by Ted Olson
Revelations: Poems, Appalachian poet Ted Olson’s second full-length poetry collection, contains eleven chapters of seven poems per chapter. Plying various forms and exhibiting a strong sense of musicality, these poems explore such themes as childhood, family, memory, love, nature, ritual, and visions both literal and spiritual. Olson’s poems provide surprising snapshots of a shared world that is all-too-often ignored or unexplored. In the words of literary critic James Owens, “We need Ted Olson. In his truest voice, he is a visionary poet, restlessly prying at the dim everyday with the shiny edge of intelligent illumination. His poems locate the connections and epiphanies, right there where they have always been, unseen until now and waiting for the right eye to find them, the right tongue to give them clarity and form.”
Ted Olson is the author of several books, including a previous collection of poetry, Breathing in Darkness, and a study of Appalachian culture, Blue Ridge Folklife.
He has edited numerous books, including collections of literary work by authors James Still, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Sherwood Anderson; four volumes ofCrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual; and the award-winning The Bristol Sessions: Writings
about the Big Bang of Country Music. Additionally, Olson was the music section editor and associate editor for The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
Revelations – Poems – hardcover
Revelations – Poems – softcover
by Maurice Manning
“Revelations: Poems sweeps broadly, gathering family history, displaced people, the natural world, religion, small towns, solitude, and love into a single tide washing into shore. Yet that spirit to bring things together through mystical bond is endangered by a counter current, by what Ted Olson calls “the mean American night.” Without rage and without preaching to the choir, Olson asks the kinds of questions whose moral imperatives are clear, yet whose solutions can no longer be easily reached. That is our predicament, whether we have the courage to face it or not. This is a book of wonder and worry; it is for our time and against our time. And the poetry here is refreshing, almost old-fashioned in that it is truly verse – we understood poetry a hundred years back – composed generously with rhythm and rhyme, and that antiquated quality makes the gravity of Revelations all the more subtle.”
by Linda Parsons Marion
“Ted Olson is a seeker of both light and dark, an Eden always beyond reach, and his personal and poetic journeys are illuminated in his new collection, Revelations. Guided by his grandfather’s lesson to “rise in the morning, / however tired, walk / toward the sun, and pray,” each poem, subtly rhymed and ordered, is one step closer to human understanding. Childhood “leaf-green season” amid stormy bumps in the night, the natural world’s mysteries amid the devastating “progress of concrete,” faith’s pull on a questioning heart – all revelatory, all shadows. But, as Rilke urged his young poet friend to “live the questions now,” Olson knows the elusiveness of answers – and continues to walk toward “the warmer place” of faith and stewardship, as we all walk in life, “without myth or map . . . onward at last.”
by Fred Chappell
“The revelations in Ted Olson poems are not always flashes of transcendental insight, so startling as to distract the senses. More often they rediscover objects, thoughts, and feelings that we may habitually pass over inattentively. In “The Longest Night,” for example, a man lies in bed awake, hoping for the arrival of dawn, when he will go outside, “his shadow / obeying, like the dog tracing his tracks.” Now he will move “onward at last.” When I read that poem, it came to me: Yes, I have had that experience, but it was lost upon me. These surprising revelations are really reminders.”
by Jeff Daniel Marion
“Revelations: Poems speaks to us in a quiet, restrained – and in many ways plaintive – voice of a journey, the narrator’s evolution through stages of awareness to find some abiding and deeply personal truths. The book evolves from a grandfather’s truth to the folk idiom that borders on Zen wisdom in “Fruit Stand”: “‘I don’t suppose / your dirt road goes / from here to town?’/ It was sundown / at a fruit stand. / A calloused hand / took my money / for some honey / without a word, / then he answered: / ‘Ain’t gone nowhere / since you parked there.'” The narrator later asks, “And what can the future hold / for people with no stories?” Perhaps one possible answer emerges late in the book when the narrator says, “I’ll remain with you, don’t worry: / words, released, will return like birds / carrying seeds from a dark space, / drop them where you are . . . they’ll grow towards / heaven, shelter you on that day, / sunlight beating against your face.” Words, yes, as seeds for growth, as shelter when they sprout and grow, as new life and awareness.”
by Thomas Rain Crowe
“Ted Olson has clearly lived a life that not an afterthought. His scrawled words channel the bloodstream tapping into the heart and thus are priceless. No blocked paths, here, rather visions for failing eyes – “revelations” indeed! These poems are not “gifts from strangers,” but rather what he lives for, “seeking but not seeing Eden” and “merging with the mystery.” In his Southern Zen-like condensed style, he writes poems like (longer) American haiku in homage to an active Nature from the perspective of an activist nature. Like the land he writes about that he hopes will not be wasted, we hope that readers will publicly praise his grace.”
by Frederick Smock for Louisville Courier Journal
“Appalachian poet Ted Olson is a variously gifted man. He has published a highly regarded study of Appalachian culture,Blue Ridge Folklife. He has edited literary collections by James Still, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Sherwood Anderson. In 2012, he received two Grammy Award nominations for his work as a music historian. He has taught American studies as a Fulbright Scholar in Barcelona. And he is a wonderful poet.
