MAY 23, 2013
AS MOST WRITERS DO, the poet Matthew Dickman spent the first years of his career laboring on works that garnered limited attention in select circles. However, after the publication of his first full-length collection, All-American Poem (2008), Dickman underwent a swift and most unusual rise to national acclaim. The work received an array of awards, including the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Inevitably, it also spawned a backlash: he was dismissed as a flash-in-the-pan, a vapid grunge prophet, or worse. In his second collection, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, Dickman puts such criticisms to rest and confirms his position as one of America’s most influential young poets. The book demonstrates a marked departure from his earlier efforts. It reveals the depth of Dickman’s moral imagination and insists on his commitment to developing his distinctive voice and thematic range. Mayakovsky’s Revolver is that rare work that lays bear how poetry struggles both with life and with itself.
In general Dickman is a rare sort of poet, the type to spark in his reader a fascination for the author himself. One might muse on how a conversation with Yeats might go, or wish to send Robert Lowell some cheerful gift by mail, but what would one sacrifice for an afternoon of walking with Whitman, just listening to him point things out, or to light both ends of one’s candle with Edna St. Vincent Millay? Dickman’s poems seem to grasp you by the wrist, or around the waist and guide you to a vantage point where the world looks a little more hopeful.
This is especially true of his first book, All-American Poem, which brims over with joy, with strength, and frustration of all variety. It is the kind of book you need your friends to read. Here is an excerpt from one of the poems of that collection, “Slow Dance,” which gained early attention, and so many requests at readings that Dickman once joked it was in peril of becoming his “Free Bird”:
More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a new year’s resolution of yoghurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet.
Here’s another example of that collection, this one from “American Standard”:
Standing beside the toilet
I have talked friends down
from bad acid trips, and once,
while flossing my teeth, experienced
a deep sorrow lost in the mirror.
All in the bathroom!
A final taste of this sampling plate, now from “All-American Poem,” the titular work, which is the longest and most ambitious and accomplished of the collection:
America, let’s put our feet in the water! Let’s tie a rock
around our waist and jump in.
The moon is revving up. The river
is rolling by. Tom Petty is singing about a girl from Indiana
and I am buying you another drink. I am trying to take you home.
One could go on and on like this. What fun there is in Dickman! What trouble and misery! There is enough sex and humor and beauty in these pages to make one swell with the ecstasy of existence.
Yet, however natural the charm of Dickman’s work, his poems are anything but naïve. His easy style may seem to look back at history with no more than an indifferent glance, but this insouciance is won through careful study: one of Dickman’s magic tricks is pulling off the pose of footloose amateur while simultaneously engaging in a professional dialogue with the poetic tradition.
Indeed, Dickman’s engagement with his poetic inheritance is canny and obsessive. Though in the pitch of his voice and for his generosity of spirit he is a clear descendant of Whitman, he reserves his most vigorous interrogations for the legacy of the so-called New York School, especially the figures of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. In his earlier work, the tics and preoccupations of these poets are adopted by Dickman almost whole cloth. At times in All-American Poem, Dickman seems to write not like, or in reference to Koch or O’Hara, but as them.
Cheap imitations of great art are one thing (namely cheap), but great imitations of great art often augur the birth of a new mode within the form — to name just the first couple examples that come to mind (and not necessarily to make the comparison) consider Bob Dylan mugging as Woody Guthrie on his first record, or the near scandalous similarity between David Foster Wallace’s first novel and Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49.
Dickman’s “All-American Poem” is an example of such great imitation. In structure, content and in its style down to punctuation and tone, the poem bears a startling resemblance to Koch’s “A Poem of the Forty-Eight States,” written in 1969. In that work Koch extols and mocks the States as he mulls over the anxieties and pleasures of living in their Union — just as Dickman does in his own piece. Koch writes: “Indiana! It is so beautiful to have tar in it!” Dickman: “Kansas! My yellow brick road of intelligent design!” Like any great imitation, though, Dickman does more than just adopt and breathe new life into the style of his predecessors. He also tests the boundaries of the form and pushes beyond them.
Koch and O’Hara made waves by turning against what they saw as the stuffy academic verse of poets like Eliot, and by embracing instead a poetry of the everyday: work that was personal, playful, and temporally marked by references to popular culture. Dickman continues this gesture, but also radicalizes and subverts it.
