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 Late Empire, Lisa Olstein’s fourth poetry collection, the poet throws herself into a disturbing discussion about 21st-century realities, pinpointing, questioning, and exhorting. It’s a riveting picture of the micro, day-to-day busy-ness against the macro, overshadowing struggle of existential survival. “We bring the world to bed with us, / its weather, its moving maps, / and its wars.” The writing is inclusive; we are all in the same bunker, facing constant trauma.
Structurally, the collection is divided into five sections, each written in a different form: sonnets, prose poems, poems written in tercets based on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and lyrical one-stanza poems that open and close the book. The atmosphere intensifies from section to section. A mystery figure, Whistle, enters the prose poems and becomes Olstein’s sounding board.
With repetition and short sharp sentences in the poem “The Disaster,” Olstein brings home the effect of round-the-clock reporting moving from catastrophe to catastrophe: “The disaster is not / our affair. The disaster takes care / of everything.” Additionally, Olstein is a master of poetic syntax. Her words paint fresh, beautiful images, as in “Glitter-spilled stars / velvet the gaze,” or “The foot / of the lake meets the mouth of the river.” Her sensitive lens focuses on our most basic dreams and fears: “Mark, what if / by chance I met my true love when I was / too young to know to keep him?”
Olstein also vents her frustration at our neglect of the earth. “Monday / it’s a report on the impossible future of bananas. Tuesday it’s / the story of limes held hostage by cartels. Both still appear / on our shelves, but we don’t know for how long.” “A Poetics of Space” deals with our connection with our surroundings, including the “intimate data” of shells and walnuts, garrets and rooms...
Lisa Olstein’s perceptive voice cuts through our “safe house” of complacency. She calls on us—and on the empire to which we belong—to take note of what’s going on before it’s too late.
– Rain Taxi
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.”
“This is exactly what Empire wants you to do,” says the “almost friend” in the middle of Lisa Olstein’s Late Empire, “sit around crying or sit around writing, playing the small-time artist-agitator role” (52). The observation wryly calls out the poet-speaker and probably half of her audience—she has been driving around crying, cataloging the features in the American landscape she inhabits, which is to say, the topography of American disaster:
A golf course, a prison, a wastewater treatment plant, six gas stations, a dollar store, a BBQ-Beer-Barbershop, two Baptist churches, one megachurch with a neon sign….a Quaker meeting house, a women’s and children’s shelter, which I don’t think is supposed to have a sign…and dozens of brittle lawns are what I drive by on my way to and from each day, Whistle, lately crying. (“Essay Means To Try” 52)
The poet and the empire are on the brink of collapse, and recording the social and psychological terrain is part of an effort to cope and comprehend: “A time of catastrophe provides an opportunity for the acceleration of spiritual growth, is one take on the matter. That fear isn’t only an echo from the past but the future calling, is another” (42). The future is calling in its most embodied form in Whistle, child or ephebe, the intimate other to whom these prose poems are addressed—the one in need of protection and instruction, and the one who stands to suffer the effects of the disaster. Late Empire’s central preoccupation is space—what it means to occupy and inhabit the landscape, what it means to reckon with its degradation, and what alternatives there might be to the imperial impulse that undergirds it all: “It’s impossible not to feel thirsty, Whistle, under a sky like this” (39).
That thirst drives both a colonialist fantasy and a poetic mode that is hard for an American poet, whatever her intentions, to escape. Olstein’s book is tangled in and resistant to the ideological imperative in Charles Olson’s opening declaration in Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman’s): exploration.” It’s all there in Olson’s assertion, the whole disaster: a primitivistic nod to archeology of pre-European origins, an egregious “first” that obfuscates the facts of conquest and genocide, a generalized masculine pronoun. This rhetoric, informing and deforming a poetics of landscape, springs from and feeds the idea of American space as blank slate. In 2018, when reactionary factions declare themselves “settlers” in contradistinction to “immigrants,” it is rhetoric that is far from obsolete. Olstein’s book asks how—how on earth, this late in an empire that has done irreparable harm—a poet can manage to write what she sees out there in a merciless space indeed.
Olstein doesn’t answer, but she goes at the problem from several angles. One is the flip and fuck-you ethos of “Pioneer Me,” whose title suggests both an imperative invitation, as in “ravish me,” and also an adjectival identity, the residual pioneer-poet version of the self: “Welcome to the museum,” the poem opens, sardonically, “Did you come after work / on poor middle-class / half-priced half-an-hour night?” (86). Indicting the institution of cultural enshrinement carries the speaker nonetheless to the eros of a romanticized landscape: “Let me undress you down to / the plainest beige sail you / become, something hovering like / the meadow above the meadow….” (86). She cannot escape her beigeness, which is to say, her whiteness, and this tension, this inheritance, colors her perceptions of the world: “no more June, there’s something / blue-hued and sinking now / beneath the skin, endlessly pinned, / a river returning” (86).
“Charismatic Megafauna” encapsulates this tension. Bearing one of Olstein’s pithy titles that are almost poems in their own right (others are “People are Hanged Curtains are Hung” and “The Canary’s Job Is to Die”), the poem opens with folk and christological idioms on which the country is founded—“fruit of the vine, fish on / the line, chip on the shoulder, / off the old”—and then lands on this formula:
Nature says grassland-acres-ibex.
