Prose Feature: “The Surface Is Really the Sky: A Review of Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013)” by Prose Editor Emilia Phillips

November 1, 2013

Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann (Alice James Books, 2013)“What is being weighed / is a number of possibilities,” Matthew Olzmann writes, and, in Mezzanines, readers may sense he’ll veer off the safe and expected course at any moment, chasing down a new thought, a new lead. Trust him, and follow. He takes us to both real places—a gas station in Detroit, a Hallmark store—and to fabular landscapes—the inside of a horse’s mouth, an unnamed river navigated by a Charonesque ferryman—but we never feel as if the two worlds, the day-to-day and the imaginative, exist separately. Instead, one often gives way to the other, complicating it, reinvigorating it by how one contextualizes or subverts the other. Perhaps this is one of the motives of the collection: we live in our interior, imaginative worlds simultaneously as the world around us. A baby monitor picks up a NASA video transmission, hunters kill Bigfoot and sell the meat as “Sasquatch Steaks,” a summer camp gives mime lessons, and the crew of a sunken ship “stares up at the surface” of a lake “and believes the surface // is really the sky.”

Olzmann’s ability to look at one thing and see another gives Mezzanines a quality of magical realism. Take, for instance, “The Tiny Men in the Horse’s Mouth” that begins with a Dan Cummings epigraph: “But what if on the [gift] horse’s tongue there’s tiny little man playing piano?” Olzmann runs with the image:

You should look; peer as far back as you can,
because if he’s not playing piano,
he and his friends might be sharpening
blades inside the dark, inside
the horse’s belly, inside your sleeping city.

In other poems, however, what seems unreal is real, as in “Man Robs Liquor Store, Leaves Résumé.” Olzmann muses:

When they review your job application,
perhaps they’ll consider your resourcefulness,
your willingness to think “outside the box,”
to take risks and be bold.
As they study the security footage,
they might think, This one
is a real people person—notice
how he earns the clerk’s trust
before pulling the switchblade from his boot.
Doubtful.

In a May 2013 interview with 32 Poems, Olzmann writes that the challenge in this type of poem is “to transcend the bombast of the tabloid-headline-esque title, to build upon the novelty of that opening moment, and to create something that somehow builds upon that initial moment of surprise.” Olzmann does this through a tonal shift. While “Doubtful” seems cold, distant, even critical, the next lines seem more empathetic:

                But you never know.
What we do know is that you used your real name.
What we do know is that you were desperate,
a mouth without food, willing to take risks,
to be bold. I too have been hungry
and wondered what might happen
if things got worse.

Olzman’s empathy for many of the characters and situations allow him to also dip into their points of view or, at the very least, to suppose what other characters are thinking. In “Photograph of a Boy and a Dead Dog,” he begins, “Difficult to say how the boy feels, standing / in the road, the dead at his feet, his face / plain as a glass of milk,” but soon speculates on all the possibilities for how the boy feels. In “The Man Who Looks Lost as He Stands in the Sympathy Card Section of Hallmark,” he pushes the boundaries of what a poetic speaker can know about the internal life of others.

[The man] looks so sad with his bent umbrella
that you want to place a hand on his shoulder, say,
It’ll be okay. But you don’t.
Because you also look like a crumbling statue
Narrowed by rain, because you too have been abandoned
by language and what’s there to speak of or write
among so many words. There are not enough words
to say, Someone is gone and in their place
is a blue sound that only fits inside
an urn which you’ll drag to the mountains
or empty in an ocean with the hope
that the tide will deliver a message
that you never could.

Does the man actually feel he’s been abandoned by language, or does Olzmann? Is this evidence of empathy or projection? Or both? To what degree are all poetic subjects, regardless of whether or not they exist in the “real world,” simply manifestations of the poet? Certainly the shipwreck addressed in “For a Recently Discovered Shipwreck at the Bottom of Lake Michigan” functions as a mannequin for the speaker’s wants and desires and hang-ups:

Dear Shipwreck,

So what’s it feel like to have everything inside you still “intact”? That’s what I want to feel like. But I’ve actaully never felt my “insides” at all—I think they’re positioned in a way that keeps them from banging around. When I was small, I would jump up and down for hours trying to make them rattle. Nothing. I am an empty rattle.

P.S. Please write back.

The poet becomes both the letter writer and the ship, the voice and the silence. He writes: “I too am a country whose citizens / contradict each other.” Because of the intensely human contradictions felt by the speakers, readers won’t find upheld theses or bromidic conclusions. Instead, we often find that the endings open themselves up to new possibilities: “he can still dip his stained oars,” “So much detritus already under there, it seemed, / and so much work left to be done.”

“This world, / the crew thinks, is like the last world,” Olzmann writes in “Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes,” except it’s “quieter, / blue and always cold.” And so, this ghost crew, underwater, continues

to mop the decks, plot courses over a map
that dissolved decades ago, attempt to raise a mast

which has long since snapped like the captain’s neck.

Readers may initially find the no-frills language of Mezzanines simple, but don’t mistake this for lack of Olzmann’s craftmanship; rather, it’s a testament to his skill that we cruise along in these poems without being so aware of the artifice of the poem. Consider, however, how much attention he pays to sound in the above passage: the repitition of the short o sound in “mop,” “plot,” and “dissolved”; all those p sounds that chime with the other hard consonant sounds here. The passage provides us with an eerily evocative image that lulls us in its quietude and beauty, and yet the violence of the consonants gestures toward the violence done to the crew in their deaths.

The combination of the beautiful and the ugly, the real and imaginative, the marvelous and the devastating defines Mezzanines and makes it one of the most emotionally Gordian and yet exuberant collections in recent memory. Whether taking us to the bottom of Loch Ness or riffing on a headline in the ticker scroll, Olzmann expands the notion of what’s “real” to include the experience of the imagination, its contextual sway on the day-to-day and its deux-ex-machina-like ability to pluck us up out of emotional danger. If you need further convincing to pick up this collection, go no further than Olzmann’s own words: “Whoever told you not to look at this is hiding something.”

——Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and the prose editor of 32 Poems. Her reviews also appear in Blackbird, The Collagist, diode, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

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