David Hayden

Charles Olson was due to read in the gymnasium. I walked in the twilight away from the building, over the lawns, through the lines of young people, ambling solitarily, holding hands in disinterested couples, talking with slack enthusiasm in groups of three or four, in silent collectives of five and six. I knew that Olson was dead but was untroubled by the likelihood of their disappointment. The lines thickened into a crowd and the way ahead seemed dark, too dark, so I turned round and joined the flow.

The hall was filling. The speaker, who was not Charles Olson, stood at the foot of the temporary stage, laughing, gossiping and signing copies of The Maximus Poems and Call Me Ishmael. I made my way to the middle of a middling row and sat two empty seats away from two rangy men in orange shorts, dirty hi-tops and silky green basketball shirts.

‘Move up,’ the nearest said, ‘you know you’ll have to soon.’

I said nothing but stood and re-seated myself next to them. More and more people came into the hall. All the chairs were taken, and the new arrivals were compelled to pack together at the back of the gym or crowd cross-legged at the front.

The man who was not Charles Olson had disappeared.

A woman approached the lectern, tapped the microphone and waited. Everyone who was talking continued to talk. She chose one freely chattering man in the center of the hall and fixed him with a hard stare. He fell silent and a quiet spread out from him to the rest of the audience. She spoke.

‘Charles Olson.’

There was applause and the not-Olson stepped out from behind the long drape of black plastic sheeting that had been taped to the wall.

‘What disrepaired me? Stories, journeys, voices, hands, stories, songs, stories. The sodden nets. Words wet with glue I pasted over crazed flesh and thoughts. Words dried rigid and cracked in their turn. Creaks and steps could be heard far into the dome, the aleatorical music of permanent night. A fish snout emerged out of my left ear, a bird’s beak from my right. Really? I shipped out a bland youth and returned bearded in front and barnacled in the rear. The summer light we might have chased to the limiting circle of sight and beyond in order not to miss the faintest, frailest ray. Cool? Wherefore care for cool? Some strange malady? The shore does not feel the sea, having no nerves. Mine feel every surge, every release, every rollback, even landlocked as we are in this lovely place where the trees substitute for the sea as the sea, when at sea, substitutes for the trees. Hush. I come to look for nothing to do. And yet something always finds me. The labor of speech, useless mentation, the tedium of desire, witnessing, chewing, pulling up chairs, sitting, making lists. I knew nothing until someone told me, and then I still knew nothing. And I plan to go on knowing nothing until I can no longer know something. For ever and ever, the end, amen. The tongue is a sting. Do I pluck it out? No, I let it rattle in my mouth. It works a charm; it stuns the words and makes them lie flat. We listen to ourselves in a fever and hear the scorched echoes of our thoughts and fail to tell night from day or, more accurately, learn of their merging in wider space. I couldn’t be less interested in machines. Until machines become interested in me, and by then it will be too late, yes? Let the breath quicken and say what it must. Let all sap return to the sea. Let’s share a joke, have a laugh, crack a smile. Punchlines: bipolar bears, it’s a shame, man, not crying and screaming like his passengers. Yep, let’s see what your teeth are made of. Learning? I come to forget the symptoms: frequent urination, back pain, loss of concentration, sleeplessness, breathlessness. And less and less and less and then…gone. Imitation is hard work, personation of who we were the most operose. What are the questions that we ask? The time question, the what-is-deserved question (also the why-me question) the question question, which I just asked, the dinner question, the continue question (to which the answer is ‘let’s call the calling off off’). The heart does not beat, thus and thus, but exists in continuous motion, or is dead and the organism with it. The heart: spasm and twitch, violent pushing, ingress and egress of blood, governed by electrical fires, by the dark chemistry of the body; moving, always moving, spark and fat, muscle and rippling tubes. Failure is inevitable. Silence is pride, utterance is shame. Action is fraud, inaction is deception. Opinions exhaust me, especially my own. Don’t leave me darling. Don’t leave me…’

The audience, rapt, paused with the Olsoned figure, eager to applaud but fearing to do so at the wrong moment.

‘I am not Charles Olson,’ he said. ‘He is more dead and more alive than I.’

The audience gasped, burped, paused, tittered, looked away embarrassed. All these things and others. The basketball men turned their chairs away from the stage and were joined by three women, dressed ordinarily, that is, not in sporting attire. One of the men, they seemed so alike, pulled a book from out of his shorts. The book was slim, folded and creased but, seemingly, new.

‘Would you read to us?’

He paged forward and thrust the book in front of me, pointing.

‘Start here…’

‘And then we will join you,’ said one woman.

‘That is, follow you,’ said the other woman.

I stared at the page, at the poetry and could not find an entry point or a place where sense commenced.

‘Start where you are,’ said the second man, and they all snickered.

I tried to read but my tongue felt thickened, too large for my mouth, too slow for words. I looked up and saw the reader leaving the hall.

‘You...You are Charles Olson,’ said the first man.

‘No,’ I managed, ‘no. I could not have lived what he didn’t.’

And as the words came into focus on the page, I realized that I had written them.

David Hayden David Hayden was born in Ireland and lives in England. His writing has appeared in The Stinging Fly, Granta online, Zoetrope All-Story, The Dublin Review, AGNI, The Georgia Review and A Public Space, in the Faber New Irish Writing anthology, Being Various, edited by Lucy Caldwell, in The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and on BBC and RTÉ radio. His first book, Darker With the Lights On, was published in 2017. Impersonation is from the unforthcoming book of short stories Imperfections Are The Only Perfections We Have.