Biography of Lisa Olstein
Lisa Olstein is an American poet. She grew up near Boston, Massachusetts, received a BA from Barnard College and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Her first book of poems, Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006) Copper Canyon Press won the Hayden Carruth Award. Her second collection, Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) was named one of the best poetry books of the year by Library Journal. Her most recent book of poetry, Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) was a 2013 Lannan Literary Selection and explores motherhood with equal parts irony and earnestness. In it she reveals a curiosity of our natural world that is both wonderful and terrifying.
Her poems have appeared in the The Nation, Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, LIT, and other journals. She has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and poetry fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Sustainable Arts Foundation.
Olstein currently teaches in the New Writers Project (MFA program for Poets and Writers) at the University of Texas, Austin.
Lisa Olstein Poems
I Saw a Brand New Look
Truly now they are filling the sky with robotic eyes with automaton dragonflies executing missions named after homing pigeons wheeling twenty-five miles in twenty-five minutes through artillery fire and the long-eared mules they flew above whose gift to warfare was steadiness pulling cannons through snow. Probably it is useful 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. We kept one self-contained in sand, sandwiched between clear plastic walls. It arrived in the mail. They were self-sufficient. I don't know if they were fed, but surely if they required it by Mother they were provided for just so like us all the years of that house. They inhabited orderly the rooms they built; they kept a graveyard chamber. One morning we woke to one soldier left carrying inward all the dead who surrounded him. I don't know how this relates to what we call loyalty or love. I know that of the approximately ten years worth of books immediately available to me about the social insects Formicidae of the family Hymenoptera I would happily delve into six months at least. I don't know when and where ideas of loyalty and love would arise in this literature of adaptation. We hold in one hand a set of questions. We hold in one hand a handful gleaned from sad experience. For a time we are bewildered children. For a time we are bewildered children dedicated to denying we are bewildered. For a time we grow comfortable with the fact that in the face of time we are destined always to be bewildered. By then, bewilderingly, we have a child of our own. First, the size of a pea, the size of a lima bean, the size of a lime. Finally, the size of the idea of a baby hammering away with makeshift drum sticks on anything he can find. Without music, life would be a mistake, Nietzsche supposedly said. Right now I can't remember if we approve or disapprove of Nietzsche or if the Israeli Philharmonic has a stance on the matter or if my mother does. Right now I'm standing naked in a room filled with drumming, groping with my mouth for small bites of time, but the corn field outside the window has been razed so to nothing I'm on view but the occasionally passing mechanical eye.
Darling, one way to think of it is I required absence and you life-long 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 leaks out. Static is the soundtrack of the cabbie's dream but oh how we love our troubadours, sad acoustic boys and girls, sunshine in their throats. Some days it takes all my concentration not to pick the lettuce that lives down the street. Then I wake with tendrils between my fingers and once again I'm feigning innocence on the one hand, aping grief on the other. See, I would eat the lily from under the frog, drink the river between each strider's wake. It's my way of feeling productive, of not too terribly envying the swan still as a figurine on her cloud mirror until the trees go back to normal which is a kind of sleep instead of clawing magnificent at the sky.
What We're Trying to Do is Create a Comm...
Horses, airplanes, red cars, running. The Japanese sleep less but do they dream less? What do women in Stockholm dream about in wintertime? Show me every car dream. Show me every car dream in Moscow. Show me every red car dream that involved men living in Las Vegas. Compare that to Tokyo or Paris. Do famous people dream differently? If you have more money in the bank? Can we run an algorithm can we quantify, can we teach that? The distance widens and narrows, sometimes a grapefruit, sometimes a beach ball. Invisible data. They say Einstein came up with relativity in a dream. What if you could go back and find that dream?
Your Country Needs You
Maybe one time standing behind a podium you heard voices and realized they were what your own mouth just said and quickly you grew accustomed to giving orders. Or maybe standing there you said nothing at all and the next thing you knew some night shift nurse of the invisibly wounded was monitoring your fitful dreams. Like everyone, I'll watch indefinitely while the meant-to-be lovers stay a lip's width apart or a war zone, their shadows overlapping like animals around a dried-up watering hole. I keep expecting someone prettier when I look in the mirror. See how we shatter then reassemble as I turn away back into the day.
Where the Use of Cannon Is Impractical
Stranger, mislaid love, I will sleepwalk all night not girlish but zombie-like, zombie-lite through the streets in search of your arms. Let's meet at dawn in the park to practice an ancient art while people roll by in the latest space-age gear blank as mirrors above the procedure in the stainless steel theaters where paper-gowned we take ourselves to take ourselves apart. Tap-tap-spark. So little blazes. Cover the roofs with precision hooves. Push back the forest like a blanket. A bird the right color is invisible, only movement catches the eye. My most illustrious Lord, I know how to remove water from moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges. Here we are at the palace. Here we are in the dark, dark woods.
Run Every Race as if It's Your Last
as you round the bend keep the steel and mouse-skinned rabbit front left center and the track and the crowd and its cries are a blurred ovation as you stumble and recover and then fully fall even if only onto the rough gravel of your inside mind or outside in what is called the real world as how many drunken grandfathers holding little girls' hands and broken peanut shells go swirling by why are you racing what are you racing from from what fixed arm does this moth-eaten rabbit run captive is different than stupid near dead is different than dead they call it a decoy but we know a mirror when we see ourselves lurch and dive for one
I am working on a specimen so pale it is like staring at snow from the bow of a ship in fog. I lose track of things—articulation of wing, fineness of hair—as if the moth itself disappears, but remains as an emptiness before me. Or, from its bleakness, the subtlest distinctions suddenly increase: the slightest shade lighter in white begins to breathe with a starkness that's arresting and the very idea of color terrifies. It has snowed and the evening is blue. The herders look like buoys, like waders the water has gotten too deep around. They'll have to swim in to shore. Their horses are patient. They love to be led from their stalls. They love to sharpen their teeth on the gate. They will stand, knees locked, for hours.
