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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, January 5, 2016.
About this Poem 

“The day before this poem was accepted for publication, my workplace went on lockdown because a man with a rifle was sighted on campus. Later that evening, there was a mass shooting in California. When I wrote the first draft of this poem two years ago, I thought it was an elegy, but realized quickly that it’s less about mourning, and more about anger—anger that this is normal; this is everyday, and our rhetoric around gun violence does not change.”
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.

Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Olzmann. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 5, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Olzmann. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 5, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann is the author of Contradictions in the Design (Alice James Books, 2016). He lives in North Carolina.

by this poet

poem

Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,
the golden toad, the thylacine and all variations
of whale harpooned or hacked into extinction.

It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing
but benzene, mercury, the stomachs
of seagulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic. 

You

2
poem

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

poem

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