Okay first and foremost let’s take a look at one of Matthew Dickman’s poems, Snow. Pretty good, right? Keeps you running along, line to line, keeping that momentum going through a series of striking and vivid images
note: okay, there are no ‘images’ in poetry because poems are made of words, which are themselves one/both of a) communally-consented referent glyphs or b) noises, yet here I am using the term ‘images’ because the human brain in all its glory, tends to work thus: “Orange”. There is now a fair chance that you’re thinking of a yellowy-reddy fruit, or certain political organisations, and you probably do so by thinking a picture that can, through the miracle of modern science, be literally read and reproduced on a computer screen. So when Dickman says ‘bright blue breath rising from our mouths like smokestacks’ your brain goes very quickly in the pictorial direction Dickman intended. This is pretty cool! Does it add to the emotional impact of the poem? Mneh. Does it make it easier to imagine oneself in the same physical space as the poet? Yes. Is it ostensibly easier to empathise with someone when a sense of (or indeed a real) shared physical space is established? Arguably so. And MD does it pretty well here. So, as I was saying
vivid images and non-logical syntax: ‘all the roads leaving / Hyannis are covered in black ice / and wouldn’t my grandmother be happy if her dead president / was alive and well and drinking hot chocolate.’ It tricks us into thinking we know what the poem expresses by moving too quickly to worry about the particulars, leaving enough to chance that there’s some exhilaration in finding what the next unusual cluster of words/ideas will be, while not pushing it so far that it loses its emotional tension.
The tone is relatively straightforward: childish excitement in life being various. There’s not a huge political statement being made, beyond the mildly risqué Santa in his leathers with his herbal tobacco as he and Starbucks whitewash Christmas in the same way Christianity whitewashed their saviour. Dickman is more than happy for schmucks like me to make that final leap between the Church’s more consumably Caucasian Christ and a coffee conglomerate using the celebration of his birth to sell their stuff. MD is already too busy writing his name in the snow and sticking his hand into ‘Jackie’s’ back pocket, ‘for obvious reasons.’
I’m going to spend a paragraph somewhere talking about why I object to that phrase and similar throughout the book, but not yet.
There’s a whole passage where he builds a snowman on a beach that positively overflows with inference to pretty potent childhood stuff, ‘like under-the-bed-secrets / when you were five and there were really monsters in the world.’ One of MD’s most effective strategies is when he builds a complex emotional space by dragging in as much of life’s detritus as possible, and relying on our recognition of how much this stuff impacts our lives to fill in the gaps. Hart Crane was pretty big on this, check out his essay “General Aims and Theories”, cuz I bet MD did.
Frank O’Hara is another chap who springs readily to mind, but with all due respect to MD, Frank was funnier. Reading MD’s poems can be an oddly jarring experience because I never quite get the impression that he’s being totally up front – even in the snowman passage, for example, there’s this sincerity about the presentation of himself (or of his speaking persona, which stays consistent throughout All American Poem) doing something whimsical that makes me uneasy. Like, did you see Daniel Radcliffe on Saturday Night Live? I know it’s in the states, but I also know you know how BitTorrent works. See how happy he was to totally undermine his post-Potter career by doing a sketch about Harry never leaving Hogwarts? Now look at Zooey Deschanel’s turn at hosting. Another very recognisable persona, but nothing to seriously subvert her woman-child shtick. I think MD might be a little more Zooey than DanRad; there’s none of that elegant self-deflation that Mark Doty (for example) deploys so effectively. Throughout the book there’s such meticulous attention paid to the MD persona that the fact that it is a persona is kind of overlooked, and I find myself less engaged with him/it.
What I’m getting at is that although MD has some fantastic insight and phrase-turning regarding the nature of desire and sex and the needs of the body, it’s at the expense of all the other fun aspects of love. This might well be that paragraph I promised earlier, because I don’t get the sense that any of his single-named or unnamed objects of desire have their own needs, fears and dreams that MD considers interesting enough to explore. When he puts his hand down Jackie’s back pocket ‘for obvious reasons’ I want to stop him and ask what is so obvious. The sudden upsurge of hand-ass relations would be much more emotionally satisfying – ie, at all – if I knew why this felt so natural to the poet. Wherefore Jackie’s ass?
Digression: incidentally, Crane in that one essay mentions how bored he is when the mythical Helen is invoked as shorthand for the ideal object of desire. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that this practice is absolutely rife in men’s contemporary poetry, hidden behind MD’s Jackie, Kate, Emily and most unhappily, ‘his friend’s wife’, nameless and twice removed.
I also don’t like to think that poetry as an art form is so essentially myopic that the only form of love presentable through it is one that so heavily favours the poem’s speaker. Unbelievers should read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”, where one absolutely gets a sense of the beloved through the eyes of the lover, generous and full of feeling. I certainly agree that this deeply challenging; it requires truly understanding the individuals involved, having an awareness of how the presentation of the relationship is affected by the presence of the assumed reader, and a sensitivity to the position of relative power enjoyed by the speaking poet.
The nature of love as presented in All American Poem – and this is at the core of its whole enterprise – is problematic at best. The most moving expressions of it are to the poet’s brother, as in the killer poem “Slow Dance”. The participants there are nuanced, clumsy, flawed, engaged with each other in a way that the speaker is not with Jackie, Kate and the rest. But even in “Slow Dance”, love is taken to be very conventionally normative – the unnamed, universal woman dancer rests her head ‘on his shoulder, [her] breath moving up his neck’, while the man’s hands move ‘along her spine. Her hips / unfolding like a cotton napkin / and you begin to think about / how all the stars in the sky are dead.’ It could be the fifties. Even in this microcosm the woman is silent, the man the one with the thoughts and the busy hands. If this seems like reading too much into a single passage, that’s because it is, but it stands as a representative for a sufficiently large number of other instances of the same.
And it’s frustrating because it is a good book! It’s lively! It has some interesting ideas, albeit somewhat solipsistic. And it is suffering being the latest in a line of contemporary poetry books I’ve read lately in which love is a straight-men-only affair, of which MD is not the worst offender by any means. I’m not asking for every straight poet to start writing searing odes to all manifestations of love regardless of their experience and their capacity/inclination to express it; but some acknowledgement that it exists would go a long way to making me much less ranty. This is my challenge to poets everywhere, myself included. Present love as the complicated, confusing, various and inclusive thing it is. Present it in a way that is so particular that I cannot help but have my understanding deepened.
Anyway, to wrap up a post that is already hella overlong, I was/am excited about All American Poem, which is why I’m even bothering to talk about a book that came out four years ago, and I earnestly recommend you get a copy. Anyone in Edinburgh, you can borrow mine. It has more curiosity in one line than the entire Forward Prize committee’s life’s work. “The Mysterious Human Heart” (‘I will walk down / to the market with my heart inside me, mysterious […] Not like the apricots and potatoes, the albino / asparagus’), “An Imaginary French Film” (‘All those Parisians looking up at the moon, looking back / into each other’s eyes, looking up at the moon / and getting all turned around because what is la vie but to look / at the moon once in a while’) , and “Country Music” (‘How she appled my body; / all that sweet skin and core’) are great poems, a bunch of others are definitely worth reading, and while the usual free verse concern of samey-tone-fatigue is present, it’s only rarely, like in the slightly-too-long title poem. For a book to have so many flaws and yet be so enjoyable is no mean feat. In the end, it triumphs in its believable depiction of a world full of energy and possibility, where every item has its own history and voice, and where everything seems sacred. Maybe the nature of this achievement only makes its flaws that little less forgivable.