Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Lisa Olstein, Dream Apartment


The same racist neighbors who refer to the Obama presidency with a vile slur are the ones who hauled water to them, unasked, when their well went dry, who plowed the no-plow road twice a day during his six-week radiation commute, who didn’t tell him his medical bills were what the green beer and corned beef fundraiser were for until they dropped off the cash, B. tells us over dinner, dismayed, embarrassed. It’s a friendly place to live, if you’re white. Across the valley, the canola field’s electric yellow drains the just-bloomed sweet clover of all its light. Closer in, the Monsanto new product tester’s square green fields leak chemicals into the wind. He’s a true believer, thinks he’s going to feed the starving world, B. reports. What happens next, I ask hours later gesturing weakly toward the crises, the crossroads, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it we’ve been circling for hours. What happens next, he repeats, what happens next is what we do.


Animal, adjust. (“GLACIER HAIBUN”)

Austin,Texas-based poet and non-fiction writer Lisa Olstein’s fifth poetry title through Copper Canyon Press, and the first I’ve explored of her work—beyond her collection of epistolary letters co-written with Julie Carr, Climate (Essay Press, 2022) [see my review of such here]—is Dream Apartment (Port Townsend WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2023). Dream Apartment is a collection of poems structured across seven clusters of sharp lyrics, each of which stretch out across incredible distances, as the first, say, forty percent of the opening poem, “FORT NIGHT,” reads: “The snake is / a sleeve the deer / puts on its mouth / a beaded cuff / in the haze men / make of morning / with each release / of their fist-gripped / guns.” There is an element of Olstein’s Dream Apartment that suggest this a collection of dream narratives or dream poems, offering a subtle play on rhythm, sound and internal rhyme covering loss and an ongoing grief, from the intimate to the external, including around climate. “So spring today, bees in the bok choy / bolted yellow before we could eat it,” she writes, to open “TO FLEE THE KINGDOM,” “let them eat it instead, let them carry on / carrying its stardust from place to place, // let us all eat, come future come. Meanwhile, / the cat takes, gives a good long bath.”

There is an interesting shift of pacing and structure across Olstein’s lyrics, from the accumulative staccato of the cluster of poems “ANIMAL,” “SEE IT,” “MOTHER NORTH,” “SPRING” and “GROUP PORTRAIT 1244403” to the five poem prose sequence “GLACIER HAIBUN” to the extended sequence of fragments underneath the title “NIGHT SECRETARY,” and the curve of fragment-accumulation lyrics “AND THEN FOREVER,” “MATERIAL FRAGMENTS,” “KINDER SEA,” “YOUR NAME HERE,” “ALL THIS BRITTLE LACEWORK” and “ONLY A FLAWED HUMAN IS YOUR JUDGE” There is such an interesting shift in tone, rhythm and effect through her evolution of lyric structures, one that allows for the larger shape of the collection to emerge out of shared purpose amid myriad structures. “Sorrow what’s my ration tonight,” she writes, as part of “NIGHT SECRETARY,” “full portion [.]” The back cover offers that this collection is “Devoted equally to the long arc and the sharp fragment,” and each shape and patter attends uniquely to the music of each line, offering a precise and dreamy effect through her examinations, and even negotiations, on how one lives or might live in the world. As the poem “KINDER SEA” begins:

There in the trembling port

            of morning who knew yet what

                        wriggled in the net pulled in the

                                    predawn and slapped down on

                                                the rough dock of fuel-flowered



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