That Magnificent Part the Chorus Does ab...
There is a theory of crying that tears are the body's way of releasing excess elements from the brain. There is a theory of dreaming that each one serves to mend something torn, like cells of new skin lining up to cover a hole. I'm not one to have dreams about flying, but last week we were thirty feet above the bay—this was where we went to discuss things, so that no matter what we decided it was only we two out there, and we'd have to fly back together. I'm not one to have dreams where animals can speak, but last night a weeping mare I'd been told to bridle wanted me to save her. We discussed what was left of her ability to take children for rides—how much trot, how much canter— but I wasn't sure I could do it, having already bridled her and all. I was once very brave. Once I was very brave. I was very brave once. I boarded a plane before dawn. I carried all those heavy bags. I stayed up the whole night before folding the house into duffel bags. I took a curl from the base of your skull and opened the door to the rusty orange wagon and weighed those heavy duffel bags and smiles at the airport official. I boarded a tiny propeller plane and from a tiny window I watched you walk back to the rusty orange station wagon. They say the whole world is warming by imperceptible degrees. I watched the rusty orange wagon go whizzing by.
Radio Crackling, Radio Gone
Thousands of planes were flying and then they stopped. We spend days moving our eyes across makeshift desks, we sit on a makeshift floor; we prepare for almost nothing that might happen. Early on, distant relations kept calling. Now, nothing: sound of water tippling a seawall. Nothing: sparks lighting the brush, sparks polishing the hail, the flotsam of cars left standing perfectly still. Thud of night bird against night air, there you are on the porch, swath of feathers visible through the glass, there you are on the stairs where the cat fell like a stone because her heart stopped. What have you found in the wind above town square? Is it true that even the statues have gone? Is there really a hush over everything as there used to be in morning when one by one we took off our veils?
In the Meantime
What seemed a mystery was in fact a choice. Insert bird for sorrow. What seemed a memory was in fact a dividing line. Insert bird for wind. Insert wind for departure when everyone is standing still. Insert three mountains burning and in three valleys a signal seer seeing a distant light and a signal bearer sprinting to a far-off bell. What seemed a promise was in fact a sigh. What seemed a hot wind, a not quite enough, a forgive me, it has flown away, is in fact. In the meantime we paint the floors red. We stroke the sound of certain names into a fine floss that drifts across our teeth. We stay in the room we share and listen all night to what drifts through the window— dog growl, owl call, a fleet of mosquitoes setting sail, and down the road, the swish of tomorrow's donkey-threshed grain.
The Hypnotist's Daughter
At the London Zoo a toddler falls over the rail of the Primate World only if you close your eyes and a female gorilla comes to sit by, to circle her long dark arm around him only this one time while the others stay away. The zookeeper says she lost a baby earlier this year only just barely and they've been waiting months for her tits to dry. The boy's mother watches from above only when I say so the thirty minutes it takes the right person to lower the right ladder down only as a last resort. In the interim a newscaster whose station carries it live only if you promise not to let go reports that dolphins and sometimes certain whales rescue people stranded at sea only when I close my eyes lift them to the air when they need breathing or swim them close enough to land. In the interim I imagine the span of time from when the smooth hard snout finds me and begins to push only if you promise not to tell to when we come into view of a shore only this once any shore. In the interim I pray for what should come to come. I pray for the cat to come out from under the floorboards only every once in a while to come down from the tall maple, to come back alive only if you say so in one piece, still in her collar. I pray to be saved, to be sent far away, to be allowed to just stay home only another month or two just stay home and erase the objects in each room with my mind while holding them in my hands only a matter of time now. I do want to hold them in my hands, to hold them to my lungs by way of deep breath only since July and a deeper sense of inhalation. I pray for you only just this once to press out from the small veins at the back of my eyes only you back out into the world. I pray for you to come and sit by me only a few more minutes now.
Another Story with a Burning Barn in It
I was on the porch pinching back the lobelia like trimming a great blue head of hair. We'd just planted the near field, the far one the day before. I'd never seen it so clear, so gusty, so overcast, so clear, so calm. They say pearls must be worn or they lose their luster, and that morning I happened to remember, so I put them on for milking, finding some sympathy, I guess, between the two. Usually I don't sit down until much later in the day. The lobelia was curling in the sun. One by one birds flew off, and that should have been a sign. Trust is made and broken. I hardly sit down at all. It was the time of year for luna moths, but we hadn't had any yet settling on the porch or hovering above the garden I'd let the wild rose take.
Dream in Which I Love a Third Baseman
At first he seemed a child, dirt on his lip and the sun lighting up his hair behind him.
Dear One Absent This Long While
It has been so wet stones glaze in moss; everything blooms coldly. I expect you. I thought one night it was you
Your Country Needs You
Maybe one time standing behind a podium
you heard voices and realized they were
what your own mouth just said and quickly
you grew accustomed to giving orders.
Or maybe standing there you said nothing
at all and the next thing you knew
some night shift nurse of the invisibly
wounded was monitoring your fitful dreams.
Like everyone, I'll watch indefinitely while