Contradictions in the Design by Matthew Olzmann
Review by Ray Barker
The thirty-seven poems in Matthew Olzmann’s recent collection, Contradictions in the Design, strive to find meaning and value in personal experiences as viewed through a historical lens. With an endless reserve of curiosity, Olzmann surveys a range of places and objects, questioning their significance as clues to deeper truths. Museums figure prominently as eternal worlds preserving the appraised and curated artifacts of a civilization. Ripped from their cultural context, these artifacts have a codified value Olzmann seems envious of—if only our life experiences could be so neatly framed.
The author delights in exploring the paradoxes of life: unarguably meaningful and, at the same time, meaningless when compared to what came before. He mines this disconnect for humorous effect at times, though the insight itself is repeatedly rendered a sad reward.
Olzmann shows his hand early in the two epigraphs. The first is a line by bone-dry stand-up Steven Wright (“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums”) and the second from Guillaume Apollinaire (“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel which does not resemble a leg”). The first is an absurd, smart observation regarding cultural, historical, and artistic context, and the second notes that people unwittingly ignore their own anthropomorphic tendencies to design a helpful, historical, and profound tool of conveyance. If we can’t trust human ingenuity to give evidence of our own significance, then who can we?
Fun, serious philosophical reflections and intellectual game playing ricochet across the poems, within and between poems as a repeated inquiry into the history of what we think we know. In “Consider All the Things You’ve Known but Now Know Differently,” a boy is given a toolbox on his seventh birthday with requisite tools inside: screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, a wrench. These tools are not used for building and creating but for a larger, perhaps more important mission, one that might apply to Olzmann as well: “Immediately, he sets out to discover / how the world was made / by unmaking everything the world has made.” This sense of curiosity and exploration is repeated throughout the collection to the point of becoming infectious.
The remainder of the poem details his undoing of objects in the world. Light fixtures fall from the ceiling, fences collapse, floorboards fall apart… Finally, the speaker arrives at a form of eternity itself and takes apart time “Piece by ancient piece. Bone, hair, hinges / Father Time, like an antique watch / Little screws missing. Revelations everywhere.” Easy for the reader to see the poet here hard at work grimacing with tools in hand, untwisting our long-held perceptions of this worn and worn-out world.
“Replica of The Thinker” sits outside of the book’s three divisions, its placement serving as a salvo independent of the rest of the material:
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…
The next stanza focuses on the narrator recognizing himself in the statue, as if in a reflection: “I, too, feel like that.” He sees himself as a replica of his father, though less certain and unfocused. The third stanza returns to the statue, which wears a facial expression that captures the narrator’s emotions “somewhere between agony and falling asleep.” The statue in this all-too human pose represents all of us “frauds,” waiting, “as if some world around him is about to make sense / some answer has almost arrived. Almost.”
Olzmann is a tireless seeker in constant pursuit of a mostly elusive clarity and strives toward profound insights. To help him, he refers frequently to objects of historical value. Monuments, tombstones, and animal bones, like the skull of a unicorn, appear often. He also refers to historical figures and places—for example, Helen of Troy, Lazarus, Graceland, Grant’s tomb, and influential musician and DJ Moby.
Moby? It would be a great loss to assume every poem must be a grave meditation on life and death. Olzmann is an intelligent and skilled writer who adds levity, a release valve, particularly evidenced in “The Man Who Was Mistaken.” In a clever echo of the replica in the collections’ opening poem, it involves a case of mistaken identity:
No, I’m not the Associate Dean for Faculty: Teaching and Learning,
You’re thinking of Gary Hawkins, is what I told
the second student this week who thought I was Gary.
Gary: who, like me, is bald and wears glasses.
Gary: who once, ten years ago, was mistaken for Moby.
Moby: who, like me, is bald and wears glasses.
I am not Moby. I am the man who was mistaken for Moby.
But Olzmann extrapolates from this experience. The notion of the replica or the individual’s “twinning” allows the author to make a more significant point about one’s identity in the world, the process and value of evolving and becoming:
There’s a word for the fear of being unable to distinguish yourself in a place like this.
I am not Jesus. I am not Moby. I am not Gary Hawkins.
I’m the guy who looks like that other guy—Him— the one who has changed, the one who could be someone else.
If change is inevitable, there is resistance to this fact, stated most nakedly in the opening poem in the second section, “You Want to Hold Everything in Place, But”:
you can’t hold it all
You can’t keep
time from crumbling, or everyone alive just by
holding your breath
You can’t stop sleep.
The poem conveys a rush of urgency in one long sentence, repeating as if in a driving mental loop, “You can’t hold it all” and “You can’t stop,” culminating in the final line as an imminent death: “You can’t keep holding your breath, but can’t stop until you sleep.” The poems serve as permanent stopping marks in time and could be the only fix to time’s slipping away.
The final poem gives testament to this. In just twenty abbreviated lines, it recalls the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa depicted in the Cellini sculpture. It begins reverently:
So these are the monuments.
And these are the faces of the inevitable.
And if I am made one of them, rendered
marble by the Gorgon’s stare, then
let me celebrate the abrupt
tombstone my torso becomes.
Olzmann uses the character of the foot soldier as a stand-in to speak of his own obsessions and fears of being “obliterated”:
…let me never
take for granted
how I’ve been granted
this permanence, this patience
to stand forever—a stone
in this small corner of history—
among this statuary, able to outlast birds, winged
horses, and their riders.
Elegiac in tone, the final lines connote permanence or at least the perception of it.
Olzmann is a truly gifted poet who explores a handful of themes without repeating himself or becoming tiresome. It is difficult to ignore his depth of questioning and profundity of thought. It’s these “big ideas” that propel the collection forward, drawing in the reader to read up close Olzmann’s unique “signature on the memory of mankind.”
Ray Barker is the Chief Archivist/Librarian for Glenstone Museum, a private, modern art museum in Potomac, Maryland. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Music & Literature, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review, Gulf Coast, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.