Stay, by Tanya Olson. Portland, Oregon: YesYes Books, May 2019. 80 pages. $18.00, paper.
Loss and departure can be tricky to write about; on the one hand, they’re something that every one of us has experienced in some shape or form, but on the other, that experience can be highly intimate and might not translate seamlessly to readers. Tanya Olson’s work, however, finds a way to make the personal relatable and relevant, and her latest collection, Stay, examines the way we make sense of the people and things that leave us.
Olson’s poems are fluid, free of commas, periods, and quotations marks, and while this might stumble new readers not accustomed to such a style (especially when a capitalized word distinguishes a new phrase) there is a steady flow to the poems that drives the lyricism throughout the collection. In “When Uncle Bruce” we are introduced to an uncle who’s lived an unsteady life, filled with alcohol, irregular employment, and the need to entertain and provide enjoyment to his nieces and nephews. Uncle Bruce is by no means a role model, but in between drinking and helping the speaker at New Year’s Eve “[fire] off the shotgun / at midnight,” we see a man taking in the scenery and putting a positive spin on his many predicaments:
When Uncle Bruce was sober
He took you for a drive Just
the two of you Just for fun
Into town In the truck Lucky Strikes
rolled at his bicep Spit cup Balanced
on the transmission in between
Hole rusted in the floorboard
where the cup tipped over again and again
Free air conditioning baby girl
And my socks get clean when it rains
This moment is genuine, and there are other moments that resemble such serenity: a pizza night at Angelo’s, choosing songs from a jukebox. But as stated in the introduction, this is a collection of loss and departure, and at the end of the poem, Uncle Bruce, after a drunken night, is advised by the speaker’s father to get some help and warned to keep his empty bottles off his field. What happens after this is left to speculation (does he change? does he continue with his old ways?). What is certain, however, is the impact that he has had on the speaker, reminding her, and us as well, how devastating and fragile life can be.
This sentiment extends across the collection, and even moments that seem rather mundane are elevated to existential meditations. In “Gladys Seated Next to Me at the Bar,” a woman (Gladys) details the passing of her father. The events leading to his death are strange; the father opened his eyes and said, after weeks of silence, that a “ship” was coming for him. However, we discover that the speaker had a similar experience when she was younger with her mother, who one night claimed she saw a UFO outside of their house. Gladys’s father and the speaker’s mother longed for something more, a connection that both Gladys and the speaker know this earth would have never given them.
Nowhere is this feeling of loss and longing more evident than in the poem “txt me im board.” The longest in the book, the speaker, on a flight home across the country, meditates on her nephew’s life and guides readers through an array of ideas and themes: travel, technology, teenage angst and boredom, family relationships, gender, the education system, the writing life, the nature of poetry and poetry readings. Long poems have the tendency of being, well, long, and therefore run the risk of being wordy and tedious. This is by no means the case with Olson’s poem, precisely because of its ability to shift subjects at a lyrical and thoughtful pace:
And you can see the need
to monitor words not meant
for me He wants to talk
to ones who are bored
And me I am not bored I am
flying A window seat Country
unrolling slow below
I am flying
east From San Francisco
Where I speak the week reading
with the same three poets every night
Nine pages later, after contemplating the influence of social media, the exhaustion and reward of reading with the poets Roger Reeves, Matt Hart, and Philip B. Williams, and the travel that keeps one from home, the plane lands, and the speaker realizes how thankful she is that she has another “Chance / To make [her] very own / God Marked Best Poem” (to write about experiences such as these).
The chances we have to do things and to be with people aren’t always guaranteed. Near the end of the collection, Olson returns to the personal, and in “In A World Only A Little Different” the speaker’s parents and their passing become the focal point. Olson’s words read like a prayer, one that reflects on what more can be done to cement meaningful moments before it is too late:
Allow us this One more day
As we were As we truly were
Short Flawed Doing the best
we could When they are gone
I hold only their absence
Absent I hold only her bruise
And with a year subtracted from me
I would offer up another
And this world would be only
a little different
The irony here is that when people leave our lives they end up adding to it, whether that be in the form of grief, nostalgia, or a more complex understanding of the world. Stay attests to the ways in which we are shaped by such subtraction, and how we attempt to understand these voids within larger contexts. Perhaps the lines that best embody the message of this collection are found in the poem “Amo Amas Amat Amamus,” where the speaker reflects on gratitude, and why we must cherish everyone that is still with us, no matter how much we don’t think their presence is necessary:
But the truth is you should be thankful
for an opportunity to fall to your knees and pray
for the patience not to kill the one you love
because that is on way to know you are in love and alive
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.