Thursday, February 10, 2011


In his blurb, a rather lengthy one, for Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, Franz Wright says, “To me, he is one of the younger American poets who are hiddenly heralding the end of the randomness, the glib irony Rilke strenuously warned against, the gratuitous non sequiturs and obscurities for obscurity’s sake which have been fashionable in our poetry over the past couple of decades.” Undoubtedly, he is right about one thing: the idea that Dickman’s poems are without that sense of associative franticness that inhabits much modern writing, including that of Dickman’s brother, Matthew, some of my favorite poets, and even at times myself.

Todd asked me about this blurb, the whole thing, which runs half of the backcover, and I’ve been taking time to digest it. Sure, blurbs are often lame, but I do think Wright brings up some interesting points about Dickman’s writing, but ones that also point to some of the contemporary writing I love and even many of my own poems.
I’ll come right out and say that I do like this book a lot, but honestly, I’m not sure why, as its distinctively outside of my “norm” and also has some glaring weaknesses. However, this book continues to resonate with me each time I’ve read it. Last fall, I read it twice in one weekend, so perplexed by my infatuation with it that I had to read it again. Now, as part of this class, we decided to include it because it is far from my aesthetic, forcing me to looking deeper into the book and my own poetic perspective.

As I contemplate this collection of poems more, I have begun to think of it as one of those air fresheners that shoots out a fresh scent every so often, something so minute that unless you’re looking closely at it, it’s effect can be missed. Still, its consistency and subtle potency keeps the place cozy and clean-smelling for a long while. Maybe, that’s an odd association.

Let me continue then. I think the kind of stuff Wright is talking about feels more like a quick straightening up, a couple swipes of a duster, picking up the magazines and dirty clothes. While for the moment its effective, deep down, things might not be as well-done and successful in the long run. Oh goodness, is this making any sense?

Dickman’s poems are sparse, heavily fragmented, and simple, yet somehow emotionally specific and impactful. I think it’s because he keeps coming at me. Most poems run a few pages, though short in word count. It’s this slow unraveling that seems to get me. Take the first page of “We Did Not Make Ourselves,” which slowly leaks humility onto the page:

We did not make ourselves is one thing
I keep singing into my hands
while falling

for just a second

before I have to get up and turn on all the lights in the house, one after the
other, like opening an Advent calendar

My brain opening
the chemical miracles in my brain
switching on

I can hear

dogs barking
some trees
last stars

You think you’ll be missed
it won’t last long
I promise

The lack of punctuation, the sparseness of words, the length it travels in such a short space really affects me. His negotiation of images to get to that last stanza, to me, is brilliant.

And, I think that’s where I find myself with Dickman, unable to comprehend how to write like this. Trust me, I’ve tried. I find both beauty and a challenge in attempting to blip through emotions that way.

But at last, I am of the temperament. that wants to run, to drag, to be dragged. Mike Young seems like one of those poets, one that I love, that Wright might point to as random for this type of discursive energy:

"You Know That Wait Means Stay"

Right away there’s thinking. Right away.
No matter how much I want my face to moon
with no contortion, leave all talk to voiceovers.
Hands take after purrs. Nicknames remind us
mostly of the fun inventing them. Every beach
fire is a kind of desperate flag. Cops pull over a
riding lawnmower, and the man won’t turn it off.
We walk the dike that crosses I-91. Headlights
pan like reasons. We’re keeping warm. Cars aren’t
fireflies, which is not even how I feel. “Funny isn’t
the same as being happy,” I tell you. Duh. Neither is
that. A family of tiny arsonists live in burned out
delivery trucks behind your neck. They are your
bad pillow. Hands wobble. It’s never been infinity
with me. Infinity is something I can fist bump.

But, I would be at the defense of Young’s poems because where I’m astounded by Dickman’s concision translating emotion to the page, I am equally enthralled with Young’s thinking, how it is both controlled and wild, natural in the most human of ways. For him to get from this excerpt to this quote, saying, “Sometimes I know that I don’t know what’s going to happen/next, but I know exactly who I’m going to be with when it/does,” is my definition of human thought and feeling combined and captured on the page.

My point wasn’t really to defend Mike Young against a theoretical attacker or to take away from Dickman’s approach. Rather, I wanted to hold Dickman’s style against my poetic worldview to see more, and what I seem to be learning is that Dickman’s book resonates with me because it feels so genuine, as Young’s poem does as well. While I’m not the kind of thinking, feeling human like Dickman, I know those types, and I appreciate the restraint and energy of both styles.

More and more, I’m wanting poems to feel like people, like personalities, like they exist outside the page and the world of literature, whether its an artifice or not. Wright complains that the “randomness” makes “it so difficult to determine whether or not a poet has talent or anything significant to tell us.” Certainly, that particular style runs the risk of getting lost in its action, ending up empty, but I’m realizing that as both a reader and a writer, through being close with a text, with myself, I can find the significance and talent, if it exists, both in myself and others.

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