Why We Chose Constellation Route by Matthew Olzmann for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I suppose it’s possible that some day, the concept of the letter will fade from public consciousness to the point where poems and novels that use the form will require a preface, or at least an explanatory comma, to give readers some idea of what this form is and how it should be read. Communication systems evolve and mutate, but I hope that letters, as well as the systems which deliver them, will survive like sharks, barely changed from their original forms, still maintaining a vital role in the ecosystem of written language.

I say this even though I find letters intensely difficult to write; I don’t enjoy doing it. Perhaps that will change as I continue on my voyage toward aged contrarian and pull away from the always-on world we’ve let overwhelm us. Perhaps not. But I love epistolary poetry collections and novels, and Matthew Olzmann’s new collection, Constellation Route, is no exception. The letters in this book at times hit big notes—the oldest living longleaf pine in the US, the Connecticut River Monster, the US Postal Service—but are also deeply introspective.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Constellation Route, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Matthew Olzmann, you’ll need to subscribe by November 15!

The title poem is a great example of how Olzmann does both in the same poem. The title, “Constellation Route,” brings to mind the ways humans originally navigated at night and formed stories out of stars, but the poem begins with Olzmann writing about looking for his glasses while they’re on his head, and then follows it with “I wish this were a parable about how everything we search for / is closer than we expect, but we all know / it’s an allegory about futility” and follows that with Adam and the Garden of Eden. The movement in the first eight lines has taken us from the mundane through a juxtaposition of parable and allegory into one of the oldest and best known written stories of all time.

That’s some range.

About halfway through, after talking about various accidents and discoveries, Olzmann takes us to the post office, which is wound through so many of these poems:

A “Star route” is an obsolete postal term
for a route given to an outside contractor instead
of a regular mail carrier. Records identified this route
with an asterisk, a star, hence its name,
though I prefer to imagine an alternate etymology

And then the poem is about paths discovered, about finding meaning in errors but also in patterns and connections—the pacemaker and the radio waves planets send out and the Rosetta Stone—but also about how these are lucky discoveries and fortuitous occurrences when they result in big breakthroughs in knowledge, but are less mysterious when it’s a vase you’ve knocked over and shattered. “I want those pieces to be a message, a divine code, a map / back to Asgard, Eden or Detroit. In my hands, / they appear to be random pieces of clay. // I rifle through all the kitchen drawers. / I search for the glue.”

Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by November 15 to receive your early copy of Constellation Route and to take part in our exclusive online chat with Matthew Olzmann in early December. I hope you’ll join us!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →