Matthew Olzmann’s debut poetry collection Mezzanines—winner of the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Prize and published by Alice James Books in April of 2013—is the type of collection you recommend to people when they tell you they don’t like poetry because its too old-fashioned. Or that poems are cryptic and unrewarding. Or that the maudlin of nature of poetry just doesn’t do it for them. Olzmann’s collection abounds with an undeniable vibrancy capable of converting even the most poetry-averse to full-fledged enthusiasts.
In this wickedly entertaining collection, Olzmann employs the tradition of outlandish short story masters like Aimee Bender, Ray Bradbury, and George Saunders. His poems condense the daring nature of the speculative and the absurd into minute, metric delights. Uniting magical realism with kernels of profound sentiment, the poems in Mezzanine exist in a parallel world, one that is uncanny in its strangeness while still being familiar enough to relate to. Each poem here has been composed with such compressive buoyancy it’s the rare entry that doesn’t bait you and reel you in. The titles are often their own draw (“Planetarium With Deformed Elephants,” “Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Résumé,” “Art of the Mime: An Educational Camp for Children”), though fortunately for the reader the titles are only the beginning of the journey.
It’s fitting that the collection begins with an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, as many of the poems invoke a set-up or conceit that would be at home on-stage at the theatre of the absurd. However, unlike Beckett’s characters Vladimir and Estragon—existential nitwits doomed to while their days waiting for that which will never arrive—Mezzanines never asks us to sit in limbo without being rewarded. Ozlmann is not an indifferent creator; rather, he’s a warm and inviting poet who sandwiches his humor between questions of ontology and—in poems like “Bigfoot and the Placebo Effect,” “The Hand That Taps the Names Into Gravestones,” “The Size of the Earth and That Which It Contains”—moving finality. This finality is not a melodramatic miring in loss or death, but instead an earnest study of the effects of folly and disappointment. Olzmann manages to treat tragedy as somewhat quotidian without seeming flip or callous, which is to say that instead of hyperbolizing emotion for effect the poems here deal in extreme and unpredictable situations in order to reveal the relatable ordinariness of the emotions thereof.
With poems about Star Trek, Mountain Dew, and the sale of sasquatch meat, it might be easy to write off Mezzanines as silly, but to do so would be as wrong as dismiss the social critiques of Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce because of their vulgarity. True, there is a childish joy to these poems, but that joy doesn’t mean the poems trade in triviality or deal with small ideas. More often than not, Mezzanines demonstrates that the only thing separating philosophical inquiry from wry humor is which way the lips curl when speaking. No poem better exemplifies this deceptive dichotomy than “Spock As a Metaphor For the Construction Of Race During My Childhood.” In this poem, a bi-racial speaker alludes to the duality of Dr. Spock’s Cartesian mind/body conflict, using the conceit to express the speaker’s own feelings of alienation, bumbling adolescent confusion, and lack of monolithic identity:
It was like this: you knew you could fly
until your first attempt left you with two broken teeth.
You knew you were like all the other kids,
until your best friend said, No, You’re Not.
And he was right.
And in that moment, something shifted.
the galaxy became real, and in its realness the asteroids
seemed so much closer than you thought. (5,6)
The collection’s opening poem “NASA Transmission Picked Up By Baby Monitor” shows how confidently Olzmann can weave together the trancelike calm and lofty meditations of a poet like W.S. Merwin with the inadvertently comedic non-sequitirs that so profoundly define the post-modern era, an era in which the unreal becomes more and more verifiably real with each passing day. Consider the first two stanzas, in which the humorous juxtaposition of witnessing outer space on a baby monitor becomes a metaphor for confronting the terrifying reality of the world’s larger agnostic mysteries:
Instead of her little one nestled between the purple
elephant from Aunt Meg and the blanket knitted
by Tricia, the new mother glances up to see a space
station—tattooed by a meteorite—now plummeting
toward Hamtramck, Michigan.
Maybe she feels the same terror that I remember feeling
when I sat in a theater as a child. A man in a black
tuxedo staggered across the stage, removed his gloves
and tossed them into the audience, gloves as black as
piano keys that flapped toward us, became
two fuming ravens that shrieked around the room
and circled the chandeliers. Plato says we live in a cave
and stare at a wall of shadows cast by the light outside.
We name the shapes and believe them real. Turn around
and the sun burns the pupil. I’ve known people, afraid
of the sun, who opened their eyes to God, but found
only a wine cellar lit by a guttering lamp. There’s so much
to be afraid of, so much to gaze and be wrong about. (1)
Readers who are tired of beating their heads against a wall in encouraging friends and family to take up poetry would be well advised to buy several copies of Mezzanines. The next time someone tells you they’re not a poetry fan, simply read them the quote prefacing to “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth,” which Olzmann borrows from the stand-up comedian Dan Cummins: “Never look a gift horse in the mouth? But what if on the horse’s tongue there’s a little man playing piano? Why would you not look at that? That’s incredible.” Then hand your skeptical friend a copy of the collection and ask, “Why would you not read Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines? It’s incredible.”
Eric Howerton writes fiction, cooks mushrooms, gardens, practices screaming, collects masks, plays poker, skis, and does not believe in the ontology of half sandwiches. His writing has appeared/is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, and Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico. He is a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast Magazine.