My Invisible Horse and the Speed of Human Decency

People always tell me, “Don’t put the cart
before the horse,” which is curious
because I don’t have a horse.
Is this some new advancement in public shaming—
repeatedly drawing one’s attention
to that which one is currently not, and never
has been, in possession of?
If ever, I happen to obtain a Clydesdale,
then I’ll align, absolutely, it to its proper position
in relation to the cart, but I can’t
do that because all I have is the cart. 
One solitary cart—a little grief wagon that goes
precisely nowhere—along with, apparently, one
invisible horse, which does not pull,
does not haul, does not in any fashion
budge, impel or tow my disaster buggy
up the hill or down the road.
I’m not asking for much.  A more tender world
with less hatred strutting the streets.
Perhaps a downtick in state-sanctioned violence
against civilians.  Wind through the trees.
Water under the bridge. Kindness.
LOL, says the world. These things take time, says
the Office of Disappointment. Change cannot
be rushed, says the roundtable of my smartest friends.
Then, together, they say, The cart!
They say, The horse!
They say, Haven’t we told you already?
So my invisible horse remains
standing where it previously stood:
between hotdog stands and hallelujahs,
between the Nasdaq and the moon’s adumbral visage,
between the status quo and The Great Filter,
and I can see that it’s not his fault—being
invisible and not existing—
how he’s the product of both my imagination
and society’s failure of imagination.
Watch how I press my hand against his translucent flank.
How I hold two sugar cubes to his hypothetical mouth.
How I say I want to believe in him,
speaking softly into his missing ear.

 

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.

Related Poems

The Resistance and Its Light

translated by Brandon Brown 

so I came to the days of the Resistance
I didn’t know anything but style
it was a style made totally of light
memorable recognition
of sun. It could never fade
not even for an instant
even as Europe trembled
on its deadliest evening
we escaped from Casarsa
with our stuff in a cart
to a ruined village
among canals and vineyards it was pure light
my brother left, it was a mute morning
March, in a train, disguised
his pistol in a book it was pure light
he lived a long time in the mountains
which shone like paradise in the blue gloom
of Friulian plains it was pure light
in the attic of our farmhouse my mother
always stared at those mountains
hopeless, she saw the future it was pure light
with a few poor people I lived
a glorious life, persecuted
by despicable rhetoric it was pure light
the day of death came
Independence Day, the martyred world
knew itself again in the light…

the light was the thought of justice
I didn’t know what kind of justice
all light equal to all other light
then it changed, the light like an uncertain morning
a waxing dawn that spread all over
Friulian fields and canals
struggling workers in the light
the rising dawn was a light I mean
beyond the eternity of style
in history, justice has been
the realization of a humane
distribution of money, hope
maybe, brighter than that
new light

The Summer in Oklahoma

In the morning the horses appeared
as I looked down from the attic window,
the red horse leading the bay,
and the pale horse running behind.
For a whole day they were ours:
my sisters and I rode them over the fields.
All this was long ago, the morning,
the blossoming of the light,
its fervor withheld no longer,
before the shadows appeared
in their strange syncopations,
before death appeared in the world
to trudge the weary trajectory of the stairs
and stand looking down over the fields.
Last night I dreamed of the horses again.
They gallop in a bright ring,
one after another, none losing its place,
always the same distance apart.
Now the rider pulls on her dark reins
and for a moment the horses move
to the perfection of that music
which is unheard, though hoped for
in every place. Now I remember
the gaze of noon, transparent,
shedding its far white light
over the shrouded fields, the rectangles of green,
over the spreading river between.
The possibility of grace
had never seemed so near, the sunflowers
lifting their enormous heads
by the farmer’s house, while the birds,
grosbeak, towhee, assemble, seeking their food:
seeds, plucked out in the morning, fall to earth
in the daylight field and rise in the field of night.

The Good Light

There were always such beautiful shadows in your work,
Though many now dodge their taxes with your art. Rarely
As it seems, life involves death with every decision, which is
Why I miss the non-Euclidean idiom we used to argue over
Everything in the dictionary of what not to do. Somewhere
In a mix between Beaches and Häxan I have these weird
Memories of you sleeping when there’s no way I was there
To see you sleeping—a crystal ball above your bed lets
Tensors, in a tension of tenses, tongue-tie time and divine
Your urge to fearlessly abandon yourself to love as you
Understand love, where paradox gives way to paradox
And awareness is congratulated with awareness of how
This multiverse, in vast tribulation, ushers us on in unison
As one of many big bangs begins again to light the way.