The Lost Language of Shadows
by David Olsen
46 poems, 55 pages
Price: £8.50
ISBN: 978-1-913329853
Publisher: Dempsey & Windle
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Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater.

The Lost Language of Shadows is poet and playwright David Olsen’s fifth full length collection. Formerly an energy economist, management consultant and performing arts critic, Olsen now resides in Oxford, England.

The striking photograph on the front cover is more likely to be of a sunset than a sunrise since this book is more about endings than beginnings. Reading between the lines, there is an elegiac feel to these poems whose subjects range from specifics connected to World War I and World War II, the wildfire in Boulder Creek, an earthquake in San Francisco, a poem in memory of Edward Thomas and a North American childhood.

The contents are divided into two parts: ‘Dramatis Personae’ (a term that would be familiar to a playwright) and the title of the book itself, ‘The Lost Language of Shadows’. The first section is mainly made up of personal portraits but the second carries more weight containing poems about war, economic justice and climate change.

In ‘L’Heure Bleue’ Olsen makes a connection between his mother’s penchant for wearing scent created by Jacques Guerlain with the sight of a pure indigo sky glimpsed from the tall windows of a hospital when he was twelve years old. The bottle was ‘of deepest blue’ and it is the colour rather than the scent that appears to invoke this memory even though the description of its scent on the internet reads like a piece of poetry in its own right – a combination of aniseed, bergamot, gourmand vanilla, benzoin and tonka bean.

‘Suspension’ records an earthquake of the magnitude of 6.9 that hit the San Francisco Bay Area killing 67 people on October 17, 1989. Even though the disaster was one of the most powerful and destructive quakes ever to hit a populated area of the United States, the death toll was relatively small:

Reports of damage trickle in:
a section of the Bay Bridge has collapsed;
in Oakland a triple-layer interchange pancaked,
crushing drivers in their cars;
a brick wall smashed a bookshop café
in Santa Cruz.

We go to bed
seeking the comfort of candles,
quaking at every aftershock.

Two other poems that caught my attention from this first section were ‘Sixth Chair’ and ‘Balcony’. The former is an ekphrastic poem based on the painting ‘The Violinist, 1982’ by the Romanian artist Constantin Piliuţă (1929-2003) and the latter puts us in mind of Romeo and Juliet with its mention of a balcony. This is a very fine poem recording a brief moment that is no more than an innocent exchange of glances between a man and a woman, one of life’s briefest encounters with ‘no / immediate import or lasting consequence.’ For all that, there is no denying that the weight of the woman’s gaze holds the attention of the man in that fleeting moment. Olsen’s choice of mathematical / geometrical imagery is skilfully deployed in the first two lines of the fifth stanza: ‘Venn diagrams of separate lives / intersect tangentially for a moment.’ Intriguingly, the image of the Venn diagram also appeared earlier in the opening couplet of ‘Communion’ where ‘Two kites intersect in a Venn / diagram of separate gyres.’

In the second part of the book, ‘Duty of Care’ takes a long, hard look at those rows and rows of servicemen’s headstones in the Bayeux War Cemetery, Normandy, where the grass and flowerbeds are tended with exact precision – a striking contrast to the chaotic mess and stench of the war in which the Commonwealth soldiers so bravely fought. The last two lines of the poem turn it into something more universal: ‘Like medics and nurses fulfilling humanity’s bond, / gardeners tend the wounded earth with a duty of care.’

‘Passchendaele Farm’ reminds us of the dormant artillery shells that still need to be disposed of ‘at a safe remove’ when discovered accidently by the unsuspecting plough.

In a change of subject matter, ‘Night Express’ offers up an observant picture of the nightly commute from London to Oxford.

Four poems near the end underscore our fragile environment. They are ‘Blood Orange Sky,’ with its mention of desiccated trees, blackened countryside and burning homes, ‘Wildfire, Big Basin,’ which documents the forest fires of Boulder Creek, ‘En Passant,’ with its mention of drought and fire and ‘Petri Dish,’ a poem that acts as a powerful metaphor for the state of our planet.

Taken as a whole, this is a keenly observed and compassionate collection.


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