In the costive, cliquey, but largely unpaid world of contemporary poetry, where careerism is quietly embraced but often publicly denounced, the rapid ascent of American poetic twins Matthew and Michael Dickman has been remarkable. An early New Yorker profile, a clutch of literary prizes, a teaching job at Princeton (Michael), being nephews of leading US poet Sharon Olds and even a dual cameo role in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report have, almost inevitably, triggered the green-eyed monster in US literary circles.
In truth, the poetic wunderkinds from the Lents neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon, who collaborated on a wacky poetic travelogue called 50 American Plays (2012), have received almost as many brickbats as bouquets for their work. William Logan, infamous literary assassin-in-chief for the New Criterion, who specialises in pointed put-downs, called many of the poems in Michael Dickman's second collection, Flies, ‘undernourished’ and harbouring ‘mean little ambitions’, while slamming the poet’s elegies for his dead older brother as ‘cartoon strips’ and ‘thought balloons’. Comparing Dickman unfavourably to Swift, Logan sneers that Dickman is ‘just some guy with creepy fantasies’. The final acidic flourish of Logan's hatchet job is filled with patronising, ad hominem venom: ‘You worry about him, this demon kid whose poems are scrawled in fingerprints or fiddled on an Etch-A- Sketch’. Clearly not a critic to pull his punches, Logan has not been much kinder to Matthew Dickman. Reviewing Mayakovsky's Revolver (2013), Logan called the other poetic twin ‘a master of Frank O'Hara lite’, in thrall to ‘some hipster method of throwing lines together’.
But the case for the defence has been equally strong. Franz Wright, a US poet admired by both brothers, has been fulsome in his praise of Michael Dickman, saying he possesses a ‘style like no one else’s’, his work giving ‘a voice to the real life sorrows, horrors, and indomitable joys which bind together the vast human family’. Influential Irish poet Paul Muldoon has personally endorsed Dickman and welcomed several of his poems at the New Yorker, where he is poetry editor. Apart from teaching on Princeton’s creative writing programme, Dickman has attracted a considerable following in the US, set to be boosted this winter by the publication there of his latest collection, Green Migraine, by Copper Canyon Press. Meanwhile, Faber & Faber will introduce his work to an even wider readership with the UK publication of Brother, in 2016.
So much for literary politics: what about the poetry? The first thing to say, given the Dickman brothers’ dual literary fame, is that their respective work is a study in contrasts. Matthew Dickman is a post-Beat celebrator, a Whitmanesque embracer of life. His fast-flowing, breakneck verse, thirsty for MacNeice’s “drunkenness of things being various”, makes him a reborn Frank O’Hara for the 21st Century. Long, often madcap lines gallop towards and beyond the right side of the page, impatient for new kicks. (Tony Hoagland has characterised his poetry as ‘lusty, full of sensuous aspiration’). An instructive poem in this respect is ‘The World is Too Huge to Grasp’:
It’s not the world
with its ten-zillion things we should be grasping,
but the sincerity of penguins, the mess we made of the roses.
In contrast, Michael Dickman’s poems are shaped by verbal control, haunted by the past and gripped by an almost oppressive elegiac sense. Themes of loss and familial trauma inform wide-eyed, thin-skinned poems contrasting innocence and experience, composed in alternating short and long lines, often unravelling over several pages, but constantly turning back on and circling over themselves, using repeated motifs, images and lines. His debut, The End of the West (2009) and his second collection, Flies (2011) are populated by scary parents, a deceased brother, dead dogs, childhood friends, drug buddies, maple trees, insects and the strangely resonant fixtures and fittings of suburbia. Following the example of W.S. Merwin, Dickman eschews conventional punctuation in favour of white space, line and stanza breaks and enjambment, as in the title poem of Flies:
Ten thousand eyes
There there They begin to sing
As Dickman stressed in a New Yorker podcast, this lack of punctuation gives his poems the freedom to develop in more than one direction. And in their constant repetitions, the poems can also be read as secular prayers. ‘Flies’ again:
Put on your wings I put on my wings
In the same podcast, Dickman also explains to Paul Muldoon his ‘guided by voices approach’ to poetic construction, in which each new line is a journey of discovery – for the poet and the reader – as notebook phrases and disparate pieces of language ‘start calling to each other, like magnets’.
