NOVEMBER 30, 2013
A POEM THAT SPEAKS to someone who committed suicide — which through a kind of interference, turns the traditional elegy form on its side — is something one could read as a note the suicide never left, or notes for the note, even though the words were never written by the deceased. It’s audacious, in other words. And when the suicide leaves a mystery behind for survivors to resolve — the mythological why of course, but also, the more imaginative what now? — bewilderment underscores every poem written to the void.
It is bewilderment that courses through Michael Dickman’s second book, Flies, as well as Matt Rasmussen’s first book, Black Aperture (a 2013 National Book Award finalist); both poets lost a brother to suicide, and they both have written stark and metaphorically rich books about how their brothers got lost, and who they themselves are now — left alone in the aftershock. It’s fascinating how good these books are — made that way in large part by their hypnotic focus that never strays too far from the triggering subject. They are, of course, books of deep sadness and mourning. But they are also books of wonder.
Black Aperture and Flies are also two rather extraordinary examples of how the voice of a speaker can remain perfectly sustained until the last page, so that each collection can be read as a book length poem. All poets are, hopefully, obsessed with their subject matter, but the poet who writes about a suicide, it seems to me, is able to place a new demand on their own living — seeing and documenting only what feels truly essential about experience and about the experiences of other people. For Dickman, in particular, death presents a bullshit detector that activates a restless impatience with dishonesty. Priorities suddenly become very clear. In Flies, I wonder if Dickman is empathizing with the lost brother more than Rasmussen is in Black Aperture. In his poem “Home,” that new demand on his own living is asked directly of the body itself:
I’ve always wanted my body
to work harder
The light you see in veins
The wires in the leaves
their eyelids turning red blinking
on and off
My body won’t do what I want it to it won’t burn
Rasmussen, on the other hand, is more demanding about separating his brother’s death from his own living:
My imagination carves
each memory of you
smaller and smaller
into dust. The fall after
you murdered you,
I burned your letter
in a mound of leaves
on our lawn.
stairwell of ash,
a greener door
grows there now
but not in me.
Rasmussen balances his memory and his imagination, and is never certain how one influences or creates the other. How does the imagination keep memory alive?
Memory and imagination are really the culminating forces in both books. The language of each is trying to reveal a sort of fragmented and haunted outcry that seeks to understand the loss and put it into useful action as subject matter for poetry — while questioning whether such a thing could ever actually be accomplished. Joan Larkin begins her poem, “Waste Not” with the line, “We’re using every bit of your death.” — and it’s with that spirit and subtle irony that these books spring into action.
Dickman decides from the first beat of his book (“You don’t have to be / afraid // anymore”) to configure memory around restoration — to bring back calm and, in a sense, to bring back his brother by turning him into someone who can’t die this time — a superhero:
You don’t have to be
His super-outfit is made from handfuls of oil and garbage blood and
pinned together by stars
around the room
Drinking all the blood
or whatever we
to save us
need to be saved
The brother is made magical in death, transmuting into a form the survivor can recognize. The transformation is delivered typographically as a one word line, “anymore” — with the kind of sudden and exciting awareness of a koan. Dickman refuses to leave his brother alone in his consciousness, and brings him into physical space by working in the fly metaphor (or in this case, the mosquito). The first slightly ambiguous idea in the poem (is that “you” the brother or us?) is a corrective to emptiness. Take away fear, and what you have left is love.
And it is love and the impulse to withhold judgment that join forces in disclosing the complexity of the ideas in Flies. In “False Start,” Dickman parses out scenes — dreamy and strangely theatrical — that arise from a kind of afterlife family life. Again, the brother isn’t dead; he’s fluid, living somewhere else, some other kind of experience. It would be easy to call this a kind of denial on the part of Dickman, the survivor, but I think the strategy of reimagining is an inspired way of seeing suicide as a fragmentation of the soul. Someone dies here and is alive over there through the act of remembering:
At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness
My brother swims out into the ocean with his daughter holding hands
and talking quietly
Flies drop into the water
His daughter was a fly for a while
Small and black and gleaming in the palm of his hand
[ … ]
At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness
My brother and I set sail in a red boat
He is almost old and tired so I do most of the rowing
The gods in their mansions are boarding up the windows
Time to move to a different neighborhood
We hold hands in the middle of the ocean and look just like a painting
His paint has just now started to chip away
He needs to be restored
Along with the abiding and gentle force of keeping the brother alive in scenes on earth and in heaven, there is the consistent interrupting image of the flies, which serve as a persistent reminder of the brutal fact of someone’s own succumbing. Dickman is skilled in pitting domestic life against a more imaginary one, so that domesticity itself becomes a kind of stasis on the threshold of death — a room drained of energy, so that flies can swarm in:
I sit down for dinner
with my brother
This is the last dream I ever want to have
Passing the forks
around the table passing
One thing I want to know is who’s in the kitchen right now if it isn’t me
The sea of flies that comes in and out of the book is more like a talisman of grief and recognition than an agent of decay. And, in the book’s title poem, they almost come to mean a heighted sense of self or alter ego. They’re everywhere:
They smell like light in childhood
The flies behind my eyes start to drift off
They should like static in the leaves
Ten thousand eyes
opening and closing
Like guardian angels:
Then it’s the flies
that wake me
It’s the flies that gently get me out of bed and slip me into some
clothes so I can walk around outside
The cover of Flies is a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It looks like something a very talented and hyperkinetic child has made. The image makes sense as a cover — for this is also a book about the terrors and wonders of childhood. What Dickman and Rasmussen have turned on in the background of both of their books is the uncomplicated soundtrack of innocence. And when that innocence is confronted by cold facts, the complete opposite of innocence — a kind of precociousness — changes the voice into something childlike but alarmed, like the narration in the film To Kill a Mockingbird.
