By Matthew Dickman (American Poetry Review, 2008)
I first encountered Matthew Dickman’s “Trouble” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It’s a litany of the many ways famous people killed themselves. Marilyn Monroe took sleeping pills. Marlon Brando’s daughter hanged herself. Bing Crosby’s sons “shot themselves out of the music industry forever.” The list’s utilitarian feeling only makes the horror more horrible, especially when it includes the suicide of Dickman’s brother: He “opened thirteen Fentanyl patches,” Dickman tells us, “and stuck them on his body until it wasn’t his body anymore.”
But there’s a sense of humor too, even whiffs of whimsy, which make the tenor of All-American Poem, in which “Trouble” appears, feel genuine without being sappy. The poems are lucid and coy, rambling and drunk, playful and gregarious, a tapestry of emotion with a notable thread missing: There’s little in the way of satire or irony, by which I mean meanness of spirit. Written amid the anxieties and neuroses of the Bush era, Dickman’s poems are conspicuous for their lack of bitterness. After learning about his brother’s fate, we learn: “I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears.” How random. How charming.
And how frightening, too. For “Trouble” also recalls Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in which suffering consumes those experiencing it while the rest of us appear cruel without meaning to. For the tortured, nothing else matters but the torturer, even as his “horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” Life goes on despite that tiny shudder that comes from knowing that as you read this sentence, someone somewhere is in pain.
But where Auden seems intent on forcing on us the aloofness of the cosmos, Dickman’s “Trouble” levels a cool eye while making a little room by the fire. His might be called gallows humor, but somehow it’s never macabre. It’s intimate and warm, friendly and firm. A tragic view of the world, but maybe also optimism in disguise.
In the introduction to All-American Poem, Tony Hoagland rightly calls the book the “epitome of the pleasure principle,” and there are lusty, earthy poems contained within, stuffed with images, metaphors, and jokes that delight more than instruct. But they also affirm an old-fashioned sentiment that right now seems to be much in need in America right now. I’m talking about the human spirit.
There’s a line in Richard Greenberg’s 2003 play, The Violet Hour, in which a flamboyant clerk riffs on the word “gay.” It’s 1919, way before the word took on its present meaning, so “to be gay is not to be frivolous,” he says proudly. “To be gay is to be light-hearted in the face of every kind of darkness.”
Toughness with a smile. But Dickman isn’t afraid of darkness. In “V,” the world’s “been talking sleazy to all of us and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb that makes me want to wear a cock ring in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.” The speaker wants to flirt with a girl, but reconsiders. Maybe she wants to be treated as a human being, not an animal at the meat market: “And maybe this is not a giant leap into the science of compassion, but it’s something.”
Happiness can be an act of will as much as an accident of fate. It’d be natural to let the light die behind your eyes in the wake of losing a brother, or your house. But to be “gay”—and in Dickman’s case, to be funny and charming and witty—is almost an act of rebellion. To be “gay” in the world of All-American Poem is be totally punk rock.
Though there’s no sign Dickman sees it that way: He breathes the air of Whitman, Kerouac, O’Hara, and Koch, each of whom pushed against the grain of what poetry and writing was supposed to be in their times. Especially Koch, who saw no reason why poetry couldn’t be fun. The first line of Dickman’s “Chick Corea Is Alive and Well!” is “Which makes the elegy I wrote for him seem a little distasteful.” And the last line isn’t afraid to flirt with sentimentality, because it’s a sensibility rooted in the here and now, and it feels right: The jazz pianist is like “a man whose been raised from the dead, looking down at a woman’s knees after years in the dirt, singing yeaahh! yeaahh! This is what I’m talking about, yeaahh! This good, sweet life!”
John Stoehr is the arts editor at the Charleston City Paper.