Matthew Olzmann

The Millihelen


Unit for measuring beauty. One millihelen is the amount of beauty
that will launch exactly one ship.   (from

Everyone knows about the beauty that launches
a thousand ships. Her hair unfurls like a flag
and the navy, enflamed, will follow that flag until
everyone is dead. There is power in that.  We know. 

But what do we know about the power of the other,
the one that launches "exactly one ship"?
And what do we know of that one ship? It goes without
kettledrums or cannon fire, without Achilles or Odysseus,
without the blessings of the Gods, or even their scorn.  
No one notices.  No epic poem will boast of its bravery,
in fact, as it sails from the choked harbor, it sails
straight out of history and into a night so unknowable,
not even the blind eyes of Homer can guess where it will land.   

It would have been easier to stay with the fleet. 
There's confidence in numbers.  Consider the armada
of stars as they burn heaven above us, 
so certain as they scorch their way through infinity. 
Why should they bother to track a single vessel 
among all the waves?  I'll tell you.   

In the story that launches a thousand ships, beauty
is a destination, something to crash toward.
In the story that launches only one, there is no destination,
Beauty was there, among the wharves, with her 
simple scarves at the beginning.  
A sailor and his joy stepped from the pier and into 
the fragile boat together.  Why was there only one?
Because you, dear, said to the night, I don’t care 
about the rest
. And I said, Neither do I.  
And then the harbor was behind us.

Wreckage Gallery


"The world could've been anything. Instead, it was this.”
                                       —I'm quoting you. You said that.


After we were tourists in the land 
with cellphone towers staked into the ground like hypodermic needles.   


After I worked in the theater, and our money ran out, and I filled 
a trash bag with stale popcorn and dragged it home for dinner.  


After that night when men pushed their junk carts 
of broken lives and collateral damage past our car that wouldn't start.  


After the railroad throat, the stentorian uproar of the engine, 
but no train in sight, just tracks, quiet as iron, languishing along Lake Eire.  


After I worked as a telemarketer, and dialed a thousand numbers everyday,
but never heard your voice.   


After the inventory of ruins:  seventy-thousand
crumbling buildings in Detroit alone.  Among them: a furnace factory,
a cathedral, your cousin's house.  


After you stayed awake in your apartment, the curtains drawn,
reading to me.   


After the Midwestern Blackout and the whole grid
collapsing like a bad lung.  So hot no one could breathe. 


No power. No gas. Vehicles left for dead, roadside.
Everyone: roasting spoiling meat in parking lots.  


After I got a job as a driver, hauling tissue samples across the state, 
and I went out in a storm and barely made it back.   


The metal of a semi-truck merges with the metal of my car.    
The large machine amputates a smaller machine. 


War glistens on every TV screen. 
After static from the speakers, like birds choking on garbage. 


After they found a giant mushroom-like fungus growing from the waste 
in some abandoned warehouse and no one knew what it was. 


After the North Pole, like hunted animal, 
conceded more and more ground.  


After another winter, living in Hamtramck, 
and padlocks on all objects that had hinges,
and you were the only warm thing I knew. 


After the spring thaw, and the alley pooled with melted snow. 
After it froze again and the bodies of rats, newly dead, perfectly 
beneath the ice, as if Nature wanted them cryogenically preserved. 


After the storm 
that scrubbed the Earth like a HazMat cleanup crew.


You're holding my arm. I'm almost 
smiling at the camera, proud, as if to say:
Here is my life.  The thing I didn't destroy. 


After all this, you gave me the photo
months or years later,  
and I was surprised anything could last that long

Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann's first book of poems, Mezzanines (Alice James Books), was selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize. His writing has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Brevity, Lantern Review and elsewhere. Along with Gabriel Blackwell, he is co-editor of The Collagist.