National Poetry Month Day 1: Matthew Olzmann





Like a Dish Rag Soaked in Bleach


this new pandemic or the next
or maybe some unknown future
contagion might comprehensively scrub
any of us from the Earth, the way
the waitress, comprehensively, wipes down
the diner’s counter two seats from me,
sprays the surface with Lysol, then
wipes everything away again. Spotless.

It’s late February in the first Year of the Virus.
In a month this place will be closed, and then next
it will no longer exist. But for now,
the experts say, Wash your hands; all will be fine.

So, if you should, coughing just once
into the concern of your elbow,
sit near me at this counter, then look up
to say, “What’s good?” I’ll say

the coffee is so good and also the cheeseburger
and you must try the vanilla milkshake.
The onion rings: excellent.
The jalapeno poppers: exquisite.
And here’s the sports page which says a guy
just broke the world pole vaulting record

and that is also good.  I don’t want
to ignore peril. I’m not trying to distract
from the threat of plague, war, or famine. Fate,
like a meteor whistling toward us.
I’m just saying it’s good

to have lived, even briefly, in a time when one’s vocation,
one’s destiny could be the use of a pole
to vault over a different pole
which, for me, seems bizarre, though less bizarre

than other sports, such as, let’s say, bog snorkeling,
cheese rolling, or “eel pulling”
which was basically tug of war with a live eel
and popular in the Netherlands in the 1800s.

Any action can become a contest.
Any contest is one we’ll try to win.
That burger I recommended?
The world record for competitive burger eating
is thirty-two in ten minutes flat.

Man versus virus is another competition.
The odds might not be in our team’s favor;
I don’t know how much time you or I have left
or if the final buzzer is about to buzz, but I love being

here on this strange planet; I love so much
sitting here eating lunch and contemplating—
while I still can—this specific strangeness, love
paying the bill before returning to that strangeness,

and how each time when heading for the door, always,
if I turn around before exiting, always,
if I look at the place where I once was, I see,

already the rag has rubbed the surface clean.
The counter sparkles as if I were never there.
Nothing left but shine.


Photograph of Matthew Olzmann by Margarita Corporan.

Matthew Olzmann’s newest book, Constellation Route, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in January 2022. He’s the author of two prior collections of poems, Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, the Kresge Arts Foundation, and Kundiman, Olzmann's poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He is a Senior Lecturer of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. More from this author →