By Charles Rammelkamp
In the poem, “What I Learned from the Ginkgo” (Ginkgo biloba), upon learning that a friend has just received a diagnosis of bowel cancer, from which he could die, the speaker’s impulse is to write to him, fuck cancer in its ass, knowing her friend might laugh at the dark humor, but she has misgivings, telling herself, “you are so clumsy / using humor as shield / the way you always do.” Indeed, more than the therapist’s Sit with that idea for a bit or her compulsive cleaning and tidying, or making lists, or the way she wraps “myself in facts, like research // in some magical science cloak that can protect / me from all my feelings,” humor is Christina Olson’s main strategy for dealing with anxiety. For just as the title suggests, The Anxiety Workbook is a kind of parody about dealing with worry, fear, apprehension, angst, a guide for the perplexed. She’s almost like a stand-up comic. So many of the poems are long, hilarious rants. Even when dealing with the very worst of anxiety-inducing situations – spouse abuse, suicide, rape, the pandemic – she can force a little chuckle of recognition from the reader.
The collection is prefaced with a “found poem” she has modified for her purposes, called “Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Screening Tool,” which she says in her Notes that she borrowed from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. As in many a questionnaire, it proposes a list of questions with Yes or No checkboxes. In Olson’s case – Do you experience excessive worry? Do you find it difficult to control the worry once it starts? Etc. – all of the boxes are checked YES. She confesses that she even worries about not worrying in the best, correct way. “Therapists are always surprised that it’s not death, or money, or my husband leaving me, so then I worry that I don’t worry about the right things….”
The poems that follow, in five parts, begin at the beginning, as it were, with “Intro to Therapy,” which she began as an undergraduate in college. “Back then / I thought therapy would be like a course of antibiotics: / I’d do the cycle and then I’d be fixed.” Twenty years later she’s still at it. Six of the fifty-three poems in the book are titled “Write Your Trauma: A Workbook Exercise,” as if this really were a self-help book with tips for controlling one’s anxieties. (Well, isn’t it? Smiley face emoji goes here.)
In the poem “Jeans! Jeans! Jeans!” which involves the death of a friend’s mother, she gives us insight into her worrying. It’s mithridatic, as if steeling herself against the worst.
She goes on: “See how I turned this poem / about my friend’s dead mom and her grief / into a story about me…”
“Anxiety Open House,” “Anxiety Summer,” “Anxiety Snow Day,” “Anxiety Garden,” and “Anxiety Lake” are also part of the curriculum in The Anxiety Workbook.
About midway through the collection, as if hitting the midterm exam, comes “Intermediate Therapy.” She’s dealing with a new therapist, to whom she confesses that she likes to clean her house, “as if doing so cleanses / myself of every bad choice / I’ve ever made.” The therapist tells her this is not the right approach; she must “do something all for herself.” She’s not necessarily convinced.
Olson frequently refers to nature to illustrate her thinking. Almost a dozen of the poems are called “What I Learned from…” (Wisteria, Gingko, Mastodon, Remains of Xena, A 12-Foot Mammoth, Gympie Gympie Plant, Velvet Ant, Copperhead, the Pregnancy I Terminated, West African Lungfish, Goblin Shark). These, too, are comical but provide insight into human behavior. “What I Learned from the Gympie Gympie Plant” (Dendrocnide moroides ), for instance, begins:
There’s a lesson to be learned here about the anxieties we carry with us through life, the things that will torture us over and over, their sting no less potent over time.
Mammoths and mastodons figure into a handful of poems – “Catalogue of Damages,” “Among the Bones,” “What I Learned from the Mastodon,” “What I Learned from the remains of Xena, a 12-foot Mammoth,” “20/20” – always with affectionate humor and insight (“Xena, what is it with all these goddamned flawed men”).
Several poems involve Koko the gorilla who paints watercolors that someone is selling online. Visit Koko.org for further information.
As one might expect from a poet and creative writing teacher, Olson also focuses on language itself in several poems. Latin words, for instance, are important. In “Another Theory on Language” she writes that she makes up words for things that “language hasn’t caught up to yet,” citing various examples, mainly convoluted German terms.