Lost Alphabet

Lisa Olstein's second collection of poems, Lost Alphabet, is a fascinating and inventive exploration of observation. This collection of quiet, intense prose poems is presented as the notes of a scientist who has gone to an unnamed foreign village to study moths. These notes lead us into the speaker's engrossing fascination with these creatures of flight and light. The careful, alluring observations take on the weight of philosophy and religion in the voice of the speaker, who also reflects on being an outsider. While trying to piece together how things work in the world through the smallest of details, the speaker exposes the path to obsession. The vivid yet mysterious voice of the book draws the trajectory of going ever deeper into intense thought, until the world becomes the smallest flutter of a wing. Statements that at first seem to be about the world are applied to studying moths and then jump back outward again, as in the following lines:

Any shift in philosophy introduces the need for new habits of body. I am learning how gently to lift them, to turn them swiftly and rest them again, on their wings, wings to table, which I sand smooth each morning. . . It is a strange gymnastics, their bodies, mine: what to grasp, when to release, the nature of a turn, the will of the whole channeled into the fingertips.

This book review originally appeared in American Poets.