Letter to a Dead Goldfish
The child that I was wanted to save whatever life you were,
even if I couldn’t comprehend why
you were called a “goldfish” when no part of you was golden.
You were closer to the color of a clementine wedge:
your back was the unstoppable orange of that fruit’s skin,
and your belly, the white of the pith.
What makes it a “gold” fish? I would ask, and my parents,
exasperated, would answer: That’s just its name.
The speckles of your caudal fin called to mind the rust
of the iron posts outside. Your eyes,
without eyelids, as black as any beginning.
Did I find you on the kitchen tiles in that chiaroscuro light
of morning? Did my uncertain hands lift you back
to your bowl, where you refused to flare back
to life? I’m older now, and though I pretend to understand,
I’m still wary of how death can leave a body on the floor.
A group of goldfish is called a “troubling,”
as in I went out with a troubling of my friends one night.
We all got drunk. We all walked home.
This was long ago and not all of us are still alive.
In addition to being God of the Dead,
Hades ruled the underworld with its cool-throated caves
and man-made mines. In the mines of today,
where gold is wrangled from the earth, tunnels drop
twelve thousand feet into blistering dark. They reach
temperatures of 135 degrees. Thousands of gallons
of water are pumped in and used for I don’t know what.
You didn’t have thousands of gallons. You had a bowl.
And from there you leapt.
Letter to the Flying Dutchman
I thought you were a myth, fata
morgana, hallucinations and fog tendrils.
All these legends where sailors cling to the rails
and swear they see you: an apparition, splitting
the mists, there—
then not there. Just a mirage, I would’ve said.
Just cabin fever and salt water. But,
last week, leaving the baseball stadium,
I saw the face of a friend, dead for years.
A brief glimpse, a flicker, among
the hotdog vendors packing their carts
and fans of the home team slouching home in defeat.
The street light, like a full moon above him
as he turned toward me.
O to believe we get a second chance.
And then the crowd, surging through the gates
like a sudden ocean wave
and the next life.
Then everyone is gone.
The street: empty again.
The ghost ship: sailing somewhere else.
Letter to Jennifer Chang and Evan Rhodes Regarding a Variation in the Fabric of Time
As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: “What did God do before he created the universe?” Augustine didn’t reply: “He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions.“
—Stephen Hawking, from A Brief History of Time
And who would ask St. Augustine such a question?
Perhaps Evan, but definitely Jen. Speaking of time,
on this date in history (back on April 1st, 1976),
the painter Max Ernst died. Tomorrow,
marks the anniversary of his birth (April 2nd, 1891).
Do you guys like his paintings? Wait,
first, let me say something about highways.
Driving through the mountains in a thunderstorm
is not my favorite pastime, but sometimes it needs
to be done—like when I need to get to Michigan—
and I hate it the whole way
as my nerves turn to tension wires
and the journey blurs from mountains to more mountains
to ridges and valleys and switchbacks and hills,
then smaller hills, and then—
Then there’s Ohio!
Where the roads are flat the way God intended them to be!
Where the highway on the GPS is a straight line!
And it remains a straight line for the next forever or so!
I’d celebrate this state and its majestic flatness,
but something odd happens a hundred eighty-one miles in.
There’s the exit that I would’ve taken to visit you
if it was last year again,
and if you still lived there,
and if I was going to visit you.
What did God do before the invention of the American Midwest?
Now it’s just another exit, and I think it’s strange
how a place goes from being a destination
to just another landmark I blow by at seventy miles-per-hour,
and I wonder if Ohio has any idea how much less it has
without you two in it. I’m talking about the problem of time.
Which brings us to Max Ernst.
He died on April 1st, and was born on April 2nd.
I like the way the anniversary of the beginning comes after
the anniversary of the end.
Sir Francis Bacon says, time seemeth to be of the nature of a river
or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up,
and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid.
Fairly often, I too have sinketh and drowneth
in the River of Time! I too have been unable
to distinguish the past from the future.
It’s like being in Michigan now, where I don’t live,
but still have an apartment
because I thought I’d be back much sooner that this.
Have you ever heard that saying: You can never go home again?
If a man can be born the day after he dies,
maybe it’s possible that we never really leave.
Your house still exists back there in Bowling Green.
In fact, they’ve rented it to a fraternity.
There’s a gaggle of shirtless dudes on the front lawn.
A small garden of flattened Miller Lite cans
where all the flowers used to grow.
Letter to The New Year
What kind of year will you become? A wild year?
A year of contingency and risk? One who conceals
everyone else’s secrets. I imagine you already know.
And what if, while everyone celebrates,
you walk away from this crowd and set off
on your own? The New Year with a backpack full
of peanut butter sandwiches and a map of the next city.
This isn’t about you being a moody year, an elusive year,
or a pensive and brooding year. Just a simple year that knows
what it wants and strolls quietly toward it.
Look at tonight’s sky and its vault of fireworks.
These explosions have their own history: gunpowder,
invented during the Song Dynasty, a side effect
of Man’s search for immortality, is where this all began.
We never found eternal life. I’ve said goodbye to many people.
But we found something explosive and strange
and set the cloud cover on fire. We’re still celebrating you.
And now, a full hour after midnight,
these explosions still drift and fade up there
like jellyfish in black seawater. Look how they yearn,
how their arms stretch, as if to reach
for one another, before disappearing.
Jellyfish don’t always have tentacles.
When they reach that stage, it’s called the medusa stage.
Before that is the polyp stage. Some can never swim free
from the current. Some live very brief lives.
But one, the Turritopsis nutricula,
can reverse the aging process and return
to the polyp stage—become young again—
whenever it likes. Biologists call it “the immortal jellyfish.”
It carries its own New Year wherever it goes. Like you,
it hits the reset button. It starts over, and goes on.
Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), and Contradictions in the Design which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. Along with Gabriel Blackwell, he is co-editor of The Collagist.