Build, Now, a Monument

Matthew Olzmann

No longer satisfied by the way time slips
through his life’s work, the maker
of hourglasses yearns for a change.

He elects to construct a staircase instead.
Rather than grains of sand,
he’ll manufacture one stair after another
to lament every transient second.

Look at it now! It rockets upward, almost vertical,
beginning in his backyard, puncturing
the cloud cover, and everyone speculates
where it will end. It will end
where all ambitions end: in the ether,
where the body ceases, and a story continues.

But for now, it’s a monument.
For now: a defiance, misoneism.
A bridge between
Earth and what Earth cannot touch.

What does he think as he builds?
Mostly he contemplates the work:
the sawdust, the anger, the hammer.
But sometimes he dreams of cars, highways,
of crashes and sequestered wreckage.
Old pain. He had a friend, out there.
There was a highway, a vehicle overturned.

If his friend was here today,
she’d understand this monument.
She liked the sky, country music and caterpillars.

There are four thousand muscles in a caterpillar.
It uses every one of them
to become something other than itself.
Is the body a cocoon? the man wonders.

From the top of the staircase, the life
he left below is almost unrecognizable.
Look at the beagle, yelping in the neighbor’s yard.
The rooftops of the shrinking houses. Everything
getting smaller as his view of the world

expands. The roads marked by petite yellow lines.
Graceland and Grant’s Tomb and whatever’s left
of the Parthenon. All of it is down there.
Things end. But what he can’t comprehend
is how, around those endings, everything else
continues.

More by Matthew Olzmann

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz

You whom I could not save,
Listen to me. 

Can we agree Kevlar
backpacks shouldn’t be needed

for children walking to school? 
Those same children

also shouldn’t require a suit
of armor when standing

on their front lawns, or snipers
to watch their backs

as they eat at McDonalds.
They shouldn’t have to stop

to consider the speed
of a bullet or how it might

reshape their bodies. But
one winter, back in Detroit,

I had one student
who opened a door and died. 

It was the front
door to his house, but

it could have been any door,
and the bullet could have written

any name. The shooter
was thirteen years old

and was aiming
at someone else. But

a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn't

distinguish between
the innocent and the innocent,

and how was the bullet
supposed to know this

child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment

because his friend
was outside and screaming

for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who

opened a door and died? 
That’s wrong.

There were many. 
The classroom of grief

had far more seats
than the classroom for math

though every student
in the classroom for math

could count the names
of the dead. 

A kid opens a door. The bullet
couldn’t possibly know,

nor could the gun, because
“guns don't kill people,” they don't

have minds to decide
such things, they don’t choose

or have a conscience,
and when a man doesn’t

have a conscience, we call him
a psychopath. This is how

we know what type of assault rifle
a man can be,

and how we discover
the hell that thrums inside

each of them. Today,
there’s another

shooting with dead
kids everywhere. It was a school,

a movie theater, a parking lot.
The world

is full of doors.
And you, whom I cannot save,

you may open a door

and enter a meadow, or a eulogy.
And if the latter, you will be

mourned, then buried
in rhetoric. 

There will be
monuments of legislation,

little flowers made
from red tape. 

What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close

like a door above you. 
What should we do?

And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,

the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.

Replica of The Thinker

By the doorstep of The Museum,
the Duplicate is frustrated.
Like the offspring of a rock star or senator,
no matter what he does, it’s never enough.
He only wants to think dignified thoughts,
important thoughts, thoughts that will imprint
like an artist’s signature on the memory of mankind.
But it’s difficult, because when he thinks,
his head is filled with iron and bronze,
not neurons and God.

I too, feel like that.
You know how it works when you make a photocopy
of a photocopy? The original fights to be seen
but appears blurred in each new version.
Each morning, I sit at the kitchen table
the way my father must’ve years ago.
I’ve got my oatmeal and coffee,
my newspaper and blank stare.
                                                  The Replica

digs his right elbow into his left thigh,
his chin into his right fist, and then he thinks
as hard as his maker will allow. He tries to envision
patterns among celestial bodies, the mysteries
of Christ, X + Y, crossword puzzles, free will.
The expression on his face:
somewhere between agony and falling asleep.

Yet he holds this pose
as if no one will notice what frauds we are,
as if some world around him is about to make sense,
some answer has almost arrived. Almost.

Astronomers Locate a New Planet

“Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond.”
—Reuters, 8/24/2011

Like the universe’s largest engagement ring, it twirls
and sparkles its way through infinity.
The citizens of the new world know about luxury.
They can live for a thousand years.
Their hearts are little clocks
with silver pendulums pulsing inside,
Eyes like onyx, teeth like pearl.
But it’s not always easy. They know hunger.
They starve. A field made of diamond
is impossible to plow; shovels crumble and fold
like paper animals. So frequent is famine,
that when two people get married,
one gives the other a locket filled with dirt.
That’s the rare thing, the treasured thing, there.
It takes decades to save for,
but the ground beneath them glows,
and people find a way.

On Earth, when my wife is sleeping,
I like to look out at the sky.
I like to watch TV shows about supernovas,
and contemplate things that are endless
like the heavens and, maybe, love.
I can drink coffee and eat apples whenever I want.
Things grow everywhere, and so much is possible,
but on the news tonight: a debate about who
can love each other forever and who cannot.

There was a time when it would’ve been illegal
for my wife to be my wife. Her skin,
my household of privilege. Sometimes,
I wish I could move to another planet.
Sometimes, I wonder what worlds are out there.
I turn off the TV because the news rarely makes
the right decision on its own. But even as the room
goes blacker than the gaps between galaxies,
I can hear the echoes: who is allowed to hold
the ones they wish to hold, who can reach
into the night, who can press his or her
own ear against another’s chest and listen
to a heartbeat telling stories in the dark.