Lost Alphabet

Lisa Olstein

In an interview, Lisa Olstein has said, “I don’t want poetry to limit itself to reflecting or recapitulating experience; I want it to be an experience.” In her daring new book, an unnamed lepidopterist—living in a hut on the edge of an unidentified village—is drawn ever deeper into unexpected, engrossing worlds. Structured as a naturalist’s notebook, yet suggesting an ars poetica, this five-part sequence of prose poems creates a layered pilgrimage into the consequences of intensive study, the trials of being an outsider, and the process of metamorphosis. Along with the speaker’s enigmatic companion Ilya, who arrives one day and never leaves, the reader embarks on a journey through the paradoxes that imbue desire, the waywardness of intention, and the power of experience to transform.

ISBN: 9781556593017

Format: Paperback

No Camouflage Requires Decoration like This

Having gone so deeply into the maze of dung- and dust-
colored, the brightly painted come as a shock. Saturation of
pigment brings a uniformity to their extravagance the
modest shades don’t require. At first they seem obvious,
savage in their displays, but no colors are incongruous in
nature.  Here, the effect of study is not entry but being
entered.  Fields of hot color pulse outward. The eye—finger
of the soul—responds with varying degrees of constriction,
expansion, extending backwards to the brain. In the field, I
have observed birds capture and release day-flying crimsons
from their beaks. There are only a few I can’t bear to study.

About the Author

Lisa Olstein is the author of five poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (2023). Her nonfiction includes Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press 2020), a book-length lyric essay exploring the intersection of pain, perception, and language; and Climate (Essay Press 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays with the poet Julie Carr. Olstein is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship, …

Read more


“This second collection from Olstein is an impressive sequence of prose poems spoken in a voice of a lepidopterist engaged in isolated research on butterflies and moths near a village whose residents reluctantly embrace her presence… Most appealing is Olstein’s sensitive, quietly pained and earnest tone, which, more than the unusual subject, is the real star of this book. It’s as if everything Olstein says gains dire importance.” —Publishers Weekly

“A remarkable collection.” —Recommended Reading List, Massachusetts “Books of the Year”

“[Lost Alphabet] particularly entices the reader interested in a poetry that dances and walks at the same time, for [Olstein] grounds the book solidly in a vivid fictional framework while plunging and darting with the alacrity of the moths that constitute the book’s central subject and metaphor.” —Constant Critic

“In this series of prose poems, a scientist cataloging specimens somewhere in the cold north reflects on the act of waiting, the beauty of light, and what’s essential in life as revealed by [the] wild surroundings… Olstein’s beautiful and ambitious collection unfolds just as it should, telling us a story without sounding like a storybook… Readers will have to slow down to a stately pace of another kind of life to appreciate this beautiful and ambitious work… But it’s worth it.” —Library Journal

“People and events color this book of poems, but the joy and beauty are in the writing.” —New Pages

“Lost Alphabet is a fascinating and inventive exploration of observation.” —American Poet