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Posted: Tuesday June 17, 2014
Excerpt from After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff

Poet Charles Olson had many correspondents over the years, but Frances Boldereff, a book designer and typographer, Joyce scholar, and single working mother, embodied a dynamic complexity of interlocutor, muse, Sybil, lover, critic, and amanuensis.

After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff follows on from an earlier edition, Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, that spans three years and more than three hundred letters. Published in 1999 by Wesleyan University Press, that edition concludes with a crisis that amounted to a “completion” of one of the major phases of their relationship. After Completion picks up the correspondence post-crisis, and consists of letters written between 1950 and 1969 – approximately 140 letters over a nineteen-year span.

Sharon Thesen, co-editor of After Completion, offers the following commentary on one of Charles Olson’s letters to Frances Boldereff. The letter – a small taste of this dynamic collection – is reproduced below.

After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff is available from Talonbooks for $24.95.

Washington to Brooklyn
18 September 1950 (postmark 18 September 1950)
         Monday Sept 18


This was to have been written to you from Gloucester. But in the push yesterday …
And do not mind, please, that I don’t write just for the moment. I have to break the pattern. I am burned, abt words. They did you damage. They ran ahead, of acts. This is evil, where it is not art. I am merely simplifying, & clearing—as we sd, to get back to the conditions of Ishmael or Trinacria.

And the Irish & the Swede, so far as the man goes. BUT, do not you forget what I sd last, abt where the beauty lies, the real business—what you and I at least must raise, can, do have the sights for,—what we are here on earth for.


[Letter by Charles Olson is used with permission from the Charles Olson Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.]

“I am burned, abt words,” Olson writes to Boldereff. “They did you damage. They ran ahead, of acts” (no. 2, 18 September 1950). Two weeks earlier, Boldereff, increasingly frustrated after Olson’s promising and then failing to visit her in Brooklyn, had informed him about an affair she had begun with a young man she had met on the subway (no. 324, 3 September 1950, A Modern Correspondence). Olson’s being “burned, abt words” could indicate that his own words in his letters (in which he was promising to visit her) were ultimately damaging to Boldereff. Or, perhaps the “words” Olson is referring to are Boldereff’s, indicating a recklessness (i.e., her telling Olson about the affair) that had damaging consequences by “burning” him. Olson’s tone suggests a betrayal has occurred which is worse than Boldereff’s apparent infidelity; for, as he goes on to say, “this is evil, where it is not art.” Olson and Boldereff had recently been reiterating the terms of their much-discussed bargain, that his “words” (not only his letters but his works, which Boldereff believed also spoke for her) were his “acts” of love toward her. Olson seems convinced, although he does not say so explicitly, that this alchemy (words being acts, and, specifically, his words being his acts) would pertain in his relationship with Boldereff regardless of the dilemma posed by his common-law marriage to Connie Olson. The terms of their relationship, however, included Boldereff’s language and ideas being “woven” by Olson into literary form, so that the words that were Olson’s acts also belonged to her and to some degree originated in her. But the delicate balance of this circulation of words and acts is about to topple.

Revolt is brewing in Boldereff’s letters. She is cruelly critical of Olson’s relationship with Edward Dahlberg, tying Dahlberg to her disgusted opinion of the “life-denying” forces in American culture3—a view that Olson, on eggshells at this point, reluctantly accepts (no. 321, 1 September 1950, AMC). Boldereff tells Olson how frustrated she is both by his broken promises and her own failure to get and keep a job in the publishing industry. “When Olson will you arrive?” she asks at the end of a letter in which she has declared that Arthur Rimbaud “belongs” to her, that he “was the poet—I the words” (no. 317, 30 August 1950, AMC). On 3 September 1950, in the letter in which Boldereff informs Olson about the young African-American man she met on the subway, she copies out Louise Varese’s translation of Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness” (the one that famously ends “The time of the Assassins is here”), telling Olson that every word of the poem was directed toward him. Olson, in the meantime, was in Washington, D.C., too ill with the flu even to go down to the mailbox where Boldereff’s letter was waiting. The shocked words that begin this volume of the correspondence are Olson’s: “Am still stunned, astonied,” he writes, “stunned, astonied, ’pended” (no. 1, 12 September 1950).

The letters from August 1950 until the crisis of the Labor Day weekend distill the tensions in the Olson-Boldereff dynamic and herald new dynamics to come. After the “completion” of the passionate momentum of their correspondence by Boldereff’s fling, which at least served to gain Olson’s renewed attention, these later letters reflect a further separation of their ­energies and preoccupations: Olson’s into the composition of the Maximus poems and the demands of his career as a leading poet, theorist, and teacher; and Boldereff’s into her work as a print designer, author, exegete, and “lover of man-created beauty,” especially in the form of Rimbaud’s poetry (no. 324, 3 September 1950, AMC). We see Rimbaud’s poetry becoming Boldereff’s touchstone as Olson works more and more experimentally in the later essays and Maximus poems, articulating a world view in which Boldereff was less and less implicated. While Olson and Boldereff’s correspondence had the effect of emboldening and encouraging them both, most of the emboldening and encouraging went in Olson’s direction. In a letter near the beginning of this volume, Olson rues “words running ahead of acts” but reiterates his commitment to their mutual comprehension of “where the beauty lies, the real business—what you and I at least must raise … what we are here on earth for” (no. 2, 18 September 1950).

Although Boldereff’s letters from September 1950 to May 1952 are missing, we can extrapolate from Olson’s replies that Boldereff has been laying down conditions and, at times, threatening to stop writing altogether. But as much as he appreciates the references, annotations, and observations her letters provide, Olson values the great vivacity of Boldereff herself. Even when Boldereff accuses Olson of “feeding off” her, Olson’s reply is, “well, what, frances motz, should, by yr own wisdom, be more wonderful? what?” (no. 9, 13 November 1950). As Olson’s “sweet salmon,” and within their mutual high estimation of the resuscitating qualities of her lovemaking, Boldereff is hardly in a position to disagree. A letter from her, he says, “still causes me to lift, and ride, and go places i am not otherwise taken,” but that more than a letter is “the image of you … which could not possibly cease to live in me, no matter what” (no. 6, 14 October 1950). Even so, when it is apparent Boldereff suggests they have a “closer” relationship, Olson demurs, for “moving it forward … into closerness” would endanger “the depth & power of letters between us, the imaginative wildness of the communication, would be disturbed” (no. 6, 14 October 1950). Fearing the consequences of a domestication of his relationship with Boldereff, Olson is also trying to protect his marriage—at this point to Connie Olson and then, later, to Betty Olson—from his attachment to Boldereff. The possibility that they might live together was broached and rejected later on, by each of them in different ways and under different circumstances.