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book

Contradictions in the Design

Year

2016

Type

Poetry Book
Contradictions in the Design by Matthew Olzmann
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reviewed by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Olzmann’s new book, his second, finds its author fascinated by duplicates and by time. The collection opens with an Apollinaire quote reminding readers that when we wanted a machine that could walk, we invented the wheel, which looks nothing like a leg. The image reminds us that there are solutions hidden all around us, not yet visible as appropriate. Olzmann’s prologue poem is titled, with wit and terror, “Replica of The Thinker.” Think of what that image means to someone giving his life to thinking and to art. To be a copy of a great original, which itself was only a likeness of thinking, is to be a faked thinker, faking thought. Olzmann does not pretend it’s only the statue’s problem: “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.” It’s great to imagine Rodin’s man actually coming to a salvational epiphany and striding off his pedestal to secure the republic. The book uncovers other flaws in our designs. In “Build, Now, a Monument,” the design has no utility: an hourglass maker tiring of time’s slippage commits instead to build a tower up, one step per second. Of course, “it rockets upward,” but soon the only visible narrative is more of the same and then death. For the poet the steps are lines, perhaps, and the poem tells us not to ask why. Forget utility, “it’s a monument. / For now: a defiance.” It is also “[a] bridge between / Earth and what Earth cannot touch.” Other poems have a distinctive type of humor: “Only time will tell. / Or, maybe we should say: only time would have told, / as the child has taken that apart as well.” There are copies and memories. A musket in the corner of a museum is humiliated with disuse, aching for its lost age of mastery. Later the poet, bald, is mistaken for a man who was once mistaken for the singer Moby. In the poem “Astronomers Locate a New Planet,” Olzmann finds this voice can support telling other stories in the dark and here he may be strongest, with the detail of “[his wife’s] skin” and the question of who is allowed to hold someone, part of a hale depth of expression and personal engagement.


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This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.

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