Carolyn Oliver’s Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble
Poems of the Known and the Unknown: A Review of Carolyn Oliver’s Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble by Jacob Prince
In his essay, “Psychology and Literature,” Carl Jung discusses two kinds of literary products: the “psychological” and the “visionary.” “Psychological literature” situates itself in the realm of the known; its observations are palatable and its import is clear. Jung describes the experience of “visionary literature” as one that “surpasses man’s understanding.” In Carolyn Oliver’s new collection, Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, 2022), the poet draws from both wells of experience, furnishing a literature that is at once “psychological” and “visionary.”
Oliver’s poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review, The Cincinnati Review, Radar Poetry, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, and in many other journals. She's the winner of the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry, and the Frank O’Hara Prize from The Worcester Review. Visit Issue 18 of Miracle Monocle to read her work in this journal.
In the realm of the familiar, Oliver excels. Her descriptions of nature are exceedingly clear and refined. One favorite example comes from “the Eider Keepers,” in which a young girl shaving her legs for the first time is likened to the collection of Eiderdown:
the black-eyed drain gulping my hair, soft as the down
eider mothers pluck from their breasts to insulate
their seaweed nests, heavy with eggs
The diction cushioning this simile is masterful, relaying delicately the warmth and plush of the seabirds’ nests while also crafting a sense of the narrator’s innocence and nobility. Oliver also excels in her depictions of adult life. The first stanza in “Listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams on a Tuesday Night,” for example, a poem reflecting on the loss of a fiancé, uses some of the most fantastic ekphrastic language that I have ever read:
Just as the phrase goes thin, so thin
mountain air passing would leave
a scar on its transparency,
the solo violinist broke
the breathless note
years ago, in summer.
Not content to limit herself to this “known” mode of literature, though, Oliver rises to the challenge Jung poses in poems wherein her writing takes on an ecstatic language of its own. With a callback to Emily Dickinson, Oliver’s poem “Prayer” challenges the reader to invent new understandings. The poem has no explicit interpretation. Its thinking runs from image to image in a high, stream-of-consciousness style that evokes Ginsberg or Beats generally:
breaths of savage hope. All of them pittances
hushed against the velvet of the long lush dark, the shape of
silk-strong spacetime fueling our negligible years,
merciless sweet and marvelous bitter.
The collection overall has demonstrated Oliver’s fantastic skill as a poet. It has challenged me, charmed me, impressed me, and taught me. It has been a joy to read.