“The Dream Apartment is no Barbie’s Dream House. It is rather an abode of opaque and backlit, sometimes hard-edged reverie.”
wrote that “we make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” In Dream Apartment, her 2023 book of poetry from Copper Canyon Press, Lisa Olstein does exactly this. Our country breathes an atmosphere of ceaseless rhetoric, in which the distillation of dirt-stained thought into a purer language feels ever more difficult, if not impossible. We are buried in words, most of them rhetorical. That fact is a renewed call to the importance of poetics to cleanse the ear, thus the mind. Strangely, too many poets believe their first duty is to say something significant in the public sphere, specifically pronouncements that are social, racial, ethnic, gender-relevant, political, thus important and in that “quarrel,” the status of words immediately gets degraded to a mere vehicle, making poetry like every other kind of writing, essentially rhetoric broken into lines and studded with images as decoys. The steely sharp scythe of poetry gets dulled to a blunt instrument. Or it becomes the equivalent of downloading stock photographic images from Google and uploading them to your document.B. Yeats
If that rhetorical impulse led to the heroic couplets of Pope, or the epic stanzas of Derek Walcott’s Omeros, one might agree more easily to this declamatory urge. These days, however, lyric mode is being dragooned too often into service for grand, noble themes of identity and social consciousness far beyond its innate capacity for how to represent a thing. Poets seem more concerned with words pointing straight to what they represent. Further, every image is automatically conscripted into service as a metaphor. It is hard to tell the difference between a blackbird on the wing and a drone sent to destroy a housing complex. Here is where the Romantics had it right, in their focus on lyric poetry as a moment of vivid perception, shimmering with polyvalent detail. No amount of cerebral experimentation has changed that necessary aspect of lyric. We go to poetry to experience first, think after.
Into this surfeit of mind-numbing meaning comes Olstein, clear eyed, to restore the dignity of the quarrel with oneself. Olstein is a nimble post-modernist, afraid neither of the couplet nor the broken line on a scattershot page. Clarity and half-meaning both have their prerogatives in her poetry.
“So spring today, bees in the bok choy
bolted yellow before we could eat it”
etiquette is a way
of not bleeding
through the cloudy
bandage of each
The poet creates her personal lyric mode, one that uses a combination of disjunction and snappy aphorism to create a portrait of ‘her’ mind. We are offered intimacy, yet one distilled through her ever self-seeking, ever self-evading restlessness.
The centerpiece of Dream Apartment is “Night Secretary,” a 26-page poem that takes up one fourth of the book. This is the tussle between lyric and epic modes, inwardness and social being. One may know from her 2020 book Pain Studies that Olstein suffers from migraines, which as of 2020 had taken up 3,472 cumulative days of her life. That in itself is “epic,” or simply prodigious suffering if one prefers. The night secretary is the part of the self that must record and keep watch over that same self as subject, as she spends a long night in migraine-stuffed sleep, which manifests as hyper-vigilant wakefulness, sleep’s opposite, showing as poetic fugue state. The Dream Apartment is no Barbie’s Dream House. It is rather an abode of opaque and backlit, sometimes hard-edged reverie. If it were prose, thus less spare, it would manifest as something like the Hades chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Yet Olstein’s is a reasoned recording, even in the face of distress.
The quarrel with one’s “I” is identified by the submerged sense of accountability in these pages. That is, she can only save herself. Like Odysseus, she must have done something to get into this fix and only she can get herself out. It does not matter what occasioned this apparently unjust, existential pain. There is no one to blame. It just is, an indifferent cruelty that corresponds to no other named person. There are no sanctions to be sought, no malpractice suit to be filed, no reparations to be had.
There exists a vivid mood of suffocation yet brought off at times with a combination of agony and hilarity in this poem written as multiple poems divided by asterisks.
Alongside the speaker, we navigate this woman’s past, the fallacies by which she’s been guided, while returning again and again to the relentlessness of simply getting through the hours of wake-sleep. We stumble upon a dictionary of instructions for killing werewolves, sirens, zombies, golems, dragons. At another juncture we are given several different translations of a line from the Odyssey on the subject of night. It is as though active research is going on under duress, as if someone trapped in the wreckage of a house were reading an instruction manual about how to sew back on her own severed foot.
Olstein creates a delirious sense of inside-outside. Once we emerge from the escape room, the poet reminds us that “When day comes/we have to do the laundry.” We are her and she is us. Rousseau was right; a social contract exists, after all. Olstein’s poems sport the survivor’s sense of humor, to counterbalance, perhaps counteract, the survivor’s sense of melancholy. Even the latter is strained through a net, so that it becomes a thought rather than a feeling, proving that sometimes philosophy does happen in liminal spaces.
“There was once a flowering that I missed or moved
too quickly by to see or saw and let pass
through the net memory casts over the day
for the mind to sort through later, dreaming.”
Seeing that flowering in retrospection, its clear outline, is a necessary preparation for moving to social action, to helping to create a new flowering. One almost cannot help but think of Yeats’ brief poem “Memory” (“the mountain grass/Cannot but keep the form/Where the mountain hare has lain.”) And let one remember that Yeats, the author of “Easter, 1916,” also knew how to play, cannily, his political cards in poetry. Yet his superb intelligence understood the value of beginning with the self, not in order to remain solipsistically within, but as the proper origin for going out into the world. Olstein, adventurous with form, her speech fearless, nonetheless possesses this same sense of caution. Dream Apartment is an exercise in making the self relatively whole before it can dare to venture into the demands of praxis. Even when one of these poems speaks socially, it does so with a combination of simplicity and indirection, as if merely stating a winsome fact. (“In the chemical future, the clouds themselves will be extinct, so we try to hold them in mind.”) Such is the labor performed in the Dream Apartment.
In this volume, if you need a side of rhetoric with your poetry, you’ll need to bring it yourself.
Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles and earned his doctorate from Stanford University.