Rebecca Hart Olander’s chapbook Dressing the Wounds contains poems addressing themes from family to memory, from ecology to art, from musical harmony to domestic argument, frequently through the lens of lovely quotidian scenes of daily life.
“The octopus has three hearts. If I did, / I would put one in a bottle / at night, let it glow,” Olander begins. These lines from the opening poem “Makeshift Octopus” allow readers to immediately understand the tone and approach in this chapbook: the poems here tend to ground us in scientific fact while simultaneously expressing affecting sentiment. The poem continues by explaining how, for humans with just one human heart, romantic love will only every get “the upper-left-hand atrium” because one must “keep a ventricle for myself, one for children, / the last for strangers.” The biology of the octopus becomes a way to articulate the conflicting emotional demands of contemporary life.
Throughout Dressing the Wounds, science and sentiment continue to be intertwined. The title poem explores the emotional wound of divorce though a similar ecological frame, this time through fungus, flowers, trees, and fire. Here readers learn how “Chaga spreads / its bandage of stunning mycology” over birch trees and “Chicory, blue wildflower” is “used for healing” (10); later in the poem, the speaker wonders, after we are “torn from each other and made separate,” “What will it take to heal?” (11). The collected poems in Dressing the Wounds offer the beginnings of an answer that question.
Olander’s poems often highlight positive and communal aspects of family life; the poet frequently uses a direct address to a family member. In “Hurricane Necklace,” she writes “Daughter, I’ve been thinking about…” and continues, “Remember how you made those block cities…. You loved it” (2). Many poems address another “you,” the romantic and domestic partner, inviting them to “brush your voice against my body” (32) or describing how “you call out to the children” (3) and “I see you bending by the sink” (8). The poems in Dressing the Wounds don’t shy away from the less glamorous aspects of living with others. Poems take place while "driving home from dinner" (34), as "I weed...the crabgrass" (36), or while "Watching Love Do the Dishes" (8); they hone in on "conversations in between the computer and school and sleep, / in between friends and sports and head-phoned music" (4).
Also, this chapbook is sad. The poems in Dressing the Wounds almost always also grapple with loss or enact a thinking through of potential losses. These poems, though, while tackling everyday and difficult subjects, never feel weary or repetitive. Olander’s use of sophisticated figurative language elevates her poems and draws readers in. Her similes feel apt, as she describes “the liar bird / [who] can copy the chainsaw gutting the forest, / the car alarm piercing its canopy" (19) or how "The sky is purpled blue, lung / tissue" (28). She describes the desire for intimacy beautifully, as "our two bodies like tines of a struck fork, / letting the overtones die until we emit pure music" (3). Olander’s poems are also wonderfully inventive: in the poem “Poetry,” a sort of ars poetica, she writes, "I want... / tusks / to curl like ivory swords right out of my face" (18). Such surprising and pleasurable descriptions create a consistent and sometimes magical locality for readers, bringing us fully into Olander’s poetic world.
As the title poem declares, “There is no miracle, or all is miracle” (11). Ultimately, the poems in Olander’s chapbook present to readers the work and wonder of poetry: it can transform the uncomfortable, the unbeautiful, the casual, and the distressing into something not only gratifying, but into something miraculous.
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of (aviary) (Veliz Books); In the ice house (Red Hen Press), winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation‘s poetry publication prize; and four chapbooks, most recently I exit the hallway and turn right (above/ground press), an anti-ode to office work. Her poems can be found in Posit, Third Coast, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Since 2003, she’s been editing the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose. Genevieve lives in southern California. More at https://genevievekaplan.com/