|Jan/Feb 2012 Reviews & Interviews|
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 96 pp.
Zombie Fly Fungus
They haven't catalogued it yet
It's just called the zombie fly fungus
a two word Latin name
to be provided at some later date
All the corpses rotting unattended
until children stumble over them
and poke them with sticks
the dog shit
the toothless homeless women
who haven't had a bath in god knows how long
Meanwhile thousands of flies
on the tips of blades of grass
little spore-halos around their heads
like Michael Dickman
leaning on a podium
at a small college
somewhere in Oregon
the wind carrying the spores
to plant them in new hosts
who will gradually succumb
to a new desire
their faces expressionless
For a moment, I considered attempting to be the first reviewer ever to mention Michael Dickman without including his identical twin brother Matthew. As it turns out, however, that is simply impossible. It's like trying to mention Frick without mentioning Frack. Each stands out in the popular mind by virtue of his relation to the other. While each of them is first and foremost a separate human being from his own perspective, each is supremely aware of all that being a twin has made, and will continue to make, possible for him. And, then, the remarkable bond common to identical twins is obviously genuinely powerful between them.
Before even considering their poetries, identical twin MFA-incubated poets are an endlessly fascinating topic. They would be fascinating even if they were pug-ugly, but these identical twin poets are baby-faced heartthrobs (even now, in their mid-30s). Each is pale, thin, and six-foot-two-ish with carefully tousled dark brown hair. Their matching off-the-rack horn-rimmed glasses and post-washed blue jean reading couture is as trendily varied by their individualized off-the-rack upper-body wear (generally: Michael, arrow-shirt and narrow tie, occasionally spiked hair; Matthew, open neck arrow-shirt and corduroy jacket) as their poetries of eternally growing up are varied by their different, notably trendy writing styles. In terms of musical comparison, as Matthew quite correctly points out, he is Talking Heads and Michael is Arvo Pärt.
At some point in their pubescent lives, the two simultaneously became ravenous readers of contemporary poetry and the contemporary cannon: Dickinson, Neruda, Eluard, Wright, et alii. At the same time, they became enamored of the theater. Soon they were both writing poetry and acting in regional theater productions with all the life and death seriousness that teenagers can bring to their pursuits. Their being twins even landed them matching roles in the Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report.
But they brought more to their poetries than a tireless interest in the popular styles of our day. In the words of a fellow poet and friend (from a New Yorker profile published after the two simultaneously landed their first book deals):
"To some extent, they are Artful Dodgers," Major Jackson, who met the brothers while Matthew was at the University of Oregon, [and who sat the panel of three that chose Michael's second volume—Flies—for the prestigious James Laughlin Award,] says of the Dickmans. "They know how to surround themselves with people who have enormous hearts and generosity and are enthusiastic about art and literature and music."
They are supremely aware that poetry is a networking game as much as it is a literary genre. While Michael, in particular, is often an exceptional poet, their success depends as much upon having impressed established poets Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar as being eminently adoptable. Laux, a dedicated teacher, rarely gives an interview without mentioning them. Among her better known poems, "Savages" describes them, and two once omnipresent friends, "on the floor in the stacks, thumbing through Keats / and Plath, Levine and Olds, four boys / in a bookstore, black glasses, brackish hair, / rumpled shirts from the bin at St. Vincent de Paul." The boys all but lived at the Laux/Millar home, often following meals by Chef Michael and poetry exercises with cigars and brandy on the back porch. They are fond of propounding extended poetry families such as their own.
Being born into a none-too-slowly decaying working class Portland milieu, one slowly being invaded by gangs, the brothers were able to write with a certain street cred. They had, that is to say, the poetic license to delve into the emotional violence so much in vogue just now. In Michael's case, he fuses it with the concept of "white space," which is even more in vogue. His lines are short, his "stanzas" are often of one line, thus his lines are generally multiple spaced. The nearly absolute lack of discursive line freights each word with enormous cargo (which it sometimes is able to bear, sometimes not). The resulting swathes of white space on the page are part of the message, as it were.