Olson is informed by Zen poetry, among others. His brilliant little poem (with a brilliant little rhyme scheme) “Open House” reads:
Wind lifted the roof,
shingle by shingle,
and now the sun, moon,
and planets mingle
in the living room.
In classical Japanese Zen poetry, the moon shining through cracks in the ceiling or walls is a symbol of transcendence, and it is something to be desired, as in this poem from a thousand years ago, by Izumi Shikibu:
It is true the wind
blows terribly here
but moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Olson is a nature poet (who is not?), and he bemoans the ruinous legacy of Big Coal and the seeming passing of the agrarian way of life. His poem “Questions” begins:
Where will all the farmers go
as their farms are bought and sold?
Will they end up in cities?
How will their grandchildren know
of truths their grandparents told,
forecasting through homilies
the coming of drought, of snow
(words too urgent to be old
warning folks: Get on your knees –
someday you’ll reap what you sow)?
And what can the future hold
for people with no stories?
Here is a poet of great sensitivity and great skills, who calls us to the contemplation of first things.”
by Rob Neufeld for Black Mountain News
“Ted Olson has been compounding a career as bard of the mountains for nearly 20 years, if we use as a starting point his emergence from the woods as a Blue Ridge Parkway ranger and the publication in 1998 of his book Blue Ridge Folklife.
Today his credits are numerous: 16 books; Grammy and other awards for writing about country music; Southern folklore and literature scholarship (he a professor of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University); and immersion in poetry.
Revelations, his second book of poems, taps, with musical distillation, an elegiac view of mountain ways, beginning with his childhood and then walking through various landscapes into a sunset.
Often, Olson attention turns with great sympathy to humbled people in his community, such as the “old men, slumping on benches” in his poem, “Games”. They have escaped their doting families as they used to hide from parents as children.
“They gather to remember,” Olson writes, “moments not defined by time; / together they’re transcending / their earthly, certain future. / Their talk unconstrained by rhyme, / they lament childhood’s ending.
by Marcianne Miller for Rapid River Arts & Culture Magazine
“Former Rapid River Magazine poetry columnist Ted Olson doesn’t skydive or find buried pirate treasure hidden on gorgeous beaches around the world. But he is, in my estimation, a man who has entirely too much fun in life.
He’s a poet, which means that he feels every thing he sees or hears more intensely than the average person does. He’s a professor in the Appalachian Studies Department at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., where he has the satisfaction of introducing young people to the study of a fascinating region of the U.S.
As a cultural historian, he wrote a superb book on Appalachian culture, Blue Ridge Folklife (1998), which every Asheville newcomer should read. Not just a word man, Olson is also a musician, who made notable contributions (gaining two Grammy nominations) in his work as a music historian.
As a book editor, Olson has brought to readers the literary legacy of writers who deserve more recognition, such as Sarah Orne Jewet and Sherwood Anderson. His latest editorial project is The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still, a labor of love that took almost a decade to accomplish. James Still (1906-2001), once known as the Dean of Appalachian Literature, spent much of adult life alone in a log home in eastern Kentucky. He was a novelist, poet and short story writer, most well-known for his 1940 novel, River of Earth, which was constructed by recycling a dozen of his short stories.
“I was interested in James Still’s work” Olson says, “because he found beauty and nobility in a hardscrabble Appalachian landscape, expressed through his literary efforts in a poetical interpretation of regional dialect.”
The 53 stories in this collection are indeed short, written in a style that is spare and full of action – perfect for today’s busy reader. The characters are simple people who face their struggles with a quiet dignity that is almost mythic. But life is not necessarily fair or forgiving for these characters.
In the title story, The Hills Remember,a nasty old codger makes sure he’s not the only man to meet his Maker on the day he’s been accidentally shot in the back. Women don’t fare well in these tales. Like in The Burning of the Water,their men pursue unattainable dreams that become nightmares for their families. Childhood is no idyllic time. In Still’s most anthologized story, Mrs. Razor(1945), a 6-year-old girl is convinced she is the mother of three children and married to a “lazy shuck of husband” who brings nothing but hunger and humiliation to their lives.
