In the battle of Good versus Evil, I was so sure
Good would win. Now I just hope something Good will survive,
get a job cutting hair or selling cars, make it home for dinner.
From “Letter to Bruce Wayne”
Matthew Olzmann poetry makes brilliant use of the epistolary form in Constellation Route, a complex collection that tackles the most relevant issues of the day through a series of poems framed as letters, sometimes to beloved heroes and sometimes to nameless people who cross the news feed for a moment or two. Olzmann’s choice to fully immerse himself in the epistle offers a chance to display his range of voice, to give space to seemingly disparate social inequities, to remain constantly intimate in his conversation with the reader.
Though he does not address us directly, granting us access to these letters situates us as observers in an often deeply personal dialogue. In “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con,” for example, Olzmann writes to his lover:
Though we’ve been married for years,
I wish we met when we were children.
If we had known each other in the year
you spent alone on Earth without one friend,
we could’ve been aliens together.
These lines exemplify how Olzmann utilizes the epistolary form to his advantage, communicating a shared experience between lovers while exploding that experience outward toward the reader. What might otherwise be a private revelation becomes an open invitation to all those who understand what it is to spend whole years “without one friend.” Olzmann effectively universalizes moments of trauma, especially those around isolation and unbelonging, communing with the reader through a shared desire to feel at home with others.
Olzmann deviates from the epistolary form slightly in a handful of poems frames as interviews which firmly establish the speaker within the title. The author shatters any remnant of the fourth wall with “Questions for Matthew Olzmann from Jessica Jacobs about Imposter Syndrome among the Thorns and Thistles,” where he grapples with his sense of unbelonging directly. Some questions within the poem, though, remain unanswered, the silence following each one loud and glaring from the page. “And now, what do you think/of this whole religion thing? Will faith always gape/like a borrowed coat? If something isn’t natural can it still be true?” the interviewer asks as the poem closes; if Olzmann has a response, he chooses not to include it directly. These unanswered questions, however, linger with us as we progress through the collection, ultimately contextualizing events and statements in future letters.
One of my favorite features is a smattering of poems that explicitly engage with the United States Postal Service. Olzmann introduces readers to the first recognized outpost, defines terminology within the context of the post office and muses on the fate of undeliverable letters. What makes these poems both essential to the collection and particularly impactful is that they move the epistolary form from an abstract technique to something tangible, concrete, traceable. In the last of these poems, “Conversion,” Olzmann offers some insight into how he views the epistle:
This always stuns me: the way an envelope arrives; how we
still reach toward one another, how this correspondence
endures: one figure approaches your door with a satchel
full of sand, pigeon feathers, sorrows, and names.
It’s hard not to draw a clear parallel between Olzmann’s image of the postal worker and the work of a poet. One gathers that Olzmann is, with Constellation Routes, embodying the mail carrier to explore the potential reach and impact of the poet. It’s an apt metaphor, one that positions the poet, like the mail carrier, as both a mainstay in the community and also a perpetual outsider, one who delivers our most intimate missives without ever, even once, being invited inside our homes.