Review (from the Women Who Killed It series): LITTLE STRANGER by Lisa Olstein

Dec 30, 2013Archive, Reviews

Little Stranger

Lisa Olstein


Copper Canyon Press

96 pages

Our Review Editor Josh English reviews his four favorite books of poetry published this year. These are the Women Who Killed It in 2013.


Lisa Olstein’s third book, Little Stranger, has a traveling shape, one that augments and condenses thematic currents as one reads, with poems that build from past poems and open secret chambers within subsequent poems. Throughout, her poems are rapid and direct, her syntactical complexity is measured with precise sketches of actual life, torqued by metaphorical dexterity. Olstein is an avid observer of transitions, especially transitions that blur the distinction between adaptation and alienation, and also how, within the adaptive routine of every day, there are endless alienating manifestations, and vice versa.

Little Stranger begins with a section of several poems that operate as a proem, digging the foundations for the complex of themes subsequent sections develop. “Spirit Level,” begins with a couple watching migrating geese amid the traffic of a suburban river and winds up dramatizing the fractures and dilating interpersonal distances of later domestic poems:

In flight, wings look like they are waving.

Everything around us says I am

changing while to one another we say,

I can’t hear what you’re saying.

Later, Olstein observes the distortion that occurs when the need to isolate and the need to organize attempt overthrow nature, in her poem, “Teaching Farm.” Beginning with the lesson of a fistulated cow “for recruits to plunge their arms into / feeling for spoons and pasture debris,” which is disrupted by a mailman getting attacked by a dog and misfiring his pepper spray, leaving everyone in tears, the scene ascends to a balloonist:

It’s his first time and he thought it’d be more

peaceful but the gas keeps firing

and he can’t control the drift of his glide.

It’s like the air is arguing all around him

and he really doesn’t care what we have for dinner

as long as we can sit down and eat.

This abrupt succession of scene developments, the unexpected, engineered emotional outbursts, and the insistence that life occurs within the context of evolving lives where escape is impossible, are all part of the pressure coiled in Olstein’s poems, urgent to spring loose.

One of the last poems of the first section, “Furniture Music,” introduces the wisdom nearly all of Olstein’s poems contain.  Over a series of snowstorms, a family is increasingly isolated to the house.  They begin to get weird, they are infected by the outside the attempt to quarantine themselves from:  “By the sixth [day of snow] we eat only // what’s white.  We watch deer / teeter on teacup hooves.”  But the poem pushes into the mutuality of isolation in the natural world:

We think instead of polar bears

patient on ice floes breathing

into the breathing holes where

seals surface, the frigid air

where their mouths won’t quite meet.

What is so arresting about this leap is that this figure describes a puncturing of the integument of routine or ordinary life, but it is a dangerous opportunity – the near meeting of mouths of predator and prey could spark, in the ambiguity of her phrasing, a kiss or violence.  And yet, they remain separated.  In a poem from a later section, a speaker remarks, “This is a border zone.  Here is / the line.  Now you’ve crossed it. / If you can hear me, listen.”  Separation, in an Olstein poem, is the most beguiling form of connection.

Yet another theme in Little Stranger is the transmission of knowledge in the form of rites.  Her speaker observes: “Although adept at sensing vibrations like schooling fish, / a child requires his own intimate instigation of terror.”  This graceful understanding of the necessity of organic, felt experience amplifies the confusion and static that arose from the ordered learning and desperate (failed) need for clear demarcations exhibited in the previous poems I’ve quoted from, and a great many more in the book.  But this method of experience is no less fraught with hazard and dangerous ambiguity.  The poem closes with this frighteningly cool closure:

He will look with wonder and no alarm

from the dog’s dancing tail to his playmate’s

panicked shrieking then back again

to the tallest mountains always turning out to be

clouds spooling and unspooling their thread.

What is more distressing:  the terror of experience or the failure to perceive terror?

The eight-part sequence “Dear Sir” marks the middle of the book.  This section is more overtly ordered as a sequence and more thematically unified.  “Dear Sir” describes the lingering presence of a lover, occasionally against the speaker’s wishes, occasionally willed into the speaker’s consciousness.  “Dear Sir,” is at once full of puppy love: “The heightened awareness, / the grace the senses bring / to the landscape, to the beloved / before imminent departure, / this is where I reside,” and the frustration of separation: “Dissatisfaction dresses me / according to its own schedule. / Sometimes I imagine you / sitting beside me.”  The section that addresses “Dear Sire,” deals directly with the illusion of specific longing:  “I understand the desired / is also desire… / that what we want is / a container for many wishes.”  To which the speaker is rebuffed, in an address to “Dear Siren,”: “Do you hear me not listening, / not imagining my fingers in your hair?”

Many of the poems in this collection carry the trace of separation from a lover or husband, though, often the poems handling the break-off are sadder and much more emotionally complicated than “Dear Sir.”  This section provides a clear and classical binary, and it remains a binary.  But immediately afterward, Olstein returns to her leaping, blurring, multifaceted, vertiginous poems that complicate and perhaps ridicule the simple ache in the simple heart.