Keats tells us that ‘poetry should surprise by a fine excess,’ which is to say that Keats might be a little jealous of Christina Olson’s The Anxiety Workbook. Her work always surprises, either by way of humor or confession or observation or reflection or lyricism—sometimes all in the same poem. Few poets could make the Venn diagram of personal anxiety, a deep interest in mastodons, COVID pandemic anxiety, adulting, body image concerns, and Caddyshack feel inevitable, but by some miracle, Olson is able to achieve the nearly impossible. Her voice is a mixture of knowing and not-knowing, humor and grave seriousness. It feels smart and timely. This is a fantastic book.
The Anxiety Workbook explores contemporary anxiety, grief in its multitude of forms, and complicated familial dynamics via the lens of science and history while utilizing the language of therapy. These poems grapple with the ever-evolving collective and individual trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as seek answers and lessons from the natural world. The termination of a pregnancy, a distant father, the untimely death of a friend, our society’s obsession with Dateline and missing white girls, the estivation of the West African lungfish—The Anxiety Workbook covers these topics and much more in poems ranging from the hypernarrative to the highly lyrical, rich in voice and description.
EXCERPT FROM “WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE WISTERIA” Wisteria sinensis
The purple of early bruise. The slow strangle of climb toward chimney or sky,
something we humans cannot or will not see. The grape-clusters of bloom
don’t last long, though of course you should expect this, the root
right in the name: wistful. Now flowers shower down like your grief: violet and sudden.
A thing I love about Christina Olson’s poems is the lightly off-kilter lens through which she examines the world, the way she invents and discovers beauty from unlikely sources. There are plenty of terrible things to worry about in The Anxiety Workbook, but also classic movies, reality television, wondrous flora and fauna, the Oregon Trail, and mastodon bones. Olson writes, ‘It’s not suffocation if it’s beautiful,’ so breathe. Breathe in this awesome book and all its disarming gorgeousness. These poems are heartachingly fresh.
In The Anxiety Workbook, Christina Olson shares the daily work of surviving our times, surviving childhood, surviving loved ones, surviving ourselves. This capacious collection considers all manner of flora and fauna, including mastodons, dogs, wisteria, and lungfish; friends and family show up, as well as fathers including the speaker’s and Thomas Jefferson. This book is at turns humorous and poignant; early in the collection in ‘What I Learned from the Ginkgo’ the impulse of ‘using humor as a shield’ is weighed. In these poems we’re shown the shield as they let their guard down as much as a poem can and that sharing of vulnerability cares for the reader as it attends to the world. Christina Olson’s The Anxiety Workbook is a book that will carry us through this moment of ours and hold us beyond it. I’m grateful for this book and you will be too.
The Anxiety Workbook is the most interesting book of poetry I have read all year. Brutal, funny, full of facts about mammoths, mastodons, gardening, and made-up words that are spelled and pronounced as if they were German, this is a stunning compendium of the kinds of truths about human anxiety that shouldn’t surprise us anymore, but they do, and the singularity with which they are articulated is what makes up the artistry of Christina Olson’s work. Olson is unrelenting, rigorously vulnerable, an elegant poet who recognizes the necessity of making sure the reader of her collection of poems is in on the very dark, poignant joke—this is an anxiety workbook, but as she writes in one of her poems, ‘it turns out that therapy doesn’t fix you / it just gives you the tools to cope with your brokenness.’ This book too won’t fix you, but it will give you the tools to recognize what a miracle it is to have someone see you the way she does.
Christina Olson is the author of Terminal Human Velocity and The Last Mastodon, which won the Rattle 2019 Chapbook Contest. Other work appears in the Atlantic, the Missouri Review, the Nation, Scientific American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and tweets about coneys and mastodons as @olsonquest. Her website is www.thedrevlow-olsonshow.com.