Little Stranger

In the prose poems constituting Lost Alphabet, a LJ Best Poetry of 2009 title, Olstein created a distinctive world that felt like the wilds of the Russian steppes. Here she uses verse to create another distinctive world, much like our own but somehow eerily off-kilter—a place where “Consumers will pay more/ for leather made from the skin// of an animal never bitten by mosquitoes,” you must “Place your elevated heart/ rate in this prepaid, self-addressed,/ steel envelope,” and surveys are “made with trains and shattered glass./ With dogs and tiny spoons.” Despite the slightly surreal spookiness, the underlying anxiety is something we’ve all felt, as is the desire to connect (“I distill the world to the push-pull/ between us”) that runs throughout this edgy, energizing work. From references to children (“Beneath the sky cage of my ribs,// a son practices breathing”) to a group of elegies less plaintive than cutting (“It wasn’t you,/ the hummingbird// unexpectedly in the yard”), these poems range over the human condition and take in the animal kingdom, too—deer with “velvet-gloved legs” abound. VERDICT Beautifully crafted and unsettling in just the right way, these poems track a poet of growing importance

– Library Journal


There are no great innovations in Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, which makes the undeniable grace and gravity of the collection more—not less—impressive. When one is pushing the boundaries of form, it’s easy enough to inspire admiration in at least some subsection of one’s readership, innovation being so easily confused with insight by initiates to poetry (or any other endeavor, for that matter). But how does one convey excellence in a subgenre of the verse medium—the uncanny lyric-narrative wont to celebrate small victories and rue small defeats, to paint over ordinary life with the brushstrokes of extraordinary imagery—that’s as well-trammeled as any in the history of American poetry? It’s a question this review can’t answer, and won’t deign to try. So it’ll have to suffice to say this much: Lisa Olstein writes the sort of poetry tens of thousands of poets are even now, in boltholes and cubbyholes across America, trying to write, and she writes it better than almost any of them. Is she just smarter about syntax, more articulate about human drama, more imaginative about eeriness, more insightful about sadness, more capable of turning a novel phrase, more engaging a storyteller than nearly all the rest of her peers? Well, yes. Read this startlingly engrossing book and see for yourself.

– Huffington Post


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. 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... leaping, blurring, multifaceted, vertiginous poems that complicate and perhaps ridicule the simple ache in the simple heart.

Black Warrior Review


In her third collection, Olstein considers nature, faith, motherhood, and even the media with authority. “The anchorwoman’s hair / makes sense next to / the other anchorwoman’s hair,” a speaker calmly observes in “This Waking Life.” In “Blood, Bread, Spoons,” the queen of England is forgiven for eating the “people’s gold for breakfast” because “it’s the only thing / her stomach understands.” Deer dart in and out, leaving tracks that both comfort and concern those who find them. Companionship may be found in nature, Olstein suggests, but epiphanies are just as difficult to achieve there as within interpersonal relationships. In “Different Habitats Make for Good Neighbors,” a metaphysical take on Frost, Olstein offers a somewhat predictable scene of a nighttime forest, then stuns the reader with questions about faith that streak like comets through the poem. Olstein’s repetitions of images and words become echoes of a fierce conversation with the universe. These lines from one the collection’s strongest poems aptly describe the collection’s cumulative effect: “Hit something hard, hit something soft, / sit by a glowing window and watch / the lighted storm swim by.”

– Book List


Early in this third collection, Olstein announces: “I am hopeful, and the hopeful seek/ the hopeless, a level always/ in need of rising.” This uncertain balance between hope and hopelessness, fear and fascination, breaks the calm surface of her poems. The book is broken into six sections with a breathing space partway through in the form of a poem constructed of letters to “Sir,” then “Sire” then “Siren.” One of Olstein’s longer pieces, “I Saw a Brand New Look,” softly urges us “to take occasionally/ a bird’s-eye view, to see ourselves moving as if on sped-up film/ like ants through the colonies of their very long short-lives.” The poems are detached, numb at times, and often revert to instructional language to describe situations when instruction is completely ineffective. Olstein uses this inflection as a thin shield against life’s urgency and bewildering circumstance: “On a steamer it’s always/ somebody’s job to steer.” Yet fear peeks through the facade when she writes from the point of view of a rabbit with “wise eyes”: “because prey runs, we learn not to run,/ not to turn our backs or look away/ from the predator we dread and long/ again to see because what we dread most/ is it seeing us without being seen,/ which is almost always the way.”

– Publisher’s Weekly


In Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), Lisa Olstein’s poems are concerned with the tension between the public and the personal and how the former bullies its way into the latter. Olstein’s book is both provoked into existence and inspired by our contemporary moment. Its urgency makes sense when one sees Little Stranger as a book that is responding to the twilight of privacy, in which delivery systems of information are networks networking with other networks. . .Olstein’s humility is her greatest quality because apathy, wherever it multiplies hopes to quiet us, and her poems simply do the hard work to make sense of those pressures, but on a personal level, with a voice we recognize as genuine. One of the most provocative features of contemporary life might be the dissolution of all boundaries, where formerly held categories of the physical now blur and lose their singular expression, making personal experience a hybrid of the personal and the political, a hybrid of the domestic and the civic, and a hybrid of the commercial and the familial. Olstein’s poetry seems particularly sensitive to the new remixes of daily life and her language reconciles this almost seamlessly (but also fights it at times with naturalistic vocabulary) by not so much accepting the new reality, but tolerating it long enough to integrate into her poetry a still recognizable language so that she may communicate with us, human to human, which gives her poems their moral force.

– New Books in Poetry


Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, her third collection of poems, was released this year off Copper Canyon Press. Taut, sonically driven and darkly funny, these poems center around a loss and the instability left in its wake. The poems themselves are subtly unstable. By pulling the rug out from under our feet—or re-orienting us in relation to the scene so we realize the rug was never there—Olstein reminds us that whatever we think we know is based on a finite field of vision, and that any comfort is illusory.[...] Little Stranger creates the impression of certainty through its constant use of cold statements and instruction. In one section, the poems use detailed statements about the behaviors of animals as their titles, anything from “Sambar Lead Private Lives” to “You Can Tell a Tiger by Its Stripes,” as if to build a weirdly nuanced catalogue of facts about the natural world. But the certitude in the titles is counterbalanced by the poems themselves, which delve into the complexities of love and parenthood: “Baby plays in the tub with a net/ and paddle toys. Swimmy frog/ wins for speed. Swimmy dog/ wins for distance, for persistence,/ he will not stop. Sometimes/ picking things up and putting them/ down is enough. Baby says, don’t/ call me baby I’m fourteen/ get out of the fucking bathroom please.” (from “You Can Tell a Tiger by Its Stripes”). Sometimes dark and sometimes funny, sometimes sweet and sometimes ruthless, Little Stranger moves nicely between extremes and feels, somehow, comfortably unstable.

– The Volta
 

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” (“Aubade”).

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.

– The Rumpus