Copper Canyon, 2023
reviewed on September 15, 2023
Heyday of flared jeans and 56K dial-up, the late ’90s and early 2000s witnessed a mode of American poetry dyed just as palely, from the present vantage, in the sepia tones of nostalgia: namely, a whimsical lyricism characterized by startling juxtapositions, romanticized imagery, and an ostensibly un- or subconscious associative logic. In the ’90s, “weird” was in, from the obscurantism of Charles Simic to the hallucinatory mysticism of Alicia Ostriker.
Lisa Olstein’s Dream Apartment draws on that era of poetry—and on its antecedents, like the Deep Image movement—while side-stepping its shortcomings, eschewing both the hermetic and the merely ludic in order to marshal associative imagism toward clear ecological and existential reckoning; in Dream Apartment, that is, Olstein taps the power of dream logics as she plunges into and out of the “real world,” attending to those economies of subsistence—from the ecologies of climate change to the networks of consciousness themselves—in which we are always inevitably implicated. Our psyches, Olstein suggests, exist within material structures, so that private or subconscious dread figures in small a shared ecological apocalypticism. “[I]n this one,” Olstein writes in the long-poem “Night Secretary,” limning the interplay between “eco” and existential, “woods spring up sharp and dark across the copse of my face then / comes the hatchet’s song at dawn chop chop.” Across the border of waking life, as Olstein makes clear, move deep fears at once real and imagined, shared and intimately singular.
In Dream Apartment, therefore, the solipsism of the late ’90s and early 2000s—“I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,” writes Dorianne Laux in “Family Stories,” from 2000, a revelation at several removes from eliciting my interest—yields to a decentered self enmeshed, like roots in soil, in a fecund world of death, baby shit, feral dogs, the musk of men, slaughtered pigs, and cats which eat their owners. How, Olstein asks, can human consciousness matter amid such matter? Is it not the height of hubris, she wonders, to presume that we can somehow “flee the kingdom?” In a poem by that name, Olstein adumbrates her notion of de-prioritized human consciousness across one of the most impressive series of enjambments I have ever encountered. “When you really look,” she writes,
the enemy is not as it first appeared.
It’s actually more dangerous
if the horse doesn’t know what you want,
says the woman out front. I am the shining lotus
on top of the tallest mountain in the world
breathes the bay beneath her, steady on.
Influenced by the “flat” ontologies of ecopoetics and new materialism, Olstein’s notion of the natural world as an overwhelming alterity echoes at the same time—to de-academize her thinking—notions of “night” and “winter” as developed across Game of Thrones. If “winter is coming” on HBO, in Olstein “[n]ight dilates / constricts // night lifts its paw / claws out // your throat / your picket fence.”
Yet the trajectories of Dream Apartment do not rest at an apocalyptic nihilism. Continuously complicating her thought, Olstein examines the paradoxical importance—or, rather, our feeling of its importance—of a single life in the face of an obliviating universe; in Dream Apartment, Olstein wrestles meaningfully with how to confront the sublime devastations of death, endeavoring through dream logic to plumb the psychology of suicides in particular. “I’m sorry for your loss, your cancer,” she writes in the poem “Happy New Year”:
the accident you had no way to see coming
and the one you did have an inkling of
I’ve learned how important it is to say
because of how difficult it is to say […]
Elegiac for both self and species, Dream Apartment names, as a title, the overlapping and inter-animation of interior and exterior structures. Through brilliant enjambment, agile movement, textural acoustics, and rhythmic mastery, Olstein delivers a skilled yet deeply felt portrait of existential and ecological extinction, making the book an important marker of a shift from “weird” to “worldly,” from “ludic” to “lucid.”