Nurture says asphalt-kibble-fence.
The sun says sleep, sleep, O my
America, O my newfound land. (85)
Echoing John Donne, Olstein captures the foundational divides of the imperial landscape: uncultivated pasture versus industrial pavement, agricultural measure versus processed sustenance (for pets, no less), and wild creature versus urge to confine, frame, define. This poem is another fly-by, this time a lightning tour from cops to Caesar to Circe to the zoo, and it comes to a halt with the Adamic act of naming. We care about what we name, she suggests, but then we also feel like we own it. Olstein holds the dichotomy of nature and nuture in abeyance, even as she acknowledges, a few pages later, how deep the imperial will goes: “We’ve learned / to despise anything invasive, but everyone loves / a winner” (94).
“Space Race,” near the midpoint, is the best poem in the book, an unassuming but hard-hitting essay-poem for an era of ecological crisis. It identifies, in one deft image, the paradox of imperial ambition: “A city being built up, Whistle, looks a lot like a city being torn down—scaffolding and buckets, brick-sewn seams, dust clouds speckling the air” (44). The discursive flow of thought leads seamlessly to an anecdote of a friend “paralyzed in a crash [who] devotes herself to the cause of raising awareness about the small hard or even semisoft objects of daily use that can become deadly projectiles…” The personal crusade, meaningful but arguably futile—“who among us can bring ourselves to batten down every small thing” (44)—prompts the observation that “We have no choice but to pick and choose, Whistle, yet this same equation is what will open our eyes to a lifeless ocean in fifty years…” (45). Olstein leads us inexorably to our late empire rock-and-a-hard-place. To carry on and survive we must face the fact of the lifeless ocean, and other dire facts, and we must also look away: “Instead we take quizzes about our personalities and our character traits, such as which marine animal are you?” (45)
Late Empire is a capacious and anxious collection, as it must be, and it continues to manifest Olstein’s characteristic poetic strengths. Her pliable syntax wends through cognition until it ends up, frequently, in metacognition. Her observing eye, in its efforts to record perception, is keyed to its phenomenological blindspots, even as it alights on zoological curiosities (the migrating eye of a flounder, for example). Formal control of the line constrains a tone that is always on the verge of an outburst of ecopoetic panic (I say that admiringly). The predicament of the post-Romantic nature poet, mired in imperial imagination in spite of herself, presents itself again and again: the last poem sees “the silver bodies of / steel origami jets ashing like lit cigarettes / as they sweep languid across the lapis sky” (93). What does it mean to find beauty and metaphor in the very objects that engender the environmental degradation we lament?
Olstein finds one alternative in Bachelard, whose The Poetics of Space provides a source text for a poem in 11 sections. One possible anti-imperial strategy is the remix—not generating more, not producing, but repurposing, a poetics of recycling. Moreover, for Bachelard, space is intimate, domestic, miniature—not writ large in all caps without mercy. Lowercase “space” leads Olstein to the monosyllabic precision of “…The rote / of the sea, the roar of, the glint” (59) and the recognition of the uncanny and the momentary: “…What / a strange thing it is, fossilized duration” (60). One section’s title, drawn from Bachelard, names this anti-colonial gesture as “The Reverse of the Function of Inhabiting,” and the gesture is gendered: “Housewifely, the housewife awakens / reaping an imaginary field…” (62). This time, imagination of a field makes room for tenderness, nurture not as acculturation but as sustenance and shelter: “For the world is a nest” (65). The sequence, which comprises the fourth of the book’s five sections, unfolds in a minor key, carefully attuned to its linguistic medium and the slippages therein:
Yes and no, open and closed,
outside and inside. Here and there
the obvious geometry needs mapping.
Banished from the realm, shall we
harden or soften? Language waves,
language bears. […] (71)
The relational movement of the deictic “here and there” leads not to an assertion but an interrogative, a question of how to respond to exile from the imperial “realm,” and the option of surrender (“soften”) seems as viable as conflict (“harden”). “Language bears” its meanings, carrying them on the current of thought and also enduring them, and the effect is familiarity, music, conversation: “…. How concrete // everything becomes between parentheses: / a chaplet, a refrain, so much talk.” (71)
Late Empire is a book—and I also say this admiringly—that doesn’t get anywhere. It is resolute in non-resolution, non-teleology. It makes no radical claims, yet proposes shifts in perspective—subtle, human—that reframe awareness of the human position on the planet. It elevates the perspective not of the conqueror but the child who perceives that position in its literal relativity:
. . . Technically,
says the boy lying still on his mother’s
hard sofa, right now I’m flying
through space. Technically, the man
lying still on the soft bed of a new
grave is orbiting at an equal pace. (16)
Motion on a scale too large to feel, too large to comprehend with the body, belies the perception of stillness in an individual body, alive or dead. Value inheres not in mastery but vulnerability, a recognition of relativity on a planetary and intimate level. Space leads us back to the nest, and the grave, not beyond it.
– Poetry International