One way Dickman achieves this is by highlighting his relationship to the poetic tradition, and by, in a sense, pulling back the curtain to reveal the machinery of his engineering a position within that tradition. In 50 American Plays (Poems), which Dickman co-authored with his twin brother Michael, who is also a talented poet, the Dickmans almost aggressively call out Kenneth Koch as an influence. Some deal of the drama and poetry consists in their negotiating a relationship with the older writer. Six of the “plays” have Koch’s name in their title, and as a comedic tribute to the Oedipal drive the Dickmans feel toward him as both desired mother and father-to-kill, in each Koch is cast in a different role in a production of Hamlet.
The poem “Kenneth Koch plays Gertrude in Texas” reads:
(Koch as Gertrude is tied to the back of a pickup truck)
What are you doing?
And from “Kenneth Koch Directs Hamlet in Hawaii”:
You don’t see your father
Feel your father
In another subversive move, by reproducing and reworking Koch and O’Hara’s concerns within in his own poetry, and by including both of them within his own system of references, Dickman effectively historicizes the intentions of the New York school, thus bringing them back into the tradition they fought to escape — in a sense academicizing the anti-academic. By so insistently acknowledging his debt to certain progenitors, he is at once paying that debt back and also refusing it: he is not, as Koch and O’Hara did, abandoning his predecessors, but rather antagonistically clinging to them.
And Dickman does not merely reference their names, but actually incorporates their poetry into his own, as his own. This gesture not only radicalizes the notion of referencing the popular, but is also decisively contemporary: reminiscent of sampling in hip-hop and aligned with the 21st-century penchant for appropriation and repurposing. If it no longer seems possible to effect a true break from history, the comparably avant-garde position in the current era might be to take responsibility for one’s own inevitable historicization: to be less a revolutionary artist and more a curator of one’s revolutionary tendencies. Dickman comes after the great leveling of art in the 1960s, and he has developed the cheerful sheen of the anarchic archivist: everything is up for grabs; everything’s free.
For all this, the title of Dickman’s most recent volume, Mayakovsky’s Revolver, laden as it is with historical import, is a point of intrigue. The Russian/Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was a favorite of both O’Hara and Koch. Like them, Mayakovsky had a sly humor, an impatience for the metaphysical, and one can feel a similar impetuous thirst for experience in his long work “A Cloud in Trousers,” where he writes:
In love, I shall gamble again,
The arch of my brows ablaze.
What of it!
Making the line of descent almost too neat from this foreign antecedent, this Whitman in a dark mirror, is the fact that one of Mayakovsky’s final works was a portrait of the United States, a travelogue called My Discovery of America, which diagnoses the ills of the land while extolling it as a beacon of the future.
Although he was an early and staunch supporter of the Russian revolution and the Soviet government, Mayakovsky became disenchanted with the regime after the rise of Stalin. While working as a writer of propaganda, Mayakovsky shot and killed himself.
What is the meaning of the weapon used in the suicide of a poet? Dickman’s collection offers ample evidence that he has worked through his preoccupations with the New York school and has propelled himself some distance into new poetic territories. Does Dickman’s book somehow represent this revolver, or stand as an alternative or surrogate for the weapon? If so, what, if anything, is Mayakovsky’s Revolver aimed at?
It is certain that, in naming the book, Dickman had O’Hara’s stanzas about Mayakovsky in mind, one of which reads:
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The mess of life, so vividly celebrated in All-American Poem, becomes more onerous in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. In this work, death and suffering, and what to make of them, are central, and Dickman explores them at a depth that marks an expansion of his typical subject matter. If he has moved away from the New York school, one can see him entering a more equitable dialogue with poets such as Marie Howe, Tony Hoagland, or even Emily Dickinson. The work is at once more severe and more compassionate.
This growth is accompanied by a matured style, as well. One reflection of this is that the book has a significant structure, broken as it is under five headings: “In Heaven,” “One: Dear Space,” “Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of his Funeral,” “Two: Elegy to a Goldfish,” and “On Earth,” suggesting either a progression from heaven to earth, or, more likely, the ascension from earth, after death, through space to heaven, as seen in reverse.
The structure is useful to codify the way the work as a whole revolves around the dominant topic of Mayakovsky’s Revolver: the suicidal behavior and fatal overdose of Dickman’s older brother. His death is mentioned briefly in All-American Poem. There, in a poem called “Trouble,” Dickman lists a number of untimely, tragic suicides, including that of his sibling: “My brother opened / thirteen Fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body until it wasn’t his body anymore.” The poem concludes with a means of resistance to the suicidal desire:
In the morning I get out of bed, I brush
my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best.
