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This article is taken from PN Review 139, Volume 27 Number 5, May - June 2001.

End of Harm: Douglas Oliver Peter Robinson

It's curious that to praise Douglas Oliver's work by describing it as 'harmless', borrowing an adjective from the title of his 1973 novel The Harmless Building, would seem to denigrate it in the direction of the namby-pamby. This is presumably because the second meaning of 'harmless' given in my Webster's is 'lacking capacity or intent to injure: INNOCUOUS'. The offered synonym too, though its Latin root is nocere (to wound), seems to have little positive charge, and rather indicates a lack of capacity. The word 'innocence', which shares that root, also engaged the poet's sustained attention, as in his description of a Tupamaros guerrilla in the first of the 'Diagram Poems' (1979) as 'Already bereaved of innocence and late'. The use of 'bereaved' in that phrase grazes one of the founding harms behind his writings, the loss of a Down's Syndrome son, Tom, who died in a cot accident in 1969. To call Oliver's work 'harmless' would be to say it doesn't wound or harm because it can't, and that as a consequence its value as art (which is where the embedded cultural assumption comes into play) is significantly reduced, perhaps to irrelevance. While oozing a capacity to harm may well taint the virtue in not doing it, there can only be such a virtue present if the power to hurt is also implicit. Douglas Oliver's work is alive with this recognition. So where's the harm in it?

The Harmless Building contains a world of harms. There ...


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