Lisa Olstein: Grief Gone Awry

In an extended lyric essay, the poet weaves a personal narrative with a broad cultural perspective on pain


Earlier this year, poet Lisa Olstein had a book come out about pain. “Pain Studies” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020) isn’t your typical poetry collection, and it isn’t the typical sort of pain often found in such collections. Instead the Austin-based author has written an “extended lyric essay” about a very specific subset of physical pain: migraine.

Writing at the intersection of form and content, Olstein tells me she wasn’t interested in what the line could do here: there is a feel of poetry to the book without it actually being poetry. Instead she overlays her personal story with archival research, ranging from pre-Socratic philosophies to pop-cultural references; “House” episodes interspersed with Antiphon’s ancient wisdom.

Though she quotes neurological heavy hitters like the late Oliver Sacks on the root cause of such pain, perhaps it is the fictional television character Gregory House, M.D. (played by Hugh Laurie) who sums it up best: “People get what they get; it has nothing to do with what they deserve.”

As a lifelong sufferer of debilitating migraines, Olstein, who teaches at the University of Texas, lays out the perception of pain as almost a feminist critique, calling upon the trial of Joan of Arc, the tribulations of Virginia Woolf, and her own troubles when getting treatment for a problem that just will not go away.

“I am one of the lucky unlucky,” Olstein writes. “I am not without medication and mostly medication does work.

Early on, she points to Eula Bliss’s essay, “The Pain Scale,” which makes mention of the Beaufort Wind Scale, developed by Sir Francis Beaufort of the British Royal Navy in 1805. The scale uses descriptive categories metaphorically akin to her own migraine symptoms: “sea surface is smooth and mirror-like,” on one end, and, “air filled with foam, sea completely white with driving spray, visibility greatly reduced,” on the other.

This, compared to simply circling a number of how bad does it hurt on a scale of 1-10, whenever we fill out a form at our doctor’s office: “The trouble with standard pain scales, it seems to me, is that they weren’t written by the right people — the people in pain.”

Olstein, who grew up outside of Boston, is the author of four poetry collections. She teaches in UT’s New Writers Project and in the Michener Center for Writers. Her latest book largely takes place in Marfa, where she attended a writers residency at the Lannan Foundation in 2015. Her ties to New England, to its coast, make it all the way to Marfa: a keen observer may spot a Cape Cod reference or two. Perhaps the wide-open Texas sky is a version of that ocean.

Blue looms large throughout the essay, as the color which speaks a “language of no harm.”

At one point Olstein details the light quality of the James Turrell Skypace on the UT campus, paying particular homage to its baseline beauty of blue:

“Our carved portion of oval sky has shifted register, degree: ordinary blue (beautiful enough) grows deeper, electric, morphs turquoise, celadon, emerald, aqua cerulean, celery; fades dove gray, then white, maybe, beige, pumpkin, mud brown, now black, now back: blue again, our feet touch ground, then off, onward, elsewhere, gone. Sometimes — chance operation — a flock of birds or an airplane floats by.”

Woven throughout Olstein’s personal narrative is a broad cultural perspective on pain: chronic as opposed to a crisis, treatable versus inevitable, Western dovetailing Eastern. Neurologists and scientists weigh in just as much as poets and saints. A deep dive into Joan of Arc’s demise circles back to her own plight.

Olstein’s migraine symptoms — acute sensitivity (to light, to sound, to odors), auditory hallucination, at times, agitation — echo the accusations railed against Joan of Arc. Was Joan a martyr? Or a migraine sufferer?

At some point the feminist curvature of “Pain Studies” comes up against the hard right angle of artist Donald Judd: an immoveable object placed on the horizon of perception. Judd is the opposite of Joan; for one thing, his aluminum boxes can’t catch fire. Olstein ends up visiting his “100 works in milled aluminum” at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. The masculinity of his minimalism nicely offsets her historical analysis of hysterical females.

Olstein refers to Judd’s iconic boxes as “exquisite mirrors” so utterly indifferent, it is impossible to read into them; rather the viewer projects onto them. The perception of the experience is the portal.

So what does this have to do with a migraine?

“Pain Studies” is an investigation of grief gone awry, a phrase Olstein takes from the writer Audrey Niffenegger, who once used it to describe the appeal of ghosts in her ghost stories. That unexpected swerve on a path which leads to the next thing; an accident which leads to interesting results. Learning to play the hand we’re dealt.

“Unexpected trajectories are a way to enter into the reality of pain,” Olstein tells me. When things go awry in our lives, sometimes it occurs in big obvious ways, but oftentimes it occurs in a slower, steadier manner. However it unfolds, the event is morally neutral: both proof of love and proof of wrath.

Or as House, M.D. would say, just before downing some more pain pills, people get what they get.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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