William Olsen

Today’s featured work is a poem from William Olsen’s fifth and most recent collection, Sand Theory (TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2011).

William Olsenphoto by: James Ferreira
William Olsen
photo by: James Ferreira

A great poem finds that difficult balance between the particular and the universal. The lines can represent an intimate, temporal detail and then transcend that specificity. I have thoroughly enjoyed the time I have spent this week looking at both the small details and in the shared experience of humanity waving through the Dune Grass.

The perspective was something that Olsen brought to life for me. The opening camera starts on the surface of one thing trying to become another, then immediately re-imagines the scene, again and again.

Different parts of the scene take and then pass the lead, while the writer-as-witness moves among the cast. It also describes how a place, or a place poem, effects change on all who pass through.

Dune Grass

It is what sand would look like if it could just
escape itself and grasp the diffuse and clump around
pilings like stumps of teeth ground by tide,
risen to whatever inhuman trial it is

to have threadbare wind for a coat and a body
that has no eyes and no face to love,
bent in scarcely rooted supplication.
When have we not seen it praying

in its own loose unison of piety,
in its strength to waver and stay put and out return
the hulking one-time-only beachfront condos—
I’ll worship something that would return to all this.

Repeatedly this need to be somewhere real again
comes upon land with features that never settle,
this treasure so openly fragile it’s beginning
to dawn on me that we should all be singing—

no place like this anywhere in the world,
even the ground one stands on taken up,
what it means to escape damnation and holiness
and be forever risen into being used

right here at my glowing naked toes.
We walk right over all this we love the sight of
that in it we can love our transience,
our hills, their lakes no older than our species,

as it turns out earth never belonged to itself,
till even despondency seems hopeful evasion.
So why this trust, this sudden drop from bluff
to lake where sky resides and spars of buried trees

are disinterred from dunes, the beached hulls
of ghost barns are open houses, bare rafters
almost fallen in on their blessed ghost cows?
Why do ears settle on lone islets of seething birches,

tremblings near an even vaster trembling?
For however much I meant to find a human likeness
down on its knees, its hands churched together,
there’s more room than ever for the booming distances

and sand enough for wind to blow beyond
all of us who abandoned, betrayed, trampled repeatedly
haywire paths, shown nothing new, no, this,
right here where there is no dogma or heresy,

shimmering just a little above the earth,
in its strength to waver and yet stay put
lifted by sun and rain into being used,
hanging on and letting us come and go.


William Olsen currently teaches at Western Michigan University. He has published four other collections of poetry, The Hand of God and a Few Bright Flowers (Illinois, 1988), Vision of a Storm Cloud (Triquarterly, 1996), Trouble Lights (Triquarterly, 2002), and Avenue of Vanishing (Triquarterly, 2007).

Professor Olsen has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, A Nation/ Discovery Award, The Texas Institute of Arts Award and a Breadloaf Fellowship. He also serves as editor for the New Issues Press.

Dune Grass is included here by permission of the author.


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