Book Review: 'Constellation Route,' Matthew Olzmann | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Book Review: 'Constellation Route,' Matthew Olzmann


Published February 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Margarita Corporan
  • Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann's new book is composed of letters — poems that take the form of epistles from the poet to friends and teachers, other sentient beings, objects, and even concepts. Among the correspondents are a flying saucer, the Connecticut River monster, a traffic light in North Carolina and the actor (now corporate flack) William Shatner.

Olzmann displays the playfulness of his "to" and "from" amusingly in his table of contents, where we find titles such as "Letter to a Man Who, Within a Year of Being Struck by Lightning, Had Previously Been Hit by a Cement Truck and Bitten by a Tarantula," "Letter to Matthew Olzmann From the Roman Empire," and "Letter to Justin, Age Seven, Regarding Any Possible Mixed-Race Anxieties Which One Might Experience in the Near or Distant Future." And could you possibly pass by a poem called "Letter to a Cockroach, Now Dead and Mixed Into a Bar of Chocolate"?

Constellation Route also features poems that celebrate — of course — the postal service.

White River Junction resident Olzmann is the author of two previous books of poems: Mezzanines (2013), which received the Kundiman Poetry Prize for "exceptional work by an Asian American poet"; and Contradictions in the Design (2016). His writing has appeared in The Best American Poetry and many journals, and he's received fellowships from the Kresge Foundation, Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences and MacDowell colony. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the low-residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Constellation Route by Matthew Olzmann, Alice James Books, 100 pages. $17.95. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Constellation Route by Matthew Olzmann, Alice James Books, 100 pages. $17.95.

This new book demonstrates how a quick-witted artist can repurpose the sorts of miscellaneous information that bombard us in broadcasts, in overheard conversations and online. Olzmann is eager as a crow to snatch shiny, intriguing bits and pieces and give them new homes in poems. He's fascinated by history, including stories of fortuitous mishaps such as the inventions of the pacemaker, the X-ray and nuclear fission — all discovered while looking for something else. The narrator of "Letter to a Canyon" says, "I fill everything with accidents."

As well as crafting pieces prompted by such odd gleanings, Olzmann has a knack for fashioning extended riffs on figures of speech and literary snippets. In "Letter to the Horse You Rode in On," fancy diction bumps into blunter slang: "It matters not who rode in on / the aforementioned steed. It matters not / what kind of jackassery said rider has committed."

In a note, Olzmann admits he's not certain who originated the expression "The best place to hide a leaf is in a forest" (Jorge Luis Borges or G.K. Chesterton?). But his trenchant poem addressed to Bruce Wayne, alter ego of Batman, keeps finding new ways of hearing that tantalizing locution.

A good place to hide a drop of water is a stream.

A good place to hide a stream is beneath an ocean.

A good place to hide a man is among thousands

of men. Watch how they rush

through the city like water through a ravine.

Olzmann's poems often begin like the setups for jokes, then slide into simile or narrative analogy, ping-ponging between divergent rhetorical styles, from somber and matter-of-fact to drolly outlandish.

Writing about the ins and outs of mail delivery, he improvises on entries in the official "Publication 32 — Glossary of Postal Terms," such as "Phantom Route," "Daylight Container," "Wing Case" and "The Dead Letter Office." He selects what might be bureaucratic banalities and spins them into allegory. At its start, "Day Zero" is about the moment when "a mailpiece enters the mailstream," but it becomes about "the day before" Genesis. "Conversion" is initially about a U.S. Postal Service employee's change in status, but it expands to encompass the hazards of Earthly existence.

The sun orbits the earth, then one day it doesn't.

The whale gets legs, gets bored with land, goes back

to the ocean, the legs are now a metaphor. Nothing

certain, nothing written in stone that can't be unwritten

by the hammer. The world keeps trying to end itself

because it wants to end, then one day it doesn't.

The book's title poem begins by playing on "star route," a term for rural areas where independent carriers make deliveries. Characteristically, Olzmann allows the phrase to mutate in his mind into the image of an actual path lit by celestial lights. He upends a cliché by taking it literally, then plays with abandon on its linguistic implications, yielding possibilities and surprises.

This poet's epistolary wizardry is never solitary. He's corresponding, continually. And, taking to heart the ethos of a devoted letter writer, he features letter-poems by other writers, including Jessica Jacobs, Ross White, Vievee Francis and Cathy Linh Che.

The effect is generative and generous. These guest appearances are not without risk, because they offer some of the volume's strongest writing. While it's still unusual for poets to commingle works by others in their collections, it's reminiscent of how musicians trade solos when playing together, both fooling around and completely in earnest.

Emily Dickinson called a poem her "letter to the World." In Constellation Route, Olzmann delivers to readers a marvelous packet of letters, penned by one of the most perspicacious and sympathetic raconteurs we could know. As he says in "Conversion":

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.

'Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years From Now' from Constellation Route

By Matthew Olzmann, Alice James Books, 2022

Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,

the golden toad, the thylacine and all variations

of whale harpooned or hacked into extinction.

It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing

but benzene, mercury, the stomachs

of sea gulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic.

You probably doubt that we were capable of joy,

but I assure you we were.

We still had the night sky back then,

and like our ancestors, we admired

its illuminated doodles

of scorpion outlines and upside-down ladles.

Absolutely, there were some forests left!

Absolutely, we still had some lakes!

I'm saying, it wasn't all lead paint and sulfur dioxide.

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.

Hear Olzmann read Constellation Route's title poem online at Poets & Writers (

The original print version of this article was headlined "Letter by Letter | Book review: Constellation Route, Matthew Olzmann"