Thursday, January 23, 2020

Poem366: “The Last Mastodon” by Christina Olson



The Last Mastodon by Christina Olson

The Last Mastodon by Christina Olson, Studio City, California: Rattle, 2019

Since the book itself is an appreciation of relics, I suppose it’s OK to begin by singing the praises of an artifact: Christina Olson’s The Last Mastodon is a beautiful chapbook, with a deep teal, matte cover emblazoned with a hot-pink title and byline. Open it, and laaa! Crisp hot-pink endsheets envelop the text. It’s a slim volume, at only 36 pages, but the dimensions, 6 inches by 9 inches, are pretty big for a chap. The author photo on the back flap shows Olson sitting on the floor in shorts and an I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening grin beside a mastodon skull and a set of tusks.

I was disposed to like this book from the outset—and I did!

This is the third Rattle Chapbook Prize winner I’ve featured in this series, and it’s still January, so that’s weird. I happened to have some at home because I entered the contest a few times, and entrants receive a copy of the winning edition. With the death of my mother and some work make-up frenzy, I needed short books, and I really like physical copies. Hitting 2018 winners Mather Schneider and Raquel Vasquez Gilliland made sense for size reasons, and that’s partly why I chose to read Olson’s book, too. (I needed a chap today because I was nowhere near done with a gorgeous but difficult full-length collection that will need to percolate for a bit.)

Gosh, this is the most personal appreciation I’ve written so far, and I’ve said virtually nothing about Olson’s poems. I’m realizing, though, that Rattle has an unusually good chapbook series, and they’re three for three with me—not a stinker in the bunch.

The Last Mastodon was born during a three-day poetry residency Olson experienced in the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Olson got to spend time with and touch relics and talk to paleontologists at work there, and I can only imagine how inspiring that was. The resulting poems certainly are.

Olson is as playful as her cover photo promised she would be (although many poems or parts of poems are darkly philosophical, too). I like the poem that is framed in the form of a “how-to” manual, “How to Care for Your American Mastodon”:

An adult mastodon consumes nearly three pounds of coniferous twigs a day. They prefer the tender greens. Brittle twigs will stick in a mastodon’s throat. Your baby mastodon will spend most of its early life huddled against its mother in the cold spruce woodlands. Like you, it will learn to navigate. Or it will die.  Always lift at the midsection, not by the legs.

It’s fun, how committed she is to the concept. I forget for a moment that there’s zero chance I’ll accidentally pick up a mastodon by the legs.

Positioned alongside some truly funny moments are some gut-punches — more impactful, probably, because of the juxtaposition. I felt almost knocked over by some lines in “Among the Bones,” a rumination about the speaker’s tendency to collect bits of dead things (her dog’s hair, a skull, a sand dollar), set off by a memory of her father. Writes Olson,

The advantage to dead thins

is that you cannot hurt them
anymore. Instead, they hurt you,

over and over and over.

This is undeniably, inescapably true, delivered in a manner that only poetry can serve up.

Embedded in the book are details about the life of Thomas Jefferson (who believed his Louisiana Purchase would yield mastodons) and ecological messages. I like “Broken Sonnet on Teeth,” in which Olson describes the popularity of the sabre-tooth at the La Brea Tar Pits (“eight-inch knives in its mouth that / even now haunt our dreams”). Concludes Olson,

                                          We fear the knife
of the sabre-tooth, its name a clear warning, but we
miss its point—Smilodon died when its big prey
died out, but we’ll expire when the smallest life
on Earth does. Surely you’ve noticed the bees
have gone quiet? Forget teeth. Time to pray.

For a chapbook, The Lost Mastodon is a satisfying read, full of humor and insights. I recommend it.

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