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
“[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.”