In Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), Lisa Olstein’s poems are concerned with the tension between the public and the personal and how the former bullies its way into the latter. Olstein’s book is both provoked into existence and inspired by our contemporary moment. Its urgency makes sense when one sees Little Stranger as a book that is responding to the twilight of privacy, in which delivery systems of information are networks networking with other networks. Information ricochets into individual lives in a stream of binary extremes: on the one hand we have unprecedented access to knowledge, while on the other hand we sense the great proximity between ourselves and the authentic. At times, one can feel trapped into making one of two extreme decisions: to retreat into social fantasy or devote one’s life to resisting a world that seeks to know our every move as if to empower us, when actually it often does the opposite.
But the poems in Little Stranger reflect a more realistic picture of the reader. Olstein’s humility is her greatest quality because apathy, wherever it multiplies hopes to quiet us, and her poems simply do the hard work to make sense of those pressures, but on a personal level, with a voice we recognize as genuine. One of the most provocative features of contemporary life might be the dissolution of all boundaries, where formerly held categories of the physical now blur and lose their singular expression, making personal experience a hybrid of the personal and the political, a hybrid of the domestic and the civic, and a hybrid of the commercial and the familial. Olstein’s poetry seems particularly sensitive to the new remixes of daily life and her language reconciles this almost seamlessly (but also fights it at times with naturalistic vocabulary) by not so much accepting the new reality, but tolerating it long enough to integrate into her poetry a still recognizable language so that she may communicate with us, human to human, which gives her poems their moral force.