Matthew Olzmann

Elegy Where Small Towns Are Obscured by Mountains

I get news of an old friend’s suicide

while I’m on the highway, in the middle

of moving from one state to another. Questions

race by like cars in the other direction: God,


and Why? and When? and How? and then,

more difficult, one that won’t become words,

like a door where the hinge jams, like a silhouette

that won’t step into the light, and abruptly


I remember my dad—decades ago—wrestling

a riverbank with a fishing pole, how he struggled

with a shadow that thrashed beneath the surface

and he could never wrench it closer. The hooked


mouth chose to remain submerged and violent

below the reeds and river moss. Whatever

question I can’t ask now, is like that,

but I suspect it wants to know how the world


is different today, even though it’s just one person smaller

and everything looks the same. Look at the rush

of cornfields. Look at the exit signs on sheets of steel.

Watch the cities as they shrink behind us.


I had not spoken to my friend in years.

There are reasons for that, but they seem small

when the Blue Ridge Mountains surge before you.

Then, you’re among those peaks. Nothing but


trees, ridges and valleys so vast and ancient,

you suppose—if you could climb down inside one—

you’d locate the origins of the Earth. Eden. Actually,

there are clusters of homes. Diners that close


at dusk. Gas stations with one pump. I hope

the afterlife is like one country road

after another, unseen from the highway,

and each passing through small towns the way


autumn passes through the wind chimes slung

above the front porches out here.

Look at the peeling paint, the stoic

railings, and the wood warped by rain.


There are all kinds of stories eaten by history

and silence and neglect. Above the door of a house

in the distance, something stirs the chimes, and reminds

someone inside that where there is wind: a song,


however faint. A man hears it, and passes

through a screen door into a night of fireflies.

He looks around as if called by a voice.

The wind has passed. The chimes are quiet.




“Elegy Where Small Towns Are Obscured by Mountains” first appeared in Gulf Coast, Vol. 27 Issue 1.