Lisa Olstein’s second collection of poems, Lost Alphabet, is a beautiful book of prose poems. The poems are written as entries in a naturalist’s notebook, and the entries are split into five sections. The speaker of the poems is never given a name, but is a lepidopterist living on the outskirts of a village of people that are not her own. Her companion Ilya is with her as she works catching, studying, collecting and cataloging moths and butterflies.
I generally judge poetry based upon a quote from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Indeed, Olstein’s book took off the top of my head with its dreamy and reflective tone. Her use of language is magical and incredible. She creates scenes and emotions in poems that are never more than a dozen lines long with seeming effortlessness. As someone who teaches creative writing to college students, I know it’s incredibly challenging to write poetry that reads so smoothly.
The poems range from reflections on the world and people around her to musings on her own life and feelings. She observes the natural world and becomes intimately acquainted with moths and butterflies: “I am training myself to identify species solely by the sound/of their wings. I sit blindfolded and one by one Ilya sets them/flying. The papery whispers are remarkably easy to hear, but/it is by the weight of their bodies-cloud hands-that I am/learning to know them, when they land on me, as they are/more and more apt to do.”
At the beginning of the book, Olstein was simply observing, but by the end she knows the insects by the sound of their wings and their weight on her hands. It is Olstein’s attention to detail and vivid imagery that draws the reader into her world. She grows throughout the book, and in turn, we grow along with her.
The narration is helped by her male companion, Ilya. He is there to provide support and help with the research, but it is the female narrator that guides the poems and stories. While she utilizes his help, she doesn’t rely on him as an absolute necessity.
While many poetry books or collections have poems that can be read in any order, here the poems craft a type of story when read all together and in order, although there are glimpses of captured moments and emotion in each one.