In his 1939 lecture, “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” Paul Valéry famously fleshes out the analogy between walking and prose, dancing and poetry. Prose is like walking in that it has “a definite aim. It is an act directed at something we wish to reach.” Poetry, like dancing, is a “system of actions whose end is in themselves. It goes nowhere.” Furthermore, while prose and poetry use the same “body” we must take care not to reason about them in the same way, for, “what is true of one very often has no meaning when it is sought in the other.” He employs the rest of the essay showing his readers how to reason through the particular action of mind that is poetry.
The luscious province of prose poetry excels at muddling this distinction and applying the vertical, dancing logic of poetry to the horizontal logic of prose. Instead of rendering Valéry’s distinctions obsolete, his analogies can help us think through how and why prose poems that manage to create traction do so successfully. In particular, creating a tension between horizontal, narrative elements and vertical, lyric elements proves to be a particularly successful tactic for book-length projects rendered exclusively in the prose poem form, for such books hinge on sustained horizontal action while dazzling us with vertical plunges and flurries.
2009 was a fabulous year for such book-length, all-prose-poem projects, giving us the likes of Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan, G. C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo, Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, Cyrus Console’s Brief Under Water, Elizabeth Marie Young’s Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, and Lisa Olstein’s Lost Alphabet. Olstein’s book, under review here, particularly entices the reader interested in a poetry that dances and walks at the same time, for she grounds the book solidly in a vivid fictional framework while plunging and darting with the alacrity of the moths that constitute the book’s central subject and metaphor.
“I’m working with a family of flower feeders,” we are informed by the nameless narrator, a naturalist who has come to a rustic village in order to study moths. The action of the book revolves around this study as the narrator collects, breeds, and observes specimens in all stages of life. In addition to the moths, the book includes the narrator’s relation to the villagers around her, and her relationship with a mysterious man named Ilya who arrives on page 13 with the mysterious sentence “My friend Ilya says you have no friend Ilya, says you have to envy the whole life” and remains an active force throughout Lost Alphabet. As such, the plot aims at the driving theme of the book: a question of proximity and the kinds of investigation proper to knowledge.
The entirety of the book takes place in the lepidopterist’s hut and the surrounding nameless village. We learn the village by pieces as the narrator moves us through the poems: here we are told of a stable, there a horse, elsewhere that the villagers keep miniature gardens in their homes. The villagers are “horse people” and although the speaker remains a stranger, she becomes integrated enough into their community to visit a healer for help with debilitating headaches, and for traders to bring specimens to her hut. She begins to take up local habits such as “sew[ing] with horsehair made fine by running it through the teeth” as the villagers do, coming to know this foreign culture by inhabiting it.
Setting the poems in a single, distinct physical location creates a sustained landscape along which the poems accrete. In addition, the stability of the setting allows Olstein to show a passage of time as we move into the heart of winter and then, at the end of the book, hear the first cracking of spring. As such, the poems stretch along the natural arc of a season and finish with an atmosphere of rain, instead of snow, as the narrator acknowledges the impending departure of the moths she has cultivated.
In addition to creating a vivid, sense-based setting, Olstein absorbs us into her narrative by creating a continuous and captivating narrator that delivers her experiences to us in epistolary tones. The work oscillates from poems that have the feel of the recordings of a naturalists’ journal where the narrator writes observations of her specimens such as “Nocturnals hatched in morning wander all day over leaves and branches that as soon as darkness falls they devour”—and a diary where she reveals intimate thoughts such as “Some mornings I’m filled with longing, with sadness that has no cause.” By the end of the book we know many things about our lepidopterist narrator: she misses her horses, she suffers from debilitating headaches, she is not afraid to utter such honest statements of self-awareness as, “In wanting to show the best of myself, I reveal only a fraction.” Through such a rendering of character Olstein asks her readers to fall into the imagined reality that constitutes the continuous dream of fiction.
Plot (A Doubling Back)
Along with serving as the center of the book’s fictive plot, we are also invited to read the narrator’s pursuit of knowledge about her moths as a metaphor for a pursuit of poetry. In fact, the whole book, beginning with its title—Lost Alphabet—can be read as an allegory for the making of poetry and the cultivation of a poetic sensibility. For example, take the poem titled “[the heart is always behind the fingers]”:
Each specimen is brought into position with the stroke of a small feather. This to keep the powders undisturbed, each color in its place. Nevertheless, I am clumsy. Today I made the mistake of attempting to scrape from a lappet’s forewing what appeared to be a murky residue before realizing it was the wing itself. Possible camouflage markings for a swamp life.
If I substitute poetry-writing terms for moth-investigating terms we arrive at the following:
Each poem is brought into revision with the stroke of a fountain pen. This to keep the rhythm undisturbed, each image in its place. Nevertheless, I am clumsy. Today I made the mistake of attempting to scrape from language what appeared to be connotation before realizing it was the poem itself. Possible double-meaning.
