by Michael Dickman
Copper Canyon Press 2009
Reviewed by DJ Dolack
Before you read through and come away confused as to what the overall opinion is here, I want to say this: Michael Dickman’s debut collection is solid. It’s straightforward and self-centered and immature, but it also cares about you. It puts a lot of weight on very small moments and it wants you to read it very, very slowly. It knows for sure that when you walk away from it, you will be leaving unnerved. For better and worse, the hype-machine that has surrounded its release has made it more subject to the overly-critical eye, but I suppose that’s a small price to pay for three poems and a New Yorker feature (an amazing feat for even the established poet with tenure and/or health insurance, let alone a writer who has only a few good publishing credits and no established record of relevance). But by blocking everything but the poetry itself out, we can see a collection that uses autobiography and (dare I say it?) confessionalism to put forward a declarative and make sense of this world the only way it knows how.
Many of the poems in The End of the West seem to come from the now infamous “Dickman background”; they are built around life experiences of growing up in a rough section of town, interaction with and absence of a truant father, a single mother, romantic lust, and a great metaphysical barbaric yelp. It’s very young work, but it forces you to pay attention to singular occasions of romanticism. In the opening poem, “Nervous System,” Dickman writes:
When I think of the childhood inside me I think of sunlight dying on
The voices of my friends
in the sunlight
All of us running around
It’s a moment we are pressed into with or without him, and it’s sincere. In fact, sincerity runs rampant through the entire collection and sometimes gives us moments of information we’d be better off shielded from. In “Ode,” he fills us in a little too intimately:
Do you think there’s a difference
for the Lord
slow dancing in the kitchen at night, no music, your arms around my
neck, and later
in your ass?
Yeah, I think there is. And I have no use to ponder it much more than you’ve given me already, but thanks for the image. It’s tough to transition from a stunning illustration like this to a more solemn and considerate follow-up:
I think His home is covered in dark leaves
cicada wings and
a peaceful night
a perfect death
Ugly and frighteningly real as it is, it works. It is also one of the aspects of Dickman’s poetry that appeals to me so much. You don’t have to learn to read this book; you only have to be human. And I agree with Franz Wright’s blurbed assertion that Dickman drives against “the gratuitous non-sequiturs and obscurity for obscurity’s sake which have been fashionable in our poetry for the past couple of decades”—though I wouldn’t say Wright’s praise is surprising, as I think it’s fairly clear and just the way the guy writes. But this is just the beginning of my disagreement with some of the attributes Wright and others have themselves heralded upon the poetry of Michael Dickman. Although I see a lot to like here, and am thrilled to see what he will bring us in the future, I cannot go along with the super-sized praise that’s been bestowed upon this collection thus far, especially on the back cover.
Of course Franz Wright lauds the poems; they’re molded directly from his own early style, a style exhibited most devastatingly in 1993’s The Night World and the Word Night, a book that marked both the pinnacle of and turning point in Wright’s work. Within those pages we can find more of the stark imagery and darkness that his first collections introduced us to, and that came to define his writing until almost ten years later when it took on a subtle optimism as well as a fixed gaze on spiritual guidance. In no other collection though, has Wright’s poetry been more hauntingly effective than in The Night World…, nor has it stood together so well as an entire piece, complete with a beautifully delicate arc and pace.
As a disciple of that collection, I find Dickman’s poems fairly derivative and unable to truly reinvent themselves or seem fresh in the ways that count most. The quickly-jabbed images of light, stars, trees, leaves, needles, abandonment, and of course death, all show up within the first few poems with such a familiarity, it’s difficult to imagine that, in his enormously verbose blurb, Wright actually asserts that Dickman “has absorbed his influences and taught them to work hand in hand with his own
unique genius to produce a style like no one else’s…”. Come on, man. Can we be serious here for a second?1
But it’s more than just these obvious images, words and subject matter that make the connection to Wright’s earlier work so distinct and insurmountable when discussing poetic style and originality, two of the things Dickman’s enthusiasts seem to applaud more than anything else. It’s the way in which Dickman goes about setting up his rhythm, his line breaks, his use of white space, as well as the tone built by these devices, that truly makes this collection seem like some kind of poetry cover album. To even the faintly read reader, it’s nothing terribly new. It does conjure the darkness we may like to associate with poetry, especially if we’re bred from such a background. It does not, however, solicit the level of praise or interest it has thus far received, especially when a number of younger poets are clearly writing and putting out collections that warrant deeper readings and attention, who have not had the opportunity or coincidence to meet, greet and drink with the Names this poet has. This understanding alone, that this simple reviewer, with no completed manuscript or published book in tow, can easily see the disconnect between what is new, original and challenging, and what this collection has to offer, is a forewarning of the comments on inadequacy and replication. Still, the connection to Wright’s style and lack of Dickman’s own uniqueness should play heavily into any unbiased appreciation and critique of the entire collection.