I want to be good to myself.
It seems that Dickman’s interest in the quotidian is much more than a reaction against the academic sterility of the early 20th century poetic form, as it was for the New York school. It is instead a means of staving off despair, and of combating suicide.
This fight, which seemed a relatively easy one in “Trouble,” is considerably more pronounced in Mayakovsky’s Revolver. In “Bridge,” a poem that is emblematic of this collection’s shift in tone, Dickman presents the possibility of suicide as a real choice. He writes of traversing a bridge, and contemplates leaning over it, imagining how a person could “fall into the water below, and breathe in, and turn down, and be / gone.” Being aware of this possibility, as he writes it, is a positive, however:
My favorite bridge. My favorite part
of the walk home. This choice
I think I have.
It is important to have the choice. This thought reemerges in a later poem in the collection, “Dog,” in which he writes:
I’ve written the word Choose
on a piece of paper and taped it to a knife. Then I peeled it off
and taped it to a book about Yesenin.
Yesenin was a Russian poet executed for suspicions of plotting to assassinate Stalin — an interesting counterpoint to Mayakovsky. It is possible to read the collection in full as an assessment of why making the right decisions in these cases is difficult, but ultimately worthwhile.
One obstacle to choosing well that rears its head in this second volume is that carnal pleasures, once so comforting and motivating, now appear shadowed by something discorporate. Though sex and material joys are still heralded in Mayakovsky, the entire physical world is haunted by what has passed out of it.
An excerpt from “My Brother’s Grave,” in “Notes Passed to My Brother,” reads:
Outside the graveyard
there is still some part of him
buried in the mysticism of his DNA, smeared across a doorknob
or brushed along the jagged edge of his car keys. Two kids
from the high school nearby
will fuck each other on top of him
and I won’t know how to stop them.
When the messiness of life no longer seems ecstatic, the catastrophe of one’s personality no longer beautiful, and the earth is a form of boring afterlife, one may be tempted to buy the revolver that killed the poet Mayakovsky. Dickman, however, would still prefer to sell it. In “Mayakovsky’s Revolver,” the titular poem, he writes,
someone is claiming to own Mayakovsky’s revolver
which they will sell for only fifty thousand dollars. Why didn’t I
think of that? Remove the socks from my dead brother’s feet
and trade them in for a small bit
of change, a ticket to a movie, something
with a receipt, proof I was busy living,
that I didn’t stay in all night weeping,
that I didn’t stay up
drawing a gun over and over
with black marker, that I didn’t cut
out the best one, or stand
in front of the mirror, pulling the paper trigger until it tore away.
Selling Mayakovsky’s Revolver, the best paper representation of the weapon, is another manner of resistance to suicide, a way of choosing well — of choosing life. The book does not aim to kill a tradition, nor does it represent the desire for passage out of this world. Both the weapon and the book are just things of the world, a world to whose vicissitudes and fragility Dickman has steeled himself. There is no more, or very little, carefree delight here, but there remains the hard-won variety.
In the last section of the book, “On Earth,” Dickman delivers his familiar affection for these things of the world. As though making good on an early promise, he once again gives up to celebration, albeit of a simpler, more temperate kind:
[…] Oh to be on earth.
To walk barefoot on the cold stone
and know that the woman you love is also walking barefoot
on the cold tile in the kitchen
where you kissed yesterday, to be standing in a bookstore
and smell the old paper and glue
[…] On earth
survival is built out of luck and treatment centers
or slow like a planet being born, before
there was anyone to survive,
the gases of the big bang just settling, or it’s built
like a skyscraper, by hand, some workmen
falling, and some safe on the scaffold, up above the earth,
unwrapping the sandwiches they have been waiting all day to eat.
Mayakovsky’s Revolver is a further step in a poetic lineage; but more important, it is a meaningful response to the greatest difficulties of being human. Though we are haunted, still what fun it is to brush one’s teeth, what fun to get dressed up. Despite it all, what pleasure there is in being alive, and what pleasure in poetry.
Jeremy Butman is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research and adjunct professor of philosophy at Pace University. His reviews, interviews, fiction, and letters have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, and Rain Taxi.