Sunday 19 June 2016
If you go to interview twin poets about the death of their elder brother, and the work they have made jointly in response to it, your natural expectation is that the atmosphere will be serious, even sombre. And, indeed, my conversation with American writers Matthew and Michael Dickman, whose book revolves around the suicide, a decade ago, of their half-brother Darin Hull, frequently enters inevitably painful emotional territory, and the extent to which art is ever able to chart a course through it. But the morning that we spend together is punctuated with gusts of hilarity, irreverence, playfulness and informality, the alternating rainstorms and sunshine that flood the Bloomsbury streets outside an almost too neat pathetic fallacy.
The laughs begin straight away, as we’re settling down, and Michael – the older of the 40-year-old twins by two minutes, and a shade more reserved than Matthew – is pouring us coffee. One brother – I forget which now, because they both do it – calls the other “Chancho”. What’s behind that nickname, I ask. Ah, they reply; yes, they’d better explain. “Since high school we’ve called each other pig,” says Michael, “and then versions of it in different languages, like cochon or chancho, or the diminutive in Spanish, chanchito.” “Also, piggy, or Mr Pig,” adds Matthew. “Or Piggums,” rounds off Michael. They also have pig tattoos on their arms.
It emerges that “one of the only books we seem to have gotten through in high school” was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Piggy was the character with whom they identified. “Piggy is heavier set, with glasses, and he gets picked on,” explains Matthew, “and my brother and I went through a period of getting really picked on a lot in school.” But even more touchingly, Michael recalls the moment at the end of the book when the schoolboy Ralph “refers to the now deceased Piggy as his one true good friend. And that was always true of Matthew.”
I’ve already apologised for talking about twin stuff the minute I arrived – how to tell them apart, etc. They’re used to it, they say, graciously. But now I point out that their affinity with Lord of the Flies is interesting: after all, before it descends into savagery, the novel delivers a version of the fantasy that all children have, of a sudden and decisive release from adult control, and the emergence of a world in which they can make their own rules. It is a mirror of the way people often view twins – bound together in a space of their own, and at some level immune to the demands of others. Is that a cliche?
“It certainly happened with us,” replies Michael, remembering the private language they had as toddlers (a paediatrician told their mother to put a stop to it). “There was never a question that we would have someone to play with, or who we would sit with in the cafeteria. Not that we didn’t have those terrible lonely moments for children growing up – but we at least had each other.”
Did they feel like that within their own family, too?
“Still!” laughs Matthew. “If all the family members get together for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving, Michael and I – every time – will sequester ourselves in the kitchen, saying ‘Oh, we’ll cook for everybody because we love cooking’. We do love cooking, but just to get away from everything and have protection. And as the evening goes on, and people are in the living room drinking wine and suffering, once in a while they’ll come in to the kitchen and say, ‘Do you guys need any help?’ in this desperate way, you know, ‘Will you please save me?"
Michael: “Very little, actually.”
Matthew: “It’s way more self-indulgent – it’s more like we just want to hang out.”
Michael: “And you know, we have this sense of humour that we’ve been working on since childhood, which isn’t always shared with everyone at a family get-together.”
Hiding in the kitchen notwithstanding, their family ties are evident in Brother, a selection of poems from their previous books, collected here for the first time. The book – a “tête-bêche”, or “head-to-tail” edition, in which each poet’s work occupies a part of the book, which is printed upside down in relation to the other’s – is dedicated to their elder sister, Dana. Eleven years older than Michael and Matthew, she and Darin, who was born in 1968, were the children of Allen Hull, who some years later conceived the twins during a brief relationship with their mother, Wendy Dickman. He lived nearby, in Portland, Oregon, but never as part of their family; Wendy went on to have another daughter, Elizabeth, with a new partner.
As their half-brother, the twins tell me, Darin exerted an immense influence on them. Describing the first time he wrote about Darin’s death from an overdose, in the poem “Trouble”, Matthew explains: “The only way I could really talk about his suicide was by including him in this poem that is basically a long list of famous people who killed themselves. Because Darin was such a famous person in my mind and my heart.”
Trouble, which appeared in Matthew’s debut collection, All-American Poem(2008), also appears in Brother, and in the middle of a chronicle of the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Sarah Kane and John Berryman come these lines:
“My brother opened / thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body / until it wasn’t his body any more.”
Elsewhere, in the poem Coffee, part of a sequence entitled Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral, Matthew writes:
“Once, I had a brother / who used to sit and drink his coffee black, smoke / his cigarettes and be quiet for a moment / before his brain turned its armadas against him”.
I ask them why Darin felt so “famous” to them. “We were raised without a father, and so I think there’s part of us that, through our older brother, got some of that energy,” says Matthew. “He would make you feel very special in his company. He was someone who had this really big, empathic heart – for years, he worked with troubled youth in different programmes. So he was, in our minds, always beloved, and complicated.”
