There is a picture of the moon that I like to keep on my phone. It’s not a great picture in terms of its quality, nor is the subject matter (the moon) anything unique. The photo was taken during a summer camping trip on a cloudy night hours before a storm ushered in heavy rain. In this picture, the moon appears grainy and subdued, partially blocked by the imposing limbs of a solid oak that would later drop what sounded like millions of acorns on our tent from the storm. The blunt juxtaposition of Earth and cosmos, and the proximal distance of two objects both close and far continues to bewilder me each time I thumb through photos on my phone and come across this image.
Long before maps were created, celestial navigation assisted the earliest humans traversing the globe by ship or by foot, or to track seasonal changes for when to plant and harvest food. Practicality aside, constellations also provided entertainment through oral storytelling, mythology, and some of the earliest forms of astrological predictions. Without the melee of the modern world we know now, the undiscovered aura of the cosmos made humans pay attention, to question, investigate, to confer with other humans about their witnessing.
That fine attunement to whittle something down from abstraction to singularity while succinctly conveying new meaning is often best tasked to poets. When churning in the mind of one as skilled as Matthew Olzmann, readers can expect to witness the most nondescript, overlooked, or unseen of things—a salamander, a rope bridge, a child’s school backpack—in the most liminal of words and spaces in his latest collection, Constellation Route. Through Olzmann’s imagistic lens, we are summoned to imaginative worlds where pigeons teach us that BLT sandwiches are extensions of climate change. We experience the callous audacity of carving one’s initials into one of the oldest pine trees in North America.
Like the earliest humans, we start from the beginning: Day Zero, as the opening poem’s epigraph notes, is the “date when the clock starts of service performance measurement” per the United States Postal Service. It is the day when
The old man in the old house yells, Let there be light,
then flicks a switch on the living room wall
to watch the house come to life.
There will be plenty of both light and darkness. When a collection of work like Constellation Route varies and veers among contemporaneous subjects including the natural world, gun control, or a Black woman’s sense of safety within her block of white neighbors, it needs an orienting guidepost, and the succession of USPS terminology in this collection serves as an innovative device. In service to the requisite work-place jargon of postal employees, the epistolary form is the real star of this collection, a technique that Olzmann dazzles in by creating distinctions that feel effortless to read. In “Letter to Bruce Wayne”, Olzmann searches for real men who share that name, manly men who might be superheroes with
an old flannel
to wear and a square jawline to smile at the world
before he pivots to presenting American society as violent and xenophobic, where men shout
Get out of my country,
from the window of a passing car.
This hypermasculine violence is interrogated again in “Letter to William Shatner”, a poem that bemoans Shatner’s regurgitated appearance with Priceline’s customer service among deftly woven montages from the movie Fight Club. Always, always, the speaker gauges his own proximity to things near and far (and with alarming acuity considering how David Fincher’s 1999 film version of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel has been more recently co-opted by far-right, angry white men):
And just like that: I’m part of the problem. I’ve punched my card and am back
in the He-Man-Spontaneous-Combustion-of-Wrath Society, pacing my
living room and shouting.
When Olzmann considers himself in the company of men “who holler into the wreckage”, he considers the legacy of the great Bengal tiger, best known for their aggressive rage,
their claws, and their fury. They rip things apart. They are beautiful,
but they spend much of their lives alone and are nearly extinct.
Just as the earliest humans viewed the stars with wonderment and wisdom, Olzmann uses them to play with reminiscence and speculation as a type of SOS, perhaps an apology, for how humans have treated our planet. Lead paint and sulfur dioxide stand in for an eon of industrialization, the bellies of animals lined with plastics and jet fuel our overzealousness for the comforts of modernity, all of which have overlooked the incurable consequences for future generations. In “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now”, Olzmann’s subtle bits of irony aren’t so funny when considering that speculation can easily shift into reality:
There were bees back then, and they pollinated
a euphoria of flowers so we might
contemplate the great mysteries and finally ask,
Hey guys, what’s transcendence?
And then all the bees were dead.
Olzmann’s poetic connections are like the gloaming orb of the moon emphasizing one tiny acorn on the rain awning of a tent: always probing and questioning until the grandest concept is winnowed down. He beckons the reader to experience revelatory intimations. Will the bees be around in 50 years? What else might we lose in our lifetime? How am I connected to this potential collapse? It is moments like this, when Olzmann probes the depths of human emotion, that make this collection soar. Consider this passage from “Fourteen Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale” in which he writes:
Do you ever worry that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the
effort? That you can work really hard and try to be a good person and try to make a difference in
your community, but then—at the end of the day the waves will just swallow you whole? They
will take you under.
You’ll disappear from the world.
And you won’t even leave a ripple on the surface.
For those unfamiliar, the 52-Hertz whale sings at such a high frequency that no other whales can hear them. Dubbed as lonely animals, Olzmann writes a letter to one, speaking on both its intelligence and solitude, its existence as one solitary figure among a sea of others until, in one clarifying swoop, the you in the poem becomes the reader.
According to the Smithsonian, postal contractors were instructed to deliver the mail with “celerity, certainty, and security.” Tired of repeatedly writing the phrase, postal clerks designated new routes with asterisks, and these routes became known as star routes. Much like the state of the cosmos, the titular poem “Constellation Route” is a testament to making order out of chaos:
In moments like these, I want to believe
in a cosmic plan, a higher power orchestrating it all.
Incorporating poems written to him by other writers, including Cathy Linh Che, Jessica Jacobs, Ross White, Mike Scalise, and Vievee Francis, this collection is a richly textured cosmic journey through time and space. Like celestial objects producing light and heat, each poem dazzles into one brilliant cluster with Olzmann as the orchestrator creating a map with which to guide us into new directions.
Robyn Earhart lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with her husband and pets.