Book Review: Amor de Lohn

Katy Carl

Gabriel Olearnik, Amor de Lohn
Andromache Books, 2009

Readers of Dappled Things are already aware of the brilliance of British poet Gabriel Olearnik. A few of the poems in his new collection–notably the Pushcart Prize-nominated ‘The Builders,’ ‘Languedoc,’ ‘An English Apocalypse,’ and ‘Three Hours After the Miscarriage in Thailand’ have previously appeared in this journal. Most, however, are new. Alternately lyrical and epic, their free verse ranges over localities of Greek and Norse myth, history, geography, architecture, art, and the contemporary experience of Western alienation. The result is a volume that is cultured in the best sense, comprehending a multitude of narratives, ideas, and visions in a way cohesive enough to afford glimpses at Truth. Therefore, though the volume is dedicated “to the love of those far away,” it could also be read as dedicated to the love of that which is far away–Heaven–and yet not so far, after all.

As usual, Olearnik demonstrates a strong ability to enter into the inner worlds of figures as diverse as Marie Curie, Odin, an anonymous bar-hopping young adult, an African tribal leader, a bereft young mother, and and the pilot of a futuristic starship. Olearnik achieves this by skilled shifts in diction and tone. Always choosing strong verbs and evocative nouns, he alters his voice to become in each case the central speaker who locates us in the scene. His “Last Pagan” speaks in Old English alliterations and assonances: “I saw a rush of air which brushes the rye/and it was something like speech/words terrible as armies/burning as battle, hot the heat of it/hearth-hungry, hewing fire.” By contrast, his professor in “The Art of Dying” talks like a character in the novels of muscular realism he teaches: “I was a man/and I ate pampas-reared calf and thick potatoes/and I drank/Cabernet Sauvignon the colour of autumn leaves/and I loved as well as I knew/and I taught Hemingway and Kipling/But all that is not much.” Note the simplicity of each narrative. The variation in tone comes as much from the speaker’s surroundings and what he experiences as from his way of telling about them. It seems that if the last pagan were born into the early twentieth century, he could have become the professor. Through diverse times and circumstances, a certain continuity in human nature is assumed.

This may be one secret to the power of Olearnik’s poems. Another is their rhythm, most often achieved through free verse but always aware of stresses and syllabification. (A couplet like “The double-grit of the city, black-rubbed and termagant/taint the skin, tracing trails on the collar and the cuff” would not hold together nearly so well without the near-anapestic pace of the words’ own progress). Still another—if one can begin to speak like a mystic where poetry is concerned—is simply his vision of the world, in which even inanimate objects hum with a quiet glory. In his works a test tube, a bicycle rack, a flintstone shine back, like satellites of moons, the light of their makers’ Maker.

Olearnik’s poems gleam as newly minted stars in the vault of the Western tradition. They read as original because they are more concerned with craft and clarity than with originality. They combine a facility with Catholic and Western imagery with a truly catholic and global sensibility, and they display a distinctive style and voice we will be excited to watch and hear for years to come.

Katy Carl, the editor-in-chief of Dappled Things, is an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Her freelance writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register and in St. Louis magazine, among other publications.