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  • Kristin Kowalski Ferragut

Stories Upon the Depths of Poetry: A Review of “Stay” by Tanya Olson

Tanya Olson shares masterfully written, thoughtful poetry in her full-length collection Stay (YesYes Books, 2019). Her lyrical lines range from stories unfolding through striking images to staccato phrases presented in dialect that feels of small town America. Entering her poetry makes me feel as though I’m eavesdropping on, or even joining in dialogue with, rural folks in the hard north. And more than that, I enjoyed finding common experiences between myself and the voices within the poems; transported to memories until now forgotten, but spotlit and expanded through Olson’s wonderful sensory details and her ability to capture specifics of time and place.


Olson’s deft artistry in composing lines and stanzas that create story, music, and points of introspection allows the reader to be fully immersed in her poetry. I spent far more hours with Stay than I had planned, but time slipped by fast while in its pages. I felt as though I visited far away states but also visited places in myself where I haven’t been for years. Olson writes sophisticated, intelligent poems that feel anything but highbrow or pretentious. I imagine any reader would find time with Stay well spent, given that the poems can be read on multiple levels. Olson’s poems are easy to read — their flow, the stories that drive them along — but the longer I spend with them, the more I’m drawn in. Olson’s poetry is fun to read but just as rewarding to savor, staring out the window, considering and responding to her rich meanings and themes.


“Nothing Left to Burn Down Here” offers the story of a snowstorm through the experiences of children.


The fifth day the father…

…Zipped coveralls over it all Slid

out the window Down

the drift Dug out that side door

Turned around Tunneled into snow

Made a room Deep enough

to crawl into Tall enough to sit

For you girls To play in Fresh air


The next stanza, of this five stanza poem, is highlighted on the back cover of Stay.


The girls read books Played TV Show

Charlie’s Angels The one where Kelly

gets shot in the head by the sweet simple boy

Who does not understand what a gun is

Can do How beautiful she looks

in the hospital bed The part

where she wakes up Forgives him

Little House on the Prairie

The one where they tie Pa

to the fence Afraid a raccoon

may have given him rabies

How they do not want

to do it How Pa says It is

what they must do Before sleep

that night the sister asked

Do you think that we could do it

Zipped into sleeping bags

Buried under blankets

Ovened bricks against

their feet Tops of their heads

just touching together

Do you really think we could


Within television references, descriptions of characters and relationships, and details such as oil trucks not able to deliver through a storm and rusted through car floorboards, Olson creates gritty and nostalgic space. Yet while living in these pieces, the reader feels very much in the present. Through all of this — invented dialogues, imagined lives of birds, and snapshots of life, Olson explores themes of memory, childhood, relationships between children and parents, love, death, and longing.


Olson’s poetry is musical and she frequently references and quotes music throughout her collection. She also includes one of the most beautiful tributes to Whitman that I’ve read in “o camerado close! o you and me at last.”


…Walt himself came to Washington

after reading in the paper his brother

had been shot at Fredericksburg he stared

into wounded face after wounded face

until George was finally the one looking back

when George got better and returned to war

Walt stayed to help other hurt boys

sat with them sang to them

wrote their letters home in one

he called grass the beautiful uncut

hair of graves can you imagine

writing such a thing Mr President

can you imagine being the mother

to read it…


…writing is how he realized

every last molecule of every dead being

still lives in existence somewhere

that every face he ever saw

he would see in some other face again…


Olson begins her collection with “Zeno’s Boat,” exploring children leaving their mothers. “...Mother’s hearts hold their young / the way young boys hold birds By a string / kept in hand With a string looped in knot // And children never forget the holding…” This is one thing that Olson’s poems accomplish: creating strong atmosphere to be lived in on an experiential level, while also providing powerful points of reflection.


One of my favorite poems from Stay is “Amo Amas Amat Amamus” in which the speaker proposes


...the secret to love is Your craziness

can’t make the other person crazy You are never

going to not be crazy So you need to work on finding somebody

who when everyone else thinks Lord that girl

is crazy will put her arm around your shoulder

and whisper in your ear Don’t worry baby

I think you’re fine Just fine


Within ten stanzas, Olson skillfully employs repetition of lines and endearing, sometimes humorous quotes, highlighting touching incidents of “crazy” through wistful and sweet stories, until arriving at this final quote in which the reader thinks, Yes, this is as good a description of love as I’ve ever read.



Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Senior Lecturer in English at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Her first book, Boyishly, was awarded a 2014 American Book Award and her second book, Stay, was released from YesYes Books in 2019. She was a Discovery Poetry Contest winner from Boston Review and the 92nd Street Y and is a Lamda Fellow of the Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices.


Find the book here: https://www.yesyesbooks.com/product-page/stay-by-tanya-olson



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