“And he and Dana were just so cool,” chips in Michael. “Listening to the Cure, and smoking clove cigarettes.” Darin, who shared the twins’ love of skateboarding, took them from the “nice, family” supply stores to somewhere called Rebel Skates – edgy, sketchy, downtown. He and Dana added British bands such as Cocteau Twins and Joy Division to their playlists of punk and west coast rap.
Darin’s death came after problems with drugs and alcohol, but Brother is not coy about the manner of his death. “You know that our older brother killed himself: it’s not hidden,” Matthew says. “And it’s not really even hidden in our poems. And that’s something that I’m excited about with this book, because I think that the subject of suicide, at least in the States, is still one that there’s a lot of shame around, a lot of complicated feelings around; people keep it quiet.”
The poems themselves didn’t come for a long time. Neither of them, as Matthew puts it, “are poets who believe you experience something and you immediately need to write about it, or it needs to be a poem at all”.
While Matthew’s poetry has an expansive, free-associative, narrative style, Michael’s tends towards the spartan and oblique, appearing to portray an interior world under immense pressure, and it came as a result of a series of dreams he had in the immediate aftermath of Darin’s death. “About a week after he died, and for about a month or so, every night I had an intense dream about flies. This is very unusual for me. The dreams that I remember tend to be very boring: I’ll have a dream that I’m at a coffee shop, and I’ve ordered a coffee. End of dream.” Now, though, his nights were studded with human-sized “Hollywood flies”, or rooms packed with flies he had somehow to get through. Sometimes Darin appeared in them – “it was very exciting to have a sense of him, his physical body next to mine” – and then, abruptly, they stopped altogether. But their “residue” persisted, and eventually Michael began to write about them, conceding now that the dreams “might have just been a way to trick myself into addressing the subject matter in a poem”. The result is stunning, unnerving, disturbing. “At the end of one of the billion light years of loneliness”, the poem False Start begins, “My mother sits on the floor of her new kitchen carefully feeding the flies from her fingertips”.
It was Matthew Hollis, poet, award-winning biographer and poetry editor at Faber and Faber, who thought the Dickmans’ poems about their brother would work as a single volume, and, he told me, “connect far more widely than poetry sometimes does”. A long-term fan of their work, he sees in Matthew’s “long, rolling lines” the influences of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, and in Michael’s shorter, more European-inflected work echoes of Wallace Stevens. But what united them, he was sure, was this deep, personal investment in describing their family’s loss.
The Dickmans discuss their work, and their lives, so openly and warmly that you can momentarily forget how painful it must be. How does it feel to them, to be sitting here, talking about it? “I’m very proud of this work,” says Michael, “and of this book in particular. And I also wish it never existed. So that is a strange position to be in.” Matthew agrees: “I would guess anyone who’s written about the death of a beloved would give up that book and any other book that they would ever write again just to hang out with them again.”
They’ve told me about the plays they wrote jointly, one for each of the 50 states of America (plus Puerto Rico and Guam), which began life as a scramble to help Michael finish a grad school class project that he’d left until the last minute. “I love that you call it a project!” laughs Matthew. What would he call it? “A scam!” They’ve also told me how once, when Matthew was in a college play, Michael went to watch. At the interval, Michael went to the toilet, as did the play’s director, who began to berate him for his poor performance.
Now, though, I want to ask them about the starriest experience of their careers. How did they come by their roles – as the ghostly “pre-cogs” – in Steven Spielberg’s futuristic Minority Report? They immediately pull my leg. Michael: “No one has ever asked us that.” Matthew: “It’s so weird.” I express astonishment. Michael: “I’m kidding.” OK, but how? They’re not quite sure how it came together, but after being involved in high-school and college theatre, they were briefly signed to an agency. In the first audition, they sat in fold-out chairs and shook. For the callback, they were told that Spielberg really liked their look, and “that a lot of the twins they had auditioned were really beautiful models, really handsome, like surf gods”, says Matthew.
Michael adds: “‘Spielberg loved how vacant your faces looked.’”
Matthew: “‘Like nothing was happening inside your heads.’”
Michael: “‘Slightly weird-looking idiots!’”
They got the parts, and loved working with Spielberg, who treated them with great kindness, they say. As a thank you, they bought him a first edition of the poetry of Jewish-German Nobel prize winner Nelly Sachs, whose work the director had put on the cast and crew’s reading list during the making of Schindler’s List. Now, Spielberg asked Minority Report’s star, Samantha Morton, to hold the book, and read a poem at random to herself during the film’s closing scene, a fact that pleases them inordinately. The Dickman brothers: getting poetry into the most unexpected of places, with double piggy power.
Brother by Matthew and Michael Dickman is published by Faber, £10.99