question our views of Thomas Jefferson, wonder how much of what paleontologists would call reconstruction errors they contain. In her penultimate and title poem for the sequence, “The Last Mastodon,” she has a section devoted to describing those kinds of errors:

 I have been collecting reconstruction errors – the early, wrong assemblies.
The first mastodons on display had the tusks facing the wrong way, like
digging tools. A giant rodent who tumbled underground.

The Niederweningen mammoth had its tusks pointed outward, like the enormous mustaches fashionable at the time.

In yet another early drawing, a mastodon is trunkless, earless, looks like a boar with killer teeth splayed.

Our imaginations run wild, fail us. We are constantly revising.                               

Because of her fascination with reconstruction, she invented a poetic form, which she calls “the mastodon,” and she illustrates it with a poem, “Reconstruction Errors, Part 1 & 2,” near the center of the sequence. Part one begins:

all day I've tried and failed to write
this letter to you. Do we deserve anything
for our feelings, our clumsy fumbling's
in the dark? I have no excuse
for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurched from truth to truth.

and Part 2 ends:

I have no excuse for this dizziness, the sober way
I lurched from truth to truth. We were a long time ago,

you & I. That summer, I visited La Brea twice.
It gave my pain some geological perspective. I weep
because our dog is dying, because I haven't smelled water
for such a long time. All day I've tried & and failed

In her acknowledgments for the chapbook she tells us that we can find more about the form, and its rules, at Superstition Review’s blog: Those rules are a too complicated to include here but when you reach the blog put “mastodon” in the search box on the right side of its home page and you will be taken delightful essay, “Guest Post, Christina Olson: Reconstruction Errors,” which examines the relationship between poetry and paleontology, complete with graphic illustrations of reconstruction errors.

The Last Mastodon has a wealth of detail and a pleasant surface, which is often witty and which makes for an easy first reading, yet the several themes introduced in the opening poem, “Catalog of Damages,” are woven into the woof of the following poems so deftly that by the concluding poem, “A Story About Bones,” the poetic fabric acquires a complex texture that demands a rereading. To put it another way, I found this collection to be like a good stew that is better on the second day; these poems are even better than that stew because, unlike the stew, they do not diminish as they are consumed.

[1] Maximum Security Award, by Ramon Guthrie, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1970, frontispiece