However much there can be differing opinions on the matter, it is difficult not to find in all of this an unusually attractive portrait. A decaying neighborhood produced wild-child poets, for once, instead of gang members or 24-hour store robbers. They were welcomed into a nuclear family of poets with warm and nurturing embraces, a ticket to a more sensitive world with extra virgin olive oil and friendly competitions to write poems with eight random words chosen by the mater familias.
But even the most positively disposed critic can only be leery of such perfect pictures at the same time. The reality behind them seems inevitably to include distortions as the price of their perfection. In the poem "Seeing Whales"—probably the best-known of Michael Dickman's poems from his first volume, The End of the West— for one glaring example, the poem begins modestly and ends its first section with an astonishing image:
You can go blind, waiting
except for their
Moving the sea around
Unbelievable quiet inside you, as they change
the face of water
The only other time I felt this still was watching Leif shoot up when we were
Sunlight all over his face
the surface of something
I couldn't see
You can wait your
These lines are a stunning poem in themselves. While it is understandable that a young poet may have found them truncated and looked for a middle and an ending, the middle he constructed compares the whales to a Mahler Symphony. It would be difficult to imagine a more affected, devastating cliché. Even the uneven but generally strong finale cannot salvage the poem. Ligeti or Scelsi might have worked (for reasons I do not presently have time to go into), but Mahler images are so trendy that only the utterly bought-in reader could fail to suspect blatant pandering.
"Seeing Whales" first appeared in The New Yorker. Having been approved of by so august a publication, it seems unlikely that Michael looks back upon the Mahler image as a blunder.
Michael Dickman's Flies is a volume of poetry describing growing up in the post-Naked-Lunch world. Burroughs' drugs are no longer essential to the process, and, without them, the mania that once was the point is flattened to incipient catatonia. The protagonist's environment has left him profoundly emotionally stunted. Unlike Kafka's Gregor Samsa, there has been no metamorphosis. He has no fear that he will be rejected:
My body is a dream of meat
It stinks and
I dress it carefully and stick new Band-Aids on and take it outside so
it can see and be in love
He is a fly in a world of people who blindly fulfill their roles in a play that has long since ceased its run:
My mother sits on the floor of her new kitchen carefully feeding the flies
from her fingertips
I like to sit on the floor next to her and tell her what a good job she's
You're doing such a good job Mom
She's very patient with the ones who refuse to swallow
She hums a little song and shoves the food in
The fly perceives them without their illusory stage settings, or, perhaps, with its own substituted in place of theirs.
The protagonist's object-field discrimination belongs to the fly. His perceptions have the same ontological context, the same precision:
The cigarette ash falling
into the sink
sounds like the sea
In an untitled homage to Ralph Eugene Meatyard (a close parallel to the Mahler reference above, otherwise bearing little relation to Meatyard at all):
The light is puking pure white onto the ground
His subject-object separation is limited: his non-fly emotions are not located in his self but in the objects of the world around him (his own body included). The emotions he can manage to feel within himself have the value of obsessions. The border between dream and waking barely exists. Every temptation to quote-unquote normalcy is instantly faced with memories that map an impossibly divergent route.
As might be suspected, this fly persona is all but impossible to maintain throughout the volume. It might even be seen as an enormously successful writing exercise designed to pare all Dickman's poems to the absolute bone, a way to reach an imagery which the reader is likely to feel disturbingly familiar:
One side of the teeter-totter is singing into the grass
That's the way to do it
put your face in the dirt
and belt it out
An imagery, it turns out, that is not only Blue-Ray vivid and demented, but often hilarious. After the exercise, all of the poems are changed, overtly fly-like or not.
Or almost all: the 14-section poem "Stations," loosely based upon the Stations of the Cross, being the exception. The poem would seem to be part of altogether a different exercise, of a sort, one that has grown sufficiently tired and tiring after 50 years, that even the shock value has gone out of it. That new poets still feel the obligation to pursue this line for all the eminently forgettable poetry it has produced, makes the only point such poems can any longer make. Added to this is the fact that it is not particularly well written. The suggestion is that Michael Dickman is a far less capable poet when he's not a fly.
While a little too intent to be trendy from time to time, and not uniformly possessed of the best judgment, Michael Dickman's Flies manages nonetheless to be shockingly good.