By Matthew Dickman
Forthcoming October 2012
Matthew Dickman received the second fan letter I’ve ever written. The first was written in 1989, when I was ten years old, and it was addressed to Howard Johnson, an infielder for the New York Mets. Johnson—or “HoJo,” to baseball cognoscenti—wore a mustache, was a streaky but potentially game-changing offensive player, and served as a modest liability in the field. He received zero votes in his lone appearance on a Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2001.
In 2008, after I’d all but forgotten my letter to HoJo, I came across Matthew Dickman’s first book, All-American Poem, at Portland’s great independent bookstore, Powell’s. I learned from a shelf display that Dickman was just a couple years older than I, and that we’d both grown up in Southeast Portland. I bought the book and wrote to him at an email address I found online. He wrote back promptly and warmly—it turns out he’s a really nice guy, in addition to being a fine young poet.
The latter characteristic in mind, I very much admired Dickman’s debut collection. It was refreshing to read poetry so largely disinterested in lyrical artifice, and to find poems where movement trumped shape and form. And what I’m referring to when I say “lyrical artifice” are poets’ mechanisms for making the familiar strange, reifying everyday cognition into compressed, independent language-objects. Un-All-American Poem-esque poems carry us away from everyday language use in their very shaping—they feature musical and lineation patterns, disjunction, and collage, among other meaning-related strategies. In doing so, they highlight language practices we take for granted, or reveal new linguistic possibilities. To me, contemporary lyric can be thrillingly challenging at its best and annoyingly esoteric at its worst; Dickman’s twin brother, Michael, is a fine poet who writes with what I’d describe as a kind of careful, vatic lyricism, in fact. But Matthew’s first book feels liberated from self-consciousness about form, devoid of desire to play with syntax or to deviate from conventional speech rhythms. The voice in All-American Poem feels earnest, occasionally a bit lonesome, often kind, and charmingly funny.
Now, as I reread this characterization of that book’s poetics—“liberated from self-consciousness about form”—I realize that others, especially poets I know who are partial to exacting lyric, may be turned off by this description. I’m making Dickman’s work sound too straight and prosy, I think. The truth is, there are poetic preoccupations beyond the shape of the work worth paying attention to in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. These preoccupations are evident in the writing of Dickman’s contemporaries, as well: Ben Lerner, Ariana Reines, Tao Lin, and a host of others are writing in different forms with one commonality—they offer a new take on confessional poetics. Dickman’s poetics are largely unmoored from the trappings of the identity politics that in part guided previous generations’ work. Consciously or subconsciously, like the poets mentioned above, Dickman is influenced by reality TV (because aren’t we all, really?) and he shares the banal, sweet, ugly, and idiosyncratic details of his life with his readers, curating and modulating them with a conflicted internal monologue. This dance between an ostensibly unfiltered revelation of Self with a not-so-behind-the-scenes, self-conscious Poet/Director makes for interesting drama about what it means to be human.
The underlying question of these poems as artistic products is: Why should one make these details public? At times, Dickman himself almost seems on the verge of wrestling explicitly with this question in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, further dramatizing something about our particular moment of ubiquitous information, the total-life-disclosure aspects of contemporary media, and what all this means to us as people.
Opening Mayakovsky to any given page and turning the book on its side, one finds unruly, short and long lines staring back like a yard grown feral, or a silhouette of a city skyline with no regard for zoning. The poet deploys All-American Poem’s laissez-faire, unruly stichic form again in his second collection. Occasionally, however, his work is more formally daring than feels familiar, while always the narrative feels intriguingly like a kind of memoir with no clear plot sequence or payoff. We need only look at the opening of the poem The Madness of King George to see Dickman’s breezy-feeling but cumulatively sophisticated confessional poetics at work in this larger structure:
It’s time for me to go. I drink
a beer and whiskey, although I should be sipping
Italian sodas, should be home
watching an old movie
or reading a crime novel but I decided to feed my limitations
We note that the lines are random lengths, meander with the music of plain speech, and are enjambed with effective intuition vis-à-vis dynamic ambiguities in meaning. Additionally, we find the narrative convention of setting, and that the setting here is generic—a bar. We also find some tension created with another narrative convention that works well for authors and/or characters to share information with their auditors—internal monologue, i.e., “…I decided to feed my limitations…” Yet Dickman is merely easing us in by staging the scene familiarly: the trope of the guilty bar experience. His speaker continues:
The woman sitting next to me
calls herself Summer and keeps touching her lips
and scratching her thigh
and ordering a martini
and talking about history. George Washington
and the madness of King George. He would walk around
the palace garden wearing nothing
but his crown, crying, holding his gaudy scepter in his hands
like an infant….
Reading thoughtfully, we see Dickman lace this seemingly straight narrative poem with allegorical and allusive meanings. The woman next to the speaker is conflated with our hot season—which for a lot of youngish people who live basically Everywhere-in-the-World is booze-filled and at least a little erotic. Summer is notably separated from the speaker, however, although she’s close. Further, she isn’t offering up cliché bar banter. Her performance—because that’s what it is, Dickman suggests in the dramatic, paratactic litany of blocking that precedes her dialogue—includes holding forth about historically contemporary Georges: Washington, an emblem of American independence, and King George III of the United Kingdom, who is remembered for his mental illness as well as for being the “King who lost America.” Dickman doesn’t miss a beat in this seamless-feeling narrative lyric poem (to borrow a phrase from his friend, Major Jackson); however, he begins to complicate things further by investing more agency in his narrator. Upon witnessing this quotidian yet strange performance, the narrator shifts position from passive auditor to conflicted actor in both physical and internal confessional space:
…I am like him, I thought,
and ask for my bill
while this other person, this other
life puts her hand on my knee. Do you ever think
what would have happened if Germany won the war?
