Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger should come with a warning label—Adult Supervision Required:
Books tell us how to pierce the neck,
how to open the airway of a fellow passenger
with a hollow pen, how to wrestle an alligator,
but not how to out-swim a bear.
There’s no out-swimming a bear.
—From “Themselves Performing Small Brave Acts”
Sharp-edged and standoffish, Olstein’s poems are isolated and isolating, monotone chronicles of the ways we struggle against, and inevitably succumb to, failure. In this collection, failure is plural, multi-faceted, systemic. “Maybe you’re a thousand ways broken,” she’ll say, and by the end of the collection, I believe her. Sometimes we fail to mend: “there’s nothing / we can’t calculate: my broken fingers / for your broken fingers, this anguish.” Other times, to communicate: “don’t / call me baby I’m fourteen / get out of the fucking bathroom please.” We fail to intervene: “We see how the children cluster / around the afflicted girl. // We’re familiar with the way / cruelty accrues cruelty.” We fail to feel: “I search for ways / to say what remains / lumpen and inarticulate inside me.”
It may be tempting to fault Olstein for her clipped, laconic lines. Some readers will be reminded of Randall Jarrell’s criticism of Oscar Williams, whose poems “gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.” The poems do tend towards the robotic. Her tone hovers near the freezing point. The language is flat, the syntax elementary, and the mood perpetually declarative. These aren’t just poems stripped of their usual niceties; you can pick up these poems’ titles off the floor of a clean room: “This is a Test of the Internal Emergency Broadcast System,” “Control Group,” “The Brain is an Operations Center.”
But what Olstein does so well in this collection is capture the encroaching eye, the paranoia that pervades our day-to-day lives. These are the poems of surveillance:
Truly now they are filling the sky with robotic eyes
with automaton dragonflies executing missions
named after homing pigeons wheeling twenty-five miles
in twenty-five minutes through artillery fire
and the long-eared mules they fly above
whose gift to warfare was steadiness pulling cannons
—from “I Saw a Brand-New Look”
Given the mechanized, weaponized state in which scads of information are filed away to be used for some nebulous, far-off emergency, it’s no wonder the poems often sound as if they are responses to interrogations:
I fell in love anew.
He was as invention:
two parts rabbit in winter,
one part hawk above the koi pond.
—From “Heavy Hunters Rely on Stealth”
In “To Where,” her speaker, with a similarly subjugated air, offers, “I am a girl. Every morning / I choose carefully how to dress.” Even nature, that classically Romantic escape hatch, has been turned against us. There are “deer nearby . . . watching the air / with satellite-dish ears” while elsewhere, “the geese don’t look down / from diagramming the sky.” It’s no wonder the poems reflect the zeitgeist of a digitized, manipulated world. Even worse, Olstein reminds us, this situation is not unique. “We’re amnesiacs” one poem says, “We know and forget steadily / like a clock returning its hands / to move in circles across its face.” Though the collection often feels resigned to this new normal, the revelations in light of perpetual watchfulness still devastate: “Now it’s as if a machine // records the feelings / I might have had.”
It is these moments of revelatory inwardness that I often find shocking, thrilling even. Despite their chilliness and their paranoia, some of the poems are familiar, intimate, their sleep-quieted rooms and weather-blanked landscapes standing in for nearly anywhere without feeling like nowhere. Where a less-skilled poet would tumble from such vague scaffolding, Olstein almost always manages to make the poems feel intentional and whole, despite their gestural architecture. The best of these poems are in the book’s fifth section, which wedges a handful of elegies between “Aubade” and “Vespers.” Here, oscillating between tender regret and the inevitability of failing memory, there are a number of truly human moments:
Forgive me if I touch your face
in place of another face,
with these fingers in the place
of other fingers, my own,
the ones I remember.
Here, Olstein leads us by the ear into the body’s deeper intimacies. These elegiac poems accumulate, repeat, echo, and rhyme, as if trying to harness some incantatory power in language, as if doing so might stave off the inevitable:
One by one we gentle our loves
to the ground. This is how
it is to sleep near a sea
that sounds like the traffic
of familiar feet, the way rain sounds
to the sea
Tenderness, then, is a form of resistance. It allows Olstein to create intimacy on the page not only among those who inhabit these poems, but also in those of us reading them. It is the way these poems, for all their machinery, remind us that we are human. While at times the poems feel hunkered-down, peering at us through the slats of their lines, this collection capably and artfully tests the tension between privacy and secrecy. With this book, Olstein has declared herself a poet worth watching.