olzmann_hole_500In the filming of The Crow, the only son of Bruce Lee is shot and killed while making a movie about a man who gets shot and killed. Detroit is on fire. It’s Devil’s Night. Sirens everywhere. In the movie version of this essay, he’s resurrected and seeks revenge. In this way, he reminds us of Jesus: to die in the name of the father and return at a later date. But in real life, a bullet blazes from a revolver that’s supposed to be loaded with blanks and down goes Brandon Lee. Six hours of surgery later, he dies.

I was born in Detroit, a city that’s often pronounced dead, often makes a comeback, and is often pronounced dead again. Detroit’s first industry is cars. Its other industry is resurrections. When Brandon Lee died, I was seventeen years old. I saw the movie on the day it came out, and when my friends and I left that theater twenty years ago, one of them noted: Matthew, you’re kind of like Brandon Lee or something. I thought he was talking about my tendency to play electric guitars on top of abandoned buildings, to rise from the dead, and to fight bad guys, but he was actually talking about race: being half of one world, half of another.

I liked the phrase “like Brandon Lee or something,” both for being compared to Brandon Lee and also the infinite possibilities of or something.

Half comic book hero, half city on fire.

The first time anyone talked to me about race was in 1982. Five or six years old. People were out of work. The auto industry was imploding, and everyone blamed the Japanese, which in Detroit meant anyone that Detroiters thought might look Japanese. Everything said, “Buy American and Americans work.” A radio station offered people the chance to destroy a Toyota with a baseball bat. Vincent Chin was dead in a McDonald’s parking lot. Again, Detroit was on fire, and my parents tried to explain what was happening.

What was happening was this: not everything comes back from the dead.

How many of us ever see a ghost?


Imagine this:

In the middle of re-watching The Crow, and writing about Detroit, resurrection, childhood, and Vincent Chin: a knock at the door.

In walks Brandon Lee.

Dressed like he just walked off the set of the movie.

“What are you writing,” he asks?

I hand him the first draft of this essay.

“Not bad,” he says, after reading, “I’d cut this and this and this, but the rest is okay.”

Then he says, “My father used to say, There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”

He continues: “You think you’re writing about Detroit, but you’re writing about Memory, and you think you’re writing about how art imitates life, but really you’re telling the story of how art imitates death, which is the same as writing about the memory.”

The movie is over.

And then, because we cannot stay on this plateau, because we must go beyond it, Brandon Lee walks back outside, returns to the country where the dead stay in the ground. It’s a country where the street lights are pale and trenchant, and nothing can dulcify the devices that lead us from this world. Out there, the flames of all cities—be it Rome, Alexandria, or Detroit, the lives we lived—can be seen from miles and years away, and nothing can extinguish them.


Matthew Olzmann is the author of Mezzanines (Alice James Books 2013) which was selected for the Kundiman Prize. His second book, Contradictions in the Design, is forthcoming from Alice James in 2016.  His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review and elsewhere.   Currently, he is a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the undergraduate writing program at Warren Wilson College and co-editor of The Collagist.

Photography by Laura Frantz