NIKITA BYRNES | REPEAT OFFENDERS
It is difficult to review a poetry collection, because the impact of poetry is intangible and inarticulate. The power of my words is naught in comparison to the power of Matthew Olzmann’s new poetry collection published in January at the beginning of this year, Constellation Route.
Constellation Route is Olzmann’s third poetry collection, after Contradictions in the Design (2016) and Mezzanines (2013) which was selected for the acclaimed Kundiman Poetry Prize.
The poems in this collection are direct, literal, and subject-based, sometimes bordering on the absurd. Olzmann writes letters to Bruce Wayne, William Shatner, and a 52-hertz whale. But even while absurd, the poems are intellectually witty and emotionally insightful.
“Do whales believe in Providence?” he asks.
Reading this, I thought of two questions in response: Does anyone truly believe in Providence or divinity? More than that, do whales actually centre their actions around belief systems?
Olzmann writes in an elegiac style about three circles in the Venn diagram of themes that seem to preoccupy his thoughts: his country (America), his religious faith (or lack thereof), and his place in both of those spaces as an Asian- and Jewish-American author. The epistolary nature of these poems is interesting because Olzmann not only addresses others, but also himself, from varying perspectives, like a flying saucer and a North Carolinian traffic light.
In Constellation Route, Olzmann seems divinely obsessed with the United States Postal Service, drawing upon the extended metaphor of delivery routes throughout the collection. He writes odes to the USPS and draws upon its “Glossary of Postal Terms” as epitaphs to individual poems. On a deeper level, Olzmann positions himself in flux, unable to decide whether he is the sender, receiver, or delivery-person of any given message. It is both heart-warming and abjectly alarming that Olzmann, in his forties, is so incredibly aware of his existence and yet unsure of what that means in this senseless world.
Part of what I love about Olzmann’s writing is his ability to articulate the meaning we find in objects of incongruity but that we are not able to eloquently express. His poetry is not “instapoetry” and it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the classical poetry that you only read in school. It fits in a category situated somewhere between literary fiction and escapist poetry. Olzmann’s writing catches you unaware – when you think you’ll cry, you’ll actually be in fits of laughter, and simultaneously devastated.
The title poem, “Constellation Route” (which opens part four of the collection) encapsulates the tone of this collection. The poem begins: “I spent at least five minutes looking for my glasses / when they were on my head.” He later writes: “In moments like these, I want to believe / in a cosmic plan, a higher power orchestrating it all, / that every blunder has a reason built inside it.”