A tale of a stranger knocking on a strange door: three poems by Matthew Olzmann

Commencement Speech Delivered to an Audience of One

Every time my friend gets dumped,
he pens a letter to his newest ex.
The letters feel like weird commencement
speeches, he says. Each one starts
with an anecdote then blooms
into a vague blessing. So one opens
with a tale of a stranger knocking
on a strange door. It ends
with an uncharted sea, the bow
of the lover’s boat kissing the tops
of waves, wind messing the hair,
virgin coastlines straight ahead.
Or another letter kicks off with a story
of two golden retrievers, digging separate holes
in a common yard. Then closes
with a prayer, clouds that part,
a funnel of light. Hey, it’s been fun!
You were “here.” Successfully,
you finished being “here.” Good luck.

So that was my version of the anecdote.
Here’s my attempt at the blessing—

I haven’t slept in days.
I can’t find single amusing narrative
to narrow all this history into a metaphor
for this moment. You are heading off toward—
somewhere. I hope you get there.

Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem

Here’s what I’ve got, the reasons why our marriage
might work: Because you wear pink but write poems
about bullets and gravestones. Because you yell
at your keys when you lose them, and laugh,
loudly, at your own jokes. Because you can hold a pistol,
gut a pig. Because you memorize songs, even commercials
from thirty years back and sing them when vacuuming.
You have soft hands. Because when we moved, the contents
of what you packed were written inside the boxes.
Because you think swans are overrated.
Because you drove me to the train station. You drove me
to Minneapolis. You drove me to Providence.
Because you underline everything you read, and circle
the things you think are important, and put stars next
to the things you think I should think are important,
and write notes in the margins about all the people
you’re mad at and my name almost never appears there.
Because you make that pork recipe you found
in the Frida Khalo Cookbook. Because when you read
that essay about Rilke, you underlined the whole thing
except the part where Rilke says love means to deny the self
and to be consumed in flames. Because when the lights
are off, the curtains drawn, and an additional sheet is nailed
over the windows, you still believe someone outside
can see you. And one day five summers ago,
when you couldn’t put gas in your car, when your fridge
was so empty—not even leftovers or condiments—
there was a single twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew,
which you paid for with your last damn dime
because you once overheard me say that I liked it.

Rare Architecture 

An ordinary man hires a contractor to build
a new house. When it’s done, he rushes
to see it. But it’s not what he’s paid for,
there must be some mistake. The house
is shaped like a human head. Two eyes
instead of bay windows. A circular mouth
for a doorway. There’s even a small lantern,
like a nose-ring, set on the right nostril.
Furious, he calls the contractor. You godless
pig fucker, he yells, You whore of a human shell.
He files lawsuit after lawsuit. But the contractor
has nothing—his bank accounts hold
the emptiness of vacant lots, and his business,
which was merely failing before, has now officially
failed. So the man is stuck with this piece
of real estate. At first, he hates the head, hates
sleeping in its temporal lobe, hates eating
breakfast on a row of teeth. As stated before,
this is an ordinary man. His thoughts
are ordinary and his ambitions are sparse. Then,
in the middle of hating his ordinary life, a change.
People take pictures when he trims the ivy—
which looks oddly like facial hair—on the north
façade. Stoned teenagers road trip across
the country just to hang out on the front lawn.
National magazines run feature articles.
Suddenly, this man who was—just weeks ago—
utterly forgettable, is a minor celebrity.
He wants more. He imagines a vivid future.
So he calls the contractor to apologize. He wants
to suggest building a second house, perhaps one
shaped like the president or Elvis. But the line
is disconnected. No one’s there. Turns out,
the contractor has vanished—after the lawsuits,
his luck took a turn for the worse, then another,
then—nothing. He disappeared. So, there will
be only one house shaped like a head.
And after a couple months, the novelty wears off.
The man inside is old news. But night
after night, you can see him up there, sitting
behind the house’s left eyelid, both he
and the house just staring at the street.
What must the street look like to them?
Tonight, there’s so much fog, both the trees
and the sky are invisible. But every once
in a while, there’s a part in the mist, a rip
in the veil, an opening where the world looks—
for only a moment—different. Then
it’s hazy again, then it’s nothing at all.

A tale of a stranger knocking on a strange door: three poems by Matthew Olzmann

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