Charles Olsen’s blinding new collection La rebeldía del sol (Rebellious Sun) in the footsteps of Antonio Machado
To introduce a new section on publications containing Poetry with Images I am so proud and pleased to present the latest collection by Charles Olsen La rebeldía del sol (Rebellious Sun) published in Spain by Olifante Ediciones de Poesía. As an artist, poet and filmmaker, who was born in New Zealand, moved to the UK in 1981 (where he attended art school in London), and has lived in Spain since 2003, he naturally transcends cultural and creative borders and boundaries.
Equally, his poetry film work experiments across all forms, and is often interdisciplinary, working happily with workshop groups around the world (e.g. Colombia), and with creative partnerships in music, the theatre, dance and film, often alongside his partner and collaborator Lilian Pallares. An example of his wide-ranging and versatile approach can be found in his valued contribution to The Poetics of Poetry Film (Intellect, 2021), where he not only contributed a chapter on Spanish and Portuguese video poets, interviewing them about their working processes, but also let us into his working processes with: ‘sound’, ‘two poets and a camera’, and ‘poets on the stage with video’.
In-keeping with this theme, La rebeldía del sol (Rebellious Sun) also offers different contexts and voices in conjunction with his own poetry. In 2018 Charles was awarded the III Antonio Machado Poetry Fellowship of Segovia and Soria where spending a month in each province he followed in Machado’s footsteps, both geographically and, lyrically, too. This also provided the opportunity for school and community workshops and talks; meeting villagers and breathing in the air and spirit of place so evocatively rendered by one of Spain’s leading modern lyric poets. As part of Charles’ Given Words project the book includes poems by other writers from New Zealand and Spain, and includes paintings, sketches and photographs: it is as if he is reaching deep into every aspect of his experience.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Spanish poetry, Antonio Machado (1875–1939) was born in Seville and completed his first collection of lyric verse (in Spanish only) in 1903 entitled Soledades: Poesias, (Solitudes: Poetry). Influenced by Symbolism and modernism, and with a strongly contemplative quality to his writing, he creates dream-like, temporal scenarios, a poet of memory and the soul. The landscape becomes for him a meditative point of focus and he writes what he sees, whether: poplars, hawthorn, doves, swallows, green pines, the river, the Guadalquivir, or workers who live within the remits of their daily existence. Within ‘canvases of memory’ melancholic or not, a common metaphor for him is the ‘path’ or ‘the journey’ and as such provides a fitting mentor for an artist re-treading his steps.
I go dreaming down the roads
of the afternoon. The golden
hills, the green pines,
the dusty oaks!…
Where can this road go?
(XI, The Traveller, Soledades: Poesias, (Solitudes: Poetry)
Charles’ own poetry is open and airy, concise and superbly crafted, often employing short line lengths which echo Machado’s approach to form and structure. Richly imagistic, his artist’s eye captures and documents every nuance of every situation. Inevitably, in visiting Castile he encounters the same landscape as the master, and must then work with his own vocabulary in relation to identical subjects. In ‘La Granja de San Idelfonso’ he describes the night-time city scene (including a quiet nod to Machado’s ubiquitous pine), and through the anachronistic word ‘lamps’ situates us as if we were back in 1903, and the great poet himself were present.
Lamps give the scene form:
an orange cast on the soft stone façade
a window, white rectangle,
curtains and blinds, tenuous lines,
and a streetlamp draws shadows
behind the pines.
A light goes out.
He continues with the sound of plates rattling, his wife calling and insects alighting on the page. Colours change in this brief window on a life captured: orange, white, indigo … and we are living the moment with him, yet also aware of the very timelessness of everyday experiences. Looking at this verse once again, I can even imagine that the lamp mentioned at the beginning of this evocative scenario represents a metaphor for Machado himself. That all the other lines that follow are in some way due to this original light ‘that gives the scene form’ especially the shadows behind the pines, and then, he is gone. Charles must have had him in mind at many points on his own journey, and here for me, it feels as if he is definitely present.
Short offerings of narrative prose in the present tense can illuminate a scene in a vivid light and also remind the reader of the visual impact of being somewhere different. One of my favourites in this vein is ‘Sonata for Reading Room’ in three ‘Movements’ from Soria Public Library. Here, the characters in this unfolding ‘play’ appear like an orchestra in which he says ‘I have a front row seat, and I lose myself in rustles and silence.’
Like music stands, shelves display magazines and newspapers.
Windows line the other side. Slowly exhaled breath. Egg-
blue formica-topped tables with bentwood legs. A page shakes.
Matching square blue and yellow leather armchairs. Performers
arrive, browse the stands and select their score: Marca, ABC, El
País, El Mundo. Hat on table. Forehead on hand. A crescendo of
turning pages. A chair legs’ scrape. The shush of arms entering
the jacket. Exit right. A glasses case lies open awaiting the final
The poet’s artistic attention to detail is repeated in the exquisitely produced volume by Olifante, where the softly textured matt pea- green cover folds to make a place mark, and the reader finds a beautiful watercolour postcard inside (repeated as a full image). With such a diverse selection of writing, the book is helpfully divided into three sections (and translated in Spanish and English): ‘Where the Echo Sleeps’ (Charles’ poems responding to Castile and the fellowship), ‘Given Words’ (including poems by other Spanish and New Zealand authors from Machado-related workshops) and ‘Blue Skies’ about childhood. Apparently, this was inspired by what must have been the last line written by the great poet, (found in his pocket after his death) ‘These blue days and this sun of childhood’, where the pathos is overwhelming. It is in this section that we are introduced to glimpses of Charles’ earlier years, such as what he was doing during the 1983 and 1992 bomb blasts in London.
La rebeldía del sol (Rebellious Sun) has well and truly established the author in his field. This is already a treasured work – not only as a beautifully made object, but also as a light-filled document of a poet’s journey, their lyric path, their ‘dreaming down the roads of the afternoon’ and all they encounter on the way. As such, I feel that Antonio Machado would be looking down kindly on him.
Charles presented the collection on Thursday, 20 April in the gallery O_LUMEN, Calle Claudio Coello 141, Madrid, Spain, with the poet Diego Valverde Villena, followed by ‘Readers Opinions’ from Dayana Jiménez, Master in Anthropology and PhD in Social Communication, and Rick Armstrong, New Zealand potter, scientist and teacher.
There was also a projection of Poema del camino. Made with Paladio Arte (a theatre company and social inclusion project working with people with learning difficulties and disabilities in Segovia) it documents a ‘poetry walk’, and the words inspired by the walk and views became ‘Walk Poem’. You can watch it here: vimeo.com/antenablue/paseo.
‘Rebellious Sun burns with curiosity and restless energy, a wandering journey of travel, culture and thought.’
Review by Erica Stretton in Kete Books
More information about Rebellious Sun here.
Information about the presentation on 20 April 2023 in O_LUMEN, Madrid, here.