However, this is still not to say I didn’t like the collection as a whole, or appreciate the approach. The book is also, at many points, beautiful. It’s delicate and deliberate when it needs to be, honest when what we desperately need is honesty. Dickman manages to build small incomplete narratives in the poetry and deliver moments that are more touching than stark. In “My Autopsy” he lays out lists of declaratives that read like a last stand:
You eat the forks
all the knives, asleep and waiting
on the white tables
What do you love?
I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on despite
worms or fire
I love our stomachs
The poem is gorgeous, strange and slow; its lines inhale and exhale. But its best moments are gathered up front. The breaks between parts, something Dickman does throughout the collection, here seem to cut off the build in tension, but he always keeps us on track with the repetition of “There is a way / if we want…” beginning each part. The final part, though, is the weakest and runs a bit too far on its main image of “intestines” while ending the whole thing with a kind of dud stanza that doesn’t really tie anything in or up. We’re left with our eyes darting to the next page only to find a new title for the next poem. It’s disappointing, especially after such strong lines throughout, but we quickly understand that this is one of Dickman’s great weaknesses, and one of the few that ultimately hold the collection back: the guy can’t finish.
“Sticking the Landing” is probably one of the toughest things to pull of in the poem — a “know it if you got it” kind of thing — and Dickman surprises with the faint and unconvincing last lines he chooses. It seems in almost every poem, the lines that conclude each individual part are more effective and relevant than the lines that conclude the entire piece. He often tries to rely on singular images, delivered flatly, to bring on a reverberating crack of thunder, but they end up sounding more like cap gun snaps. Of course, this is something Franz Wright does hauntingly well, and we can see Dickman trying to emulate, but to little avail. I wouldn’t normally try to compare the skills of a young poet like Dickman to a master of the craft like Wright, but I think the palpable resemblance here warrants the evaluation.
Furthermore, there are so many potential moment-by-moment comparisons to Wright’s work, it’s probably best to just list the few I found most distracting. Although it’s difficult to really get at the resemblance through simple snapshots of the work, here are excerpts from various Dickman poems up against Wright; it isn’t out-and-out theft, but the severity of mood and image produce a kind of upside-down, rippling reflection, like a streetlamp in a puddle:
Wright (from “Midnight Postscript”):
It should always be
night, and the living with their TVs, vacuum cleaners
and giggling inanities
With here and there a window lit a golden mysterious
I love the night world,
the word night.
Dickman (from “Kings”):
Our crowns look nothing like his crown
needles and light and
needles of light
The kitchen window
the only light
Now we’re going to know what it feels like
Wright (from “Train Notes”)
Green lightning past the last trees, they are pure
Dickman (from “Good Friday”)
I think the light
across the trunk of the live oak
is the boss of everything
Wright (from “Pawtucket Postcards”)
Lights of the abandoned
in the little river through the leaves
Dickman (from “Late Meditation”)
What are you going to do?
describe the light
through the pitch pines
Wright (from “Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse”)
appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white
Dickman (from “My Father Full of Light”)
like the residue of beets
on a cutting board
A blizzard of wings
Wright (from “Provincetown Postcards”)
Owl’s head moth
Sound of leaves & sea the silent sun
Will all have had ample experience when the last loneliness
Dickman (from “We Did Not Make Ourselves”)
I can hear
You think you’ll be missed
It won’t last long
If you’re unconvinced, I highly recommend you check out any of Wright’s work previous to The Beforelife, both for the reference and some truly stirring poetry. I also recommend you take a good look at The End of the West for what it is, regardless of its origins or influences. It’s a book that asks for your time but not your patience, and it deserves both. In the brilliant title poem, which serves as the closing overture to the collection, Dickman writes:
They don’t say my name
but my name
is out there
I can’t help but use these lines as a way of thinking about the poetry of Michael Dickman: something that is out there, but still undefined unto itself.
1Apparently not. That statement about style ends with: “…one as instantly recognizable as that of poetic masters such as Dickinson, Follain, and Simic.” I’m serious. These are the exact words. Now I know blurbs are supposed to talk up the work and stretch the truth a bit, but this is a great example of the blurb art form gone to shit. Who had the final say on this one, and where is the modesty and humility for a first-book poet? I imagine I’m not alone when I say that, as the author, I would have suggested a lighter phrase here, or at least an opportunity to edit. Flattery is nice, but isn’t it obvious that this kind of hyperbole just comes off as pretentious bullshit?