Review by Justin Bigos
Matthew Olzmann’s debut collection of poems,Mezzanines, reminds me of the poet-critic James Longenbach’s retort to Robert Frost’s claim that free verse poetry is like playing tennis without a net. According to Longenbach, “[I]t is like playing tennis on a court in which the net is in motion at the same time that the ball is in motion.” Both in terms of form and content, Olzmann’s poems serve, return, and volley from various distances and velocities, always attuned to the necessary adjustments in torque necessary to the making of good poems – a game which, in the hands of a extraordinary poet, must make up the rules as it proceeds.
In the very first poem in the book, “NASA Video Transmission Picked Up by Baby Monitor,” the speaker says, “There’s so much/ to be afraid of, so much to gaze at and be wrong about.” Inside Matthew Olzmann’s gaze, we find his poetry. We enter spaces such as shipwrecks, the mouths of gift horses, and houses that are architecturally built to look like human heads, and the spaces lose their surface sheen of the surreal as the speaker dwells inside them, and moves around inside them, looking, thinking, imagining, and ultimately transforming perception into vision. In “Shipwrecks,” the speaker imagines the long-drowned crew of a wreck looking up toward the surface of the ocean, thinking that “the surface// is really the sky. And those shadows, cast/ from the hulls of newer, more modern ships,// are only passing clouds.” In “Was Blind, But Now,” a blind man given sight sees the world for the first time, and finally, his wife: “now/ a cloud of purple sandpipers, the limb/ of an olive tree, a field.” Sight transforms into vision, and image transforms according to vantage point. Olzmann’s vantage is always on the move, often incorporating the speaker’s, the subject’s, and the reader’s all at once—giving room for all of us in his poems.
There are references throughout the book to current cultural problems, such as xenophobia; the American government committing “torture to protect democracy”; and the “little convoy of hate” of the Westboro Baptist Church, which travels the country to picket the funerals of gay people, most famously that of Matthew Shepherd. The “witness garden” contains “shoes still smoldering,” the cut-out “tongues/ of poets,” the “wire frames” of those declared “guilty of wearing eyeglasses.” The metonymy feels more metaphoric than literal, until the speaker asks, “Perhaps you think this place does not exist./ You think it’s the smoke and mirrors/ of fairy tales . . .” Here, the speaker asserts not some stale sociological report, but instead connects past and present injustice into a moral question for both reader and speaker. These questions, through the poet’s gaze, seem to arise naturally. In the poem “Dead Beetles Stuffed with Cocaine,” the speaker ponders not only the crass ingenuity of the illegal drug trade, but also the point of view of the dead beetles. Again, the speaker is curious and imaginative enough to enter what might seem an impossible space, but he does it because he can’t help himself. And, straddling the vantages of the beetle and the human outsider, he says, “From the outside, humanity/ must look totally depraved. Even in death,/ you’re trying to teach us something/ about how things look aren’t you?”
The poems in Mezzanines seduce with their surface ease of line, syntax, and diction. And yet the poems always manage to surprise, often in their moments of transition. In the poem “Crocodiles,” what at first appears to be a poem musing on the extraordinary brain of the crocodile (“like a built-in GPS”) shifts into a second stanza which begins: “Tonight, I’m on a train from San Francisco to Detroit.” This move out of second-person musing into first-person, present-tense scene is not jarring; rather, it reveals that all along we have been listening to a particular human being thinking about the world, and his attention has shifted to the compartment of his train, the newspaper in his hands, etc. This scene then shifts back into a space of musing: “Who hasn’t followed some invisible magic,/ or believed they were being led/ to a place where they too might belong?” Yet again, the poet has managed to connect the points of view of speaker, subject, and reader, in a question that rings throughout the book. The poem “To the Bottom of the One at Loch Ness” begins, “You are not as strange as some believe.” Another poem, considering the man who leaves behind his résumé after robbing a liquor store, says, “I too have been hungry.”
The empathy of the poems in Mezzanines is in the spirit of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” in which Foster Wallace seems to say, “No, I mean really – consider the lobster, consider this creature’s point of view, its sensations, its fears and desires, its inner life. At least give it a good shot.” With great empathy and imagination, and plentiful dashes of humor and wit, Matthew Olzmann enters spaces we don’t normally dwell in. Inside these spaces the world is in dazzling motion, and when we step back out we, too, are set spinning.