Features, Poems

Matthew Olzmann: “Notes Regarding Happiness”

I live in a state of near-perpetual distraction.  When writing, I have to force myself to slow down, focus, and limit the diversions.   However, this poem, “Notes Regarding Happiness,” was a little bit different.  Instead of trying to filter out the false starts and digressions, I tried to follow and exaggerate some of them.  So this poem was built through the accumulation of these weird little detours.  As a result, you get an epistolary happy birthday poem with shark attacks, plane crashes and members of an insane “church” protesting a high school play.  I suppose, in some manner, it all belongs together.  (Matthew Olzmann)

Notes Regarding Happiness

Sorry, I didn’t mean to post that message
nineteen times on your Facebook page.
What I meant to do was wish you
a happy birthday.  Instead, here are thirty
random characters followed by fifteen more
followed by an exclamation point!
These messages must look like a language from the future,
classified codes that will take years to decipher.
They aren’t.  The only thing those signals say
is that I’m bad at computers
the way continents are bad at crossing oceans
to touch the other continents, or the way planets
are bad at breaking their orbits and setting off
on their own.  Even light
has limitations as, eon after eon, it barrels forward,
unstoppable.  Yes, light is bad at changing
its mind, so it continues to tumble
in the same direction, the way I continue to pummel
the same enter key, amazed each time
at all the nothing that happens.
So technology also can be accused:
let no wire go without blame,
no microchip be absolved.
Remember when that plane left Brazil
and was gobbled up by the Atlantic?
No one could figure out what happened
until, one day, the leading minds of the industry
said it was “a computer error.”
Nineteen times today, my computer screen
has said, “Sorry, there has been an error.”
What I’m saying is, if Dell made a passenger jet
instead of this laptop,
we’d have crashed nineteen times by now.
Nineteen times, we’d be dead.
Nineteen times, trapped underwater, the weight
of the ocean pressing down like a billion barbells.
And if we weren’t dead yet, we’d still be trapped
underwater which is even worse if one considers
the sharks. Let’s consider the sharks!
I’m from Michigan where sharks are only considered
in late-night horror-movie marathons.
Sharks get a bad rap in those deals.
A shark will put you in its mouth
because you are delicious.
But a man will do much worse because
you stole his parking space.  You didn’t steal
anything but at your funeral, your aunt
will try to comfort the grieving by saying,
“Well, you know, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Your nephew will consider these mysterious ways
and if they involve shark attacks,
he’ll grow up an atheist.  Religion?
Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with my internet.
On the day my wireless connection
betrayed me, the was an article online
about the Westboro Baptist Church.
To get from Topeka, Kansas, up to Michigan,
their little convoy of hate traveled
a network of American highways—like poison
travelling the roads of the body—to protest
a high school play.  It was my old high school.
The play was “The Laramie Project,”
a drama about the death of Matthew Shepard.
Here come the church folk. Here come
the picket signs that say “God hates you”
and “God Will Kill You.” And honestly,
when I thought of your birthday,
I did not intend to write about
the Westboro Baptist Church, a subject
guaranteed to make birthday letters fail
the way computers fail,
the way the engines of airplanes fail,
the way Gods fail
to convince their followers to treat
each other with any level kindness.
Let’s call this one big-ass mountain of failure.
Let’s grab some ladders and grappling hooks.
Let’s try to climb over the mess we’ve made of this place.
I am trying to do that. I am sitting in front
of a blue screen, hitting a button over and over,
trying to send you the following message:

Hello. I am your friend.
I am wishing you happiness.  

Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, was selected for the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Prize and will be published by Alice James Books in 2013.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, Failbetter and elsewhere.

Additional work by Matthew Olzmann appears in the Fall & Winter 2011-2012 print edition of Poetry Northwest (v6.n2).