Dickman again employs this intuitive poetic approach to brilliant effect in his latest collection, Green Migraine. Arguably his boldest book to date, the collection asks even more of its readers, the poems being less tethered to the here and now or recognisable memory. Exploring his own daring version of pastoral, Dickman’s recent obsession with John Clare pays rich but often disturbing dividends. The opening poem, ‘Bee Sting’ (previously ‘My Honeybee’ when read for the New Yorker), sets the almost ethereal tone:
Crying in the cosmos that doesn’t sound like you
in the cosmos
Missile static and afterburn in the petals
While often filled with light and colour, Dickman’s latest poems also summon up as much darkness from nature as his disturbing earlier explorations of childhood, the honeybee being finally transmuted into
In the dark
The painful neurological condition migraine is registered in the book’s title and the poems ‘White Migraine’, ‘Red Migraine’, ‘Yellow Migraine’, and ‘Black Migraine’, as they explore extreme sensory and physical discomfort. In ‘White Migraine’, bodily pain becomes an out-of-body experience – ‘The Matterhorn/in my shoulders ruptures/in the toilet//My mouth walks down a hallway in a hospital’ – while a redbreast becomes a sensory metaphor in ‘Red Migraine’, perched ‘behind your left eye/behind your right and cleans/its babies with/its beak’. People and the animal kingdom, meanwhile, become entangled in nightmarish scenarios, requiring the reader to follow fractured narratives and to take more of the poems on trust. In a disjointed poetic landscape, ‘Frog eggs get bigger and bigger and bigger until they are a full moon and don’t/fit anywhere//They don’t fit inside a washing machine’ (‘Frog Labor’), while nature is often a malign force, where, in an image recalling a Joni Mitchell album sleeve, ‘Two boys carry a snake between them like a live extension cord’ (‘From the Canal’). Meanwhile, the apparently innocent world of nursery rhyme takes on a much darker hue in ‘Where We Live’, which reads like a Blakean version of ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe’ by Mother Goose: ‘I used to live/in a mother now I live/in a sunflower.’
Dickman has commented that he remembers and registers the world through images, which do his ‘thinking’ for him, and there are many striking examples in Green Migraine. At his best, Dickman is a sui generis phrase-maker, memorable lines studding his poems, encouraging the reader to look at the world with fresh eyes
– ‘Sonic drag/and television snow/in the rhododendrons’ (‘Butterflies’) – or employing his unique poetic music in one of his trademark long lines to enrich the senses: ‘It peels the skin back from the roof of your mouth in metal petals that taste/like snow.’
Apart from its unusual imagery, Dickman’s work invites us to make imaginative leaps with the poet, as he juxtaposes and stretches ideas to their limit: ‘Some riddle from before we were born that sounds like a river and spreads on/toast’ (‘Bee Sting’). Although less obviously autobiographical than its predecessors,
Green Migraine is still informed by the experience of fatherhood (Lullaby') and aspects of the past, with remembered pet dogs looming large in the poet’s imaginative landscape as symbols of mortality – ‘They did not disappear into/the trees one day’ (‘Dog Vertigo’) – or as signifiers of the lost physical intimacy of childhood:
some of the boys
kiss them on the mouth
Their mouths are clean and their noses are pink
As stated previously, Michael Dickman has a collection forthcoming from Faber & Faber next year. It's difficult to guess how his work will be received by UK poetry reviewers more used to carefully calibrated ironies. Perhaps his poetry will be judged by the old Lowellian ‘cooked and raw’ criteria. Perhaps some critics will be unwilling to give his more extreme flights of fancy or free form language the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps his work will not travel easily across the Atlantic. But Green Migraine is a remarkably brave book, pushing back the limits of what modern verse can do. And it's clear that the Dickman twins, who turned forty this year, represent one of the most striking double acts in contemporary poetry.