This timely yet elemental collection from Olstein (Little Stranger) unfolds where the exigencies and distractions of daily life brush up against the political, the ethical, and the existential. The whistle, an ambivalent sound, repeatedly intercedes as a refrain in the prose poems of the collection’s core, where such phenomena as school concerts, global warming, conversations among friends, animals in captivity, kidnappings, car radios, Kurt Cobain, and Godzilla make their presence known. “This world, Whistle, there’s nothing for it, what can we possibly say?” The whistle, fills the space where language is unable to reconcile the individual and the daily with the grand, historic, and often catastrophic ways in which “we all tear apart and are torn.” The extended prose blocks constitute just one of several modes, each of which occupies a distinct section in the book. The single-stanza meditations that open and close the collection mix humor, exposition, and lyrical beauty; relatively traditional sonnets offer wordplay and imagination; a numbered sequence of poems in tercets take Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Spaceas source text and offer an apt ars poetica: “By clear-eyed words can one/ hear oneself close? The rote/ of the sea, the roar of, the glint.” Olstein’s profound and attentive poems reveal her formal dexterity and knack for spotting modernity’s absurdities: “Some days even business as usual seems rare.”
– Publishers Weekly
Hayden Carruth Award winner Olstein (Radio Crackling, Radio Gone) here meditates on a world gone awry, limning in precise, beautifully modulated language both personal dislocation and the slings and arrows visited upon the community at large. Generally, the personal and the communal link and even merge. “Want rings out in the house/ of the self and in the self the self must live,” says the opening poem adroitly before moving on to war-zone violence; those disaffected nights “you settled/ for take-out and a blindfold” unwind inevitably to animal extinction and the bitter observation that “Sometimes there’s a glitch/ in the system. Fatal errors occur.” Olstein tosses out so many smart aperçus that one sometimes puzzles how a poem tracks from first line to last. But that’s the point; as she says, “Strangled in fog, I offered/ logic in return,” and her poems indeed have their own logical flow. In an excellent series of prose poems addressing a persona named Whistle, Olstein acknowledges “a great sadness in the air” while confirming that “today the world is here for us,” and despite the occasional stretch she’s able to hold such disparate ideas together while asking the big questions. VERDICT: Sharp, approachable work for most readers.
– Library Journal
In her fourth book―a gorgeous call-to-arms in the face of our current social and political conditions―Lisa Olstein employs her signature wit, wordplay, candor, and absurdity in poems that are her most personal―and political―to date. Like a brilliant dinner conversation that ranges from animated discussions of politics, philosophy, and religion to intimate considerations of motherhood, friendship, and eros, Olstein’s voice is immediately approachable yet uncomfortably at home in the American empire.
– Prairie Schooner
Very highly recommended... Olstein's poetry ranges from animated discussions of politics, philosophy, and religion, to intimate considerations of motherhood, friendship, and eros.
– Midwest Book Review
Walter Benjamin once observed that "what has been forgotten…. is never something purely individual." Indeed, it is easy to overlook the fact that memory and its elisions are collectively orchestrated, as we constantly borrow, appropriate, and revise material from a shared cultural imagination. Yet, given the presence of a communal consciousness, forgetfulness also becomes something of an impossibility. What is erased from the master narrative inevitably manifests in other ways, making its presence known in the minutia of language, syntax, and grammar. What is left out of the tableau remains woven into its canvas; it is housed, projected, and performed in the texture of language, which functions as a shared unconscious of sorts.
Three recent collections of innovative writing by women fully do justice to this notion of syntax as collective memory, as archive, as ledger. Elizabeth Lyons’ The Blessing of Dark Water, Carolina Ebeid’s You Asked Me to Talk About the Interior, and Lisa Olstein’s Late Empire each consider, albeit through a different conceptual lens, the question of what trauma and violence is housed in the words we use. "I am in a room, labeled difficult," Lyons writes. In each of these stunningly crafted collections, we are shown the social upheavals and the deeply personal grief woven into the very rules of language, that glittering “machine” turning just beneath the surface of a community...
Late Empire continues this interrogation of language as vestige, as master narrative in ruins, as archive and as collective unconscious. Much like Ebeid and Lyons, Olstein calls attention to the fragmentation – of meaning, of story, and of voice – housed within syntactic constructions that offer an illusion of wholeness, that deceptive aura of unity and cohesion. In many ways, the tension that Olstein creates between a unified form and this unruly content speaks to the role of grammar, and its implicit logic, in structuring the narratives that circulate within our culture, that echo within each one of us, the stories that ultimately make us ourselves.