While Dickman’s language is often spare, open, and less resolute than Rasmussen’s, Rasmussen writes with a more resolved conscience. His subject has made his language spare, too, but not less known. His choice to use fewer words gives the poems a declarative hardness that feels, more often than not, tinged with an authority one has when waking from a dream, establishing that, indeed, it was only a dream:
I fall asleep, waking to find
a poem in which leaves
figure prominently. If you
tear all of the skin away
leaving only the veins,
they are miniature trees,
the poem says.
I nod off as it describes
snow falling, warm as living skin.
The poem is right though,
warm snow would be nice
to lie down and sleep in.
Dickman’s language — while still declarative — is more caught up in the dream. While Rasmussen’s reasoning feels gravitational (but also interlaced importantly with stunning imagery), Dickman’s is a dream logic, fragmented and ambiguous. Here’s the beginning of “Be More Beautiful”:
Whatever it is I was made for I haven’t yet started
The morning makes its way up the street as a loose pack of wild dogs
Their invisible metal teeth
Welcoming all the birds in the neighborhood
The stars are wrong
Begin beginI was just whispering
into my glass
Matthew Rasmussen is crystal clear about what happened to his brother and isn’t nearly as interested, the way Dickman is, in bringing him back or taking him into memory to see what he becomes in the mind. The brother here is as he always was. And now he is dead. Death feels more brutal here and much less understood, much less open to the kind of imaginative interplay between real world and dream world that Dickman’s Flies constructs.
While Dickman uses Flies as a way of reimagining his brother’s death, haunting the poet and the other survivors, Rasmussen goes to the act and its horror by focusing on the smallest aspect — the bullet that flies from a gun, and the force of its impact (in ways both intended and unintended). The bullet carries all the news. The poem “Trajectory” sets up the whole book by deconstructing suicide, taking the bullet and the gun and putting them in the context of a dream:
Before the heart beats
the bullet unfolds
plowing lead point
then again is in fright
wobbling from its passage
through the deer.
Its peeled-back body
comes to rest in the soft trunk
of a poplar to stick out
like a button. When I press it
all the leaves fall.
The bullet is also the button that, when pressed, shocks the dreamer awake to the reality of who the bullet killed, so that the brother materializes further in the second poem, “After Suicide”:
My brother stood
in the refrigerator light
drinking milk that poured
out of his head
[ … ]
He couldn’t hear his name
clouding from my mouth
settling in the fluorescent air.
I wanted to put my finger
into the hole
feel the smooth channel
he escaped through
stop the milk
so he could swallow it
but my body held
as if driven into place.
The milk on the floor
reflected the light
then became it.
Floated upward and outward
filling every shadow
blowing the dark open.
The conflict, of course, is wanting to save your brother while simultaneously wanting him to stay where death has taken him. Rasmussen beautifully transmits that conflict with: “The milk on the floor / reflected the light // then became it.” Something interpretative occurs on top of something literal — the way it feels in a dream.
The big subject in these poems is not only the suicide but, more importantly, how any interpretation of suicide is ambiguous, how it draws itself instinctively to metaphor and a sort of truncated dialectic where, instead of arguing with oneself, the poet is arguing with the living image left on the trail of someone’s being gone.
In another of Rasmussen’s poems titled “After Suicide” (isn’t every poem written after a suicide called “After Suicide” in the mind?), the pressure is on the relationship between living and the unwillingness to live:
In the hallway of life
you were a rose with no stem
and I, the janitor sweeping
away the fallen petals.
You said the world revolves
while we ourselves remain
in the darkness of the never-
ending, never-beginning never.
And in the book’s gorgeous last poem, “A Horse Grazes in My Shadow” (after James Wright), Rasmussen is able to face his brother’s death by imagining himself as the mind of the shotgun that killed him:
I have come to terms
with my brother’s suicide.
I wish the god of this place
would put me in its mouth
until I dissolve, until
the field doesn’t end
and I am broken down
like a rifle,
While these two collections are extremely similar in tone (they are both spare and, at times, caught in the terrifying confusion of grief), the roles of survivorship are very different. Dickman sees his brother’s suicide as something more unresolved and fluid, while Rasmussen sees his brother’s suicide as something he’s come to terms with and fixed in time — which, of course, also speaks to the nuances of those relationships while the brothers were alive.
Writers — particularly writers like these who explore profound personal losses — are often commended for their courage. How brave it is to go to subject matter this dark and be able to find something essential to say. But I don’t think of Rasmussen or Dickman as particularly brave as much as I find them both imbued with that great gift — (is it being tuned in to a kind of frequency?) — of being able to turn pain into art.