Like his first poetry collection, Breathing in Darkness (2006), Olson’s most recent volume, Revelations: Poems (2012), consists of 78 short poems. His poetry books make perfect gifts for those people who claim they don’t like poetry – his work is so clear you’ll have no trouble understanding what the poem is about, and so meaningful you’ll be breathless from the focused insight of its few lines.
A revelation is something that is disclosed from another source – God, or nature, or perhaps another person – rather than dug out from tragedy, or discovered on a long journey. The inspirational details of nature and the meditative, almost abstract nature of Olson’s poetry, make me think he is channeling his inner Celtic Christian monk.
In “Questions” Olson bemoans the deteriorating changes in Appalachian life:
“And what can the future hold
for people with no stories?”
In a poem about walking, which he claims is his one skill, Olson catapults his simple walks on land to the contemplation of the locomotion of other creatures.
“What sustains me are whims
I have when tired from walking:
my limbs are wings or fins,
if I get the notion.”
In Economy,” Olson reminds politicians what a real economic plan is.
there’s never enough money
to buy a sunrise.”
My favorite poem, which is so loving it made me cry, is Caretaker, about an older man who is determined to take care of the weeds at the house of his home-bound mother:
“…he’ll cut those weeds,
so at sunrise/ she’ll wake, look out,
and have no doubt/ she’s part of life.”
by Jim Minick from Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine
Ted Olson’s second book of poetry, Revelations, is a masterful collection. And surprisingly, every poem rhymes. The fourth, “Childhood,” for instance, ends with an amazing rhyme. After a cataloguing of childhood freedom, the poem moves to dangers not “forewarned,” most specifically “depression / [that] turned that suburban neighborhood / …to a prison; / I spent the rest of my childhood / seeking, but not seeing, Eden.” The pairing of “prison” with “Eden” invokes that moment in childhood when, as Graham Greene articulates, “the door opens and lets the future in.” Brilliant is Olson’s illumination of darkness, this revelation, this passing out of the Eden of childhood.
The collection as a whole is broken into eleven sections, and each grouping shares a common thread—a focus on fathers, or tributes to local wisdom, or lack thereof. All deal in some way with darkness and light, and this struggle fully finds voice in Section VII, the heart of the book, where the conflict becomes personal, the focus spiritual, as in “Camp Meeting.” The speaker experiences great fear as he camps in the wilderness: “some beast, unleashed, is bounding / toward you.” Words are useless in this wild land. Instead, “You must listen,” and eventually you’ll hear “the sound // of your other self,” the larger world, our larger Self. The poem ends with: “You’ll be discovered // hiding here from Him—your Lord / will break in your tent / to drag you out of the dark.” Our fears become revealed for what they are in the larger world—small and unworthy of our attention.
The next poems in this section move into a condemnation of religion and also fear of life. In “What’s Untold,” the speaker says that if you want “to stay warm,” then “remain in the fold.” But don’t articulate your questions because “the Word, whispered loud / in church, won’t allow / you to think. I know.” These last words reveal the speaker’s history of religious struggling, of being “[e]nslaved by the old / illusion.” The whole poem points to the loneliness of searching for spirituality on one’s own, away from organized religion. “Doomsday,” the next poem, condemns evangelists and their proclamations that “the end is near.” But more, it indicts those who “live their lives not knowing what they’re worth.” The judgment is larger, on all of us who need to be dragged out of our tents, “out of the dark.” In “Golfing on Sunday,” the speaker rants against a congregation he hears singing “I’ll Fly Away” while he golfs, calling it “not music,” but “noise, boisterous pride.” Who is the greater sinner, the Sunday golfer or the prideful, church-going singer? The poet implies both are fallen, but maybe only the golfer knows it.
The last poem in this section, the book’s title poem, “Revelations,” opens with a lovely wordplay: “I see the sun’s set / to go down soon,” avoiding “sunset” and surprising the reader. The poem focuses on “heaven’s nebulous / design,” “an amorphous shape / that’s on the brain’s map.” What is this design? Taken as a whole, these poems paint a picture similar to Thoreau’s “divine scripture” of nature and Whitman’s landscape, a “realm of budding bibles.” They also call on Frost’s darker view in his “Design.” The speaker in Revelations, however, finds Frost’s darkness, but also beauty and hope. He doesn’t question God so much as our lack of finding spirituality in nature. “Revelations” ends with the speaker saying that because of this nebulous design, “I, / buried beneath sky, / dream now of flying / beyond what’s trying / to keep me bound here– / the beauty, the fear.” This design doesn’t appall, it instead desires to fly, to experience the beauty and fear of this world, the revelation that occurs every time the “sun’s set / to go down.”
In sum, this is a beautiful collection, where “words, released…return like birds / carrying seeds from a dark space.” The seeds and revelations in this book are indeed many.