This “this other / life” bit is not incidental melodrama as the poet both feeds and seeks to collapse the question that contemporary art (including reality TV) often begs: Are these actors working from a script, with some other, unspoken agenda, or are they earnest people, communicating authentically in order to fulfill a human need? Dickman subtly and successfully dramatizes that concern here—and he seldom spares himself from critical scrutiny in the whole collection, as practically all of the narrators share a common voice, or are clearly Dickman self-consciously emerging from the cutting room with choice bits of friends’ and family members’ dialogue.
Packed economically into the above little scene are a man’s own sense of alienation, or conscious failure to engage directly with reality as it is; the threat of a loss of “America” (in this case, a big messy symbol from which the poem moves on quickly); and the horror of an imaginable past in which the Nazis conquered not only Europe, but the whole world. This isn’t really a straight narrative—it’s a confession of feeling absolute and utter resourcelessness in the face of reality and its possibilities and impossibilities. It shares a present that has the past as its kind of palimpsest—present happenings are written over a history that has been erased, but remembered by the impressions in the medium, and the new result is a document layered with meanings. While all this is happening, the poem is rendered with both conversational fluidity and keen, instinctive poetic intellect. We barely feel it happening, yet we know that whatever is happening is in some sense a big deal.
Speaking of importance, readers will note the first line of the blurb on the back cover: “At the center of Mayakovsky’s Revolver is the suicide of Matthew Dickman’s older brother.” The book’s second section is entitled Notes Passed to my Brother on the Occasion of his Funeral; the prologue is a poem entitled, In Heaven, the epilogue a poem entitled On Earth.
In Heaven begins with a litany of negated details from Dickman’s youth in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood: “No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying / grass like the dogs… / no milk in the fridge / no more walking through the street / to the little store / that sold butterfly knives, no more knives, no more honey…” Moving through this negation of basic life details (breathlessly paced in its lack of any road signs but commas until the second page), the poem pivots toward a universalizing blank setting and unnamed cast that includes only the first person plural pronoun, “we,” as it closes:
…No more looking toward the west, no east, no north
or south, just us standing here together, asking each other
if we remember anything, what we loved, what loved us, who yelled our names
This is a bit of either an obvious or bewildering way to begin the book for a couple of reasons. First, it starts the reader with a section consisting of a single poem—an increasingly common structural device, but one that puts a lot of pressure on the opening piece. Second, the word “Heaven” without any description or discussion or context, comes with a lot of baggage—all Dickman gives us in the way of explanation is a “no more Lord / my God” embedded in his hurried list. Lastly, the gesture of concluding the opening with questions—as if this were an essay and we could hope to find answers somewhere in what follows—seems to promise a lot. It’s a bold move to start this way, really. I will leave it for other readers to decide whether or not it pays off in the end.
The poem that follows, Akhmatova, opens the first major section, which is called Dear Space. The piece begins at Cannon Beach, Oregon’s tide pools. Right away, Dickman takes up the final questions of In Heaven, about ‘what we remember,’ and drops us into scenes from the past in the first line of the poem: “That’s right!…I was on the beach / looking at Haystack Rock, / putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones…” For the first time in the book (a few pages in), setting and narrator’s activity are established in Dickman’s major mode, and there’s a Dickman-esque vaguely sexual or dangerous suggestion (putting a finger in mouths, plural). There’s a new desire in the work, though, to link one section or episode to the next, to make a big picture of all the smaller fragments. What emerges, however, is a resistance to allow fragments or distinct narratives to resolve into a comprehensive story. In this seemingly jumbled structure, Dickman subtly bares his own ambivalence about the narrative impulse—picking it up and setting it aside time and again.
And in Akhmatova, as he often does, Dickman uses the parallel narratives his own life and family and a deftly edited piece of history—a few pointed morsels from the aforementioned Ukrainian poet’s life. Ultimately, the past-tenseness of the work and the choice of analogy leave an astringent sadness on the palate. And it’s worth saying that throughout this collection Dickman offers up both his loves and griefs in what would describe as a “melancholic” register, which, in Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Giorgio Agamben describes as “the humor whose disorders are most likely to produce the most destructive consequences…one who keeps his or her own desire fixed to the inaccessible.”
The voice in Mayakovsky’s Revolver is that of a nostalgic presence—a voice fixed on a past that is no longer accessible. Dickman’s is a particularly painful nostalgia, because some of the characters and places that made up his past are irrevocably changed or lost (and this is ultimately true for us all, which lends universality to his work). This can be sweet and charming; at the same time, of course, it’s also a little painful. The Greek origins of “nostalgia” are nostos, or ‘return home,’ and algia, ‘pain.’ Another early poem in the collection, Weird Science, is a great example of how absence and nostalgia spur Dickman’s poetic impulse. The conceit of Weird Science is that in a woman’s absence, the narrator makes her shape out of clothes in his room, and the poet apostrophizes to his absent paramour.
In the end, I could go on all day about the multitude of admirable pieces in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. What other readers will discover is a maturing poet, fashioning a poetics that bares his whole life in its making, shifting at times dizzyingly between present and past—as we see in The Madness of King George, if we read closely and pay attention to verb tenses—in a way that underscores how alive the past is within our present; and how lonely and absent it is, paradoxically, at the same time.