Obviously this substitution takes vast liberties with the text, but the original poem articulates a process of making-while-discovering-what-is-already-before-one that rings so true to a phenomenological poetics that I cannot resist the impulse to equate the investigation of moths with that of poetry. As additional invitation, the book is peppered throughout with such sentiments as “Am I meant simply to observe, to record?” and “How will I know when this work is done?” which stretch towards this equation. The larger point, however, is that Olstien’s work manages the lyric combination of precision and airiness that rewards a reader’s invention, imagination, and participation.
Setting (A Doubling Back)
Olstein’s creation of a fictive place sustains our imagined experience. However, the notion of location can also be turned literal. We can think of setting as such elements as the actual physical format of the poems on their page and the relationship between each poem and the title that hovers above it.
While prose poems obviously have a different shape than lineated or open field poems, these poems still have visual contour. Olstein justifies her right and left margins and the poems are all roughly the same length, which implies a unit of measure to the experience that might be equated with meter. Also, titles have unique formatting: they are set in lower case, they are placed in brackets, and they are right justified. In addition, the relation of title phrase to poem is not descriptive, but, rather, associative. For example, the poem “[a lesson in liberty]” goes thusly:
And then Ilya storms and then Ilya is sullen. Then Ilya wants it wordlessly forgiven and I do. What have we become to each other that accounts for this? In the village the men are changing houses; the women are staying put. It is some kind of anniversary. I ask what is commemorated. Ilya says your face is ugly tonight, turn the page.
Considering the connection between the notion of “[a lesson in liberty]” and the narrative that follows becomes a practice in interpretation and questioning. Is the idea of a “lesson” ironic: the speaker gives Ilya liberty by forgiving him and is rewarded by a mean remark? Is the lesson that any attachment entails a curtailing of liberty because attachment—becoming something particular to another—entails accountability? Or is the title an allusion to the liberty of the moth who does not have to bother with such human things?
By attaching associative rather than descriptive titles to her poems, Olstein gives her readers the room to perform the “dance” (if you will indulge the metaphor) of interpretation and association, asking us not to be satisfied with resting in the horizontal line that leads from poem to poem.
Narrator (A Doubling Back)
As much as Olstein pulls me into the world of her naturalist narrator, I am all along aware that I am not “only” reading a book about studying moths. Rather, the narrator’s discoveries are as much, if not more, about the nature and requirements of knowledge in and of itself. As such, the book performs an action very specific to the vertical province of poetry: it uses a particular instance to get at larger, more abstract propositions. For example, in the poem titled “[the immovable moves]” we are given an articulation of the fragmented nature of looking and knowing:
I have learned to peer at specimens through a small crack at the center of my fist. It’s a habit herders use for distance: vision is concentrated, the crude tunnel brings into focus whatever small expanse lies on the other side, something in the narrowing magnifies what remains. At the table, my hand tires of clenching, my left eye of closing, my right of its squint, but the effect: a blurred carpet of wing becomes a careful weave of eyelashes colored, curved, exquisitely laid. It is a lens for looking at fractions; I’m unable to bring even a whole antenna or eye into view. The result is kaleidoscopic: I see one sharp fragment after another break clean before me, piece it to the others in my mind’s eye.
This poem reveals at least three important propositions about knowledge. First, notice that in apprehending her subject the speaker employs a technique that she has learned from the village’s herders. This shows that the speaker has put her scientific training on hold to embrace the modes of apprehension used by the native villagers. Employing the herders’ method for looking into distance is obviously a far cry from the use of a microscope. This invites us to entertain the notion that methods of looking and accumulating knowledge are tied to context. Second, notice that vision, here, is transformative rather than observational: a wing becomes “a careful weave of eyelashes.” This contrasts articulations of rational, scientific investigation and implies that metaphor might yield as much (or more) knowledge as the isolation of observation. Third, the passage proposes that vision—and, thus, knowledge—is always piecemeal. We can never apprehend the whole of what is before us and must always take a creative role in the world we inhabit. This notion resonates across the book, for each prose poem offers us a moment of particular apprehension. If we come to a sense of the whole we do so in exactly the way the speaker describes: by piecing together what we learn, poem by poem.
By doubling back and pointing out the ways in which Olstein imbues plot, setting, and narrator with the verticality of the lyric I do not intend to diminish the horizontal aspects of the text, or to imply that Lost Alphabet is unique in its use of both forces. As Michel Delville delineates in The American Prose Poem, any work must embrace at least a small amount of each movement. And, as Valéry asserts, such a mixture is necessary to both poetry and to living: “if the logician could never be other than a logician, he would not, and could not, be a logician; and if the poet were never anything but a poet, without the slightest hope of being able to reason abstractly, he would leave no poetic traces behind him. I believe in all sincerity that if each man were not able to live a number of other lives besides his own, he would not be able to live his own life.” By creating a vivid continuous dream that invites us to rotate within its elements, Olstein gives readers the opportunity to absorb themselves in her lepidopterist’s world while practicing the crafts of looking and piecemeal making that will serve them in their own.