For Olstein, grammar implies a very particular type of causation, one that assumes a linear understanding of history, a logic of cause and effect. What is brilliant and provocative about Olstein’s work is that she fully acknowledges the impossibility of forgetting a conceptual framework that has been fully internalized, and the futility of fashioning something wholly new. Rather, she realizes that the rules of language must be questioned, interrogated, and revised from within. She elaborates in “AIR RIGHTS,”
One way to think of it is
I require absence and you are
lifelong a room just left. Except
you bloom not empty half-light
but a stand of trees at the edge
of the meadow where my life
Here, Olstein offers sentences that fit together from a grammatical standpoint, functioning as pristine subject-verb-object constructions. Yet within that flawless grammar, one discovers a provocative fragmentation of meaning. For example, as we move into the third line, the semantic meaning of words is no longer privileged, but rather, their musicality, their sonic qualities, becomes the driving logic behind each clause, each gorgeously ruptured sentence. With that in mind, Olstein offers a vision of history in which language becomes an internalization of empire, the mind itself being colonized by a logic and a worldview that is not one’s own. What is fascinating about Late Empire is that Olstein does not merely offer critique, but begins the difficult work of creating an alternative space, an understanding of language that allows for the hypothetical, the disruptive, the utopian.
Like Lyons and Ebeid, Olstein offers us language that is startlingly conscious of its own movement through history. In doing so, each of these three gifted writers forges her own her own ethics and her own lexicon. These are books that remind us what is possible in the most familiar grammars, showing us the strangeness and wonder that resides just beneath a docile surface, the syntax we thought we knew.
– The Literary Review
“[These poems] speak not only to the coming apocalypses, but also to our rapidly degrading methods of publicly addressing them—one dog-whistle after another, each less content-bearing, each more purely a form of address, than the one before it.”
– Shane McRae
Lisa Olstein’s The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to Those of Whales is a Family Resemblance (the poems of which are contained in Late Empire) also considers the ways that language exists in, and is transformed by, time. Presented as a linked sequenced of epistolary prose poems, Olstein’s poems address a mysterious figure named Whistle, who is at turns confidante and purveyor of an impending apocalypse. Indeed, this faultlessly crafted book is populated by “cities being torn down,” “floods,” and “waves of data from all directions,” evoking both biblical plagues and the inherent violence of a digitized cultural landscape. Olstein’s imagery, like her diction, creates an experience of time as elliptical, recursive, and circular, returning like a literary text to the same themes, symbols, and motifs. In many ways, the style of Olstein’s prose poses a provocative challenge to prevailing notions of time as linear, a sanctum only for master narratives and teleological arguments. As Olstein herself observes, we have “lived according to the captors’ time, waking, eating, sighing, sleeping out of sync with everyone around us.”
She subtly implies, through her careful curation of imagery, that time retains a layered quality, its slow and soundless movement allowing us to see confluences, divergences, repetitions. For Olstein, it is language that accumulates, and transfigures, the materials of history, its “despair” and its “fire.” By pairing “vitamins,” “prescriptions,” and “brittle lawns” with the wreckage of “empire,” Olstein also suggests the possibility of transforming experience through our use of language. Indeed, she renders us suddenly and startlingly aware of the presence of history, its myriad upheavals and inequities, in our smallest linguistic choices. She writes, for example, in “Every Pastoral Is an Elegy,”
I saw it happen, Whistle, what the billboards describe, I saw it begin, a noiseless slipping of the face beneath the surface, the silence of going under, and in this case by chance or by vigilance the awful invisibility was visible enough to be reversed by swift leap and wild grasp and then he was in my arms again, Whistle, like a newborn gasping and because he is mine, he is mine, he is mine, because on that day he did not die, because my fear from him I try to hide, because in the womb all sound is a kind of music, I started singing.
Here, and throughout the collection, Olstein’s diction drifts between history (embodied by such phrases as “swift leap” and “wild grasp”) and modernity (for example, “what the billboards describe…”). Much like Beckman and Knox, Olstein prompts us to consider the ways in which we search the archive when the language of the present moment falls short, particularly when attempting to convey sublime experience, the “singing” of the senses upon witnessing a transcendent moment. Yet Olstein also upholds the necessity of transforming the archive, and in doing so, transfiguring our definitions of beauty and possibility. She shows us that the presence of history and empire in language “is visible enough,” rendering us suddenly aware of culture’s machinery, how the archive, when its “hallowed halls” are opened, cultivates repetition – of “fear,” “what we hope desperately never to find.” The apocalypse portrayed in this collection, then, is revealed as an end to language as we know it, a “slippery bridge across we don’t know what,” a bridge where we will find “crossing soon foreclosed.”