Erin Keane has written a review of Seeking the Other Side, published in The Louisville Review, Vol. 77, pp. 168-170.
SEEKING THE OTHER SIDE
(Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015, 101 pp.)
by Jane Olmsted
In her introduction to Seeking the Other Side, scholar and Western Kentucky University professor Jane Olmsted writes that she put the writing of poems aside for many years to focus on other work, but returned in the wake of the tragedy—the murder of her twenty-year-old son Casey—that shapes her remarkable full-length debut collection. Exquisitely balanced between poems that rip out your heart with “a fist, gnarled with rage, hungry for love” and poems that guide the reader through the transformations sparked by grief and loss, Seeking the Other Side is at turns violent, surreal, elegiac and above all, staunchly alive.
Although the entire collection is an effort to come to terms with his death, the final third of the book—The Casey Poems reckons most directly with the poet’s son’s life and violent end. Th e poet weaves the facts of his death through tender elegies like “Blessed By the Dalai Lama,” which is anchored by the image of a consecrated “pretty silver T on a red string” that did not protect him from the fatal gunshot, and the imploring “Imperative,” in which “don’t forget about me,” spelled out in beads on a child’s church craft necklace, forms a haunting refrain that ricochets through the poem like a bullet off a rib. Olmsted mines startling beauty from the forensic details of the young man’s autopsy (“Th e Weight of a Human Heart”), the sonic pleasures of “where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds” almost shocking in such a clinical scene, and from the ballistics report (“Hydrostatic Shock”), in which the speaker learns that “A .40 caliber lopes along / and flattens a little, when meeting something hard, like bone.” Every death is, in its final moments, a mystery to those left alive, but these poems transform hard facts into higher truth: “how a nanosecond can hold a swirling cosmos of befores and durings / and afters; and how their ballistics got one thing right: there is a cavity / involved.”
At times, Olmsted’s poems move into liminal, dream-like spaces where waking life and its rules are suspended. In the darkly playful “Naming the Flowers,” the speaker slips naked into the night wearing only a crown she’s woven of “dorothies’ leaves and barbara’s breath / delicate as china,” escaping a home surrounded by baying dogs and “eyes cold as shaved glass / in a frozen cocktail.” In “Whisper,” she offers a more concrete vision: two of her sons fi ghting, until the dream abruptly
They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.
That wistful moment of the dream blowing apart becomes a metaphorfor the confl icted state of the grief-stricken survivor, one foot in her lifeand the other in his death. The act of transformation—from dreaming to awake, from whole to fractured, from before to after—is reenacted throughout the book. In “Roadside Encounter,” nature and machine mangle the form of a
roadkill deer into a grotesque resting shape, cars and elements slowly destroying the carcass until “she’s fi nally gone, delivered into the dump truck.” In “Cicada,” a memory of her boys marveling at an insect emerging from its husk turns to the speaker imagining herself in metamorphosis, sprouting wings and shedding her former self, “so I can leap into that
startling void.” Olmsted contemplates again the moment of giving in to death in “Camping on Greys River, Bridger Tetons,” when the sound of a bear outside her tent leaves the speaker almost welcoming the moment to “expose my belly // surrender, my self / to the other self.” This moment of dark anticipation echoes in “Imperative,” as the speaker, anguished,
imagines the young man approaching his fate:
What were you thinking, the night you died,
driving to a place so clearly marked
by fear and degradation and rushing
toward the lowest circles of hell?
The power of Seeking the Other Side will compel readers to mourn a young man they likely never met, and yet these poems also transcend one mother’s grief. “Blessed, it is said, are those who mourn,” opens “Requiem of the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” the book’s final elegy, which later offers, “Blessed, it is said, are the dead.” The sentiments of these prayers are as old as humanity, and as enduring—grief and loss will transform us all at some point, until we ourselves are lost, and our own deaths transform those left behind. In the meantime, Olmsted suggests, we fumble toward making peace with this certainty and with our limited lives, reaching always “for the root of things / and for the merest hint of light.”