Reading Michael Dickman – Part I – The End of the West

Despite the naïve generation X persona that Michael Dickman adopts in The End of the West (2009), his poetry is thoughtful, sensitive and extremely affecting, at times attaining an arresting beauty from otherwise repellant or drab raw material. If anything, Dickman has become one of the representative voices of a lost generation of Americans who came to maturity just as the Clinton economic boom was ending, and his work reveals the false premises of American middle class existence in low profile tragedies of the heart and home. In The End of the West, the search for love, God and an enduring community of family and friends inevitably comes up short, with an aching void that is the shadow of the reality stake driven through the heart of the country’s day in the sun. Perhaps one can view such poetry as a new form of existentialism that has a particularly American sense of despair about it, for The End of the West carries the burden of a deep and resigned sadness which is the tonal dominant of this book, and it is only relieved by those moments where the poetry’s unexpected beauty and offbeat humor outstrip resident sorrow.

There is a biographical basis for this. As reported by Rebecca Mead in “Couplet” [The New Yorker, April 6, 2009], Michael and his twin brother, poet Matthew Dickman, were the product of a brief romance between their mother, Wendy Dickman, and their father, Allen Hull. They grew up in the blue collar neighborhood of Lents, outside of Portland, Oregon. As if spending their childhood in a lower middle class single parent household was not hard enough, the construction of an interstate highway through the center of their town decimated the neighborhood, allowing the incursion of strip joints, bars, biker gangs, alcohol and drugs, all of which became the social backdrop of their formative years. The local public school reflected these cultural hurdles, so their mother, an Episcopalian, enrolled the twins in Catholic parochial schools which they attended on scholarships. Nevertheless, they reportedly started drinking at the age of 12 and probably saw more of the seedier side of Portland than their counterparts in higher social strata. They eventually discovered books and poetry, and by their late twenties and early thirties they attained significant national celebrity in the small world of poetry largely as a result of the auspices of The New Yorker and other literary journals, which, together with generous grants and fellowships, enabled them to pursue their literary careers. Along the way they even landed small roles in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) starring Tom Cruise. However, during this phase of their lives a beloved half-brother, as well as close friends, succumbed to the evil of the times.

Michael attained an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.  According to the biography at poets.org,

Dickman’s first collection, The End of the West, was published in 2009 by Copper Canyon Press. He is also the co-author of the forthcoming 50 American Plays from Copper Canyon Press. His second collection of poetry, Flies (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), received the 2010 James Laughlin Award.

His many grants, fellowships, and residencies include honors from organizations such as The Michener Center for Writers, The Vermont Studio Center, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Lannan Foundation. He was awarded the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University for 2009-2010.

Given these accomplishments, whence Dickman’s persistent overcast of low pressure systems and why the leading edges of the cold fronts that rain on every harbored joy? If one were inclined to adopt a literary interpretation, one might say that Dickman has the soul of natural poet, and in this life he is another order of Stephen Dedalus whose the Telemachian dilemma has led him to the Nighttown of Lents and the waking nightmare of a false patrimony on both corporeal and spiritual planes: father and Father, the ghostly presences who feed the author’s festering ambivalence about life. For Dickman, as for Joyce, literature becomes a form of resistance, albeit a passive aggressive one. Yet, more rational explanations are at hand.

Dickman’s themes resonate beyond the facile literary or psychological models to more social, political and economic foundations that fostered the arrested development of Dickman’s generation, one lost in the cultural abyss created by the political dysfunction and spiritual vacuousness of the post-Reagan years. The End of the West develops a self-portrait that reflects a lost generation of middle class youth whose horse latitudes are relieved only by breezy fantasies fueled by movies, television, music, drugs and sex. It is an existence writ in larval slime. When they are challenged to rise to the occasion without purpose, they cannot bring themselves to emerge from the dark clot of their cocoons into adulthood. So we see, in “Scary Parents,” drugs and movies substitute for family structure:

I didn’t shoot heroin in the eighth grade because I was afraid of
 the needles and still am

My friends couldn’t
not do it –

Black tar
a leather belt
and sunlight

Scary parents

They filled holes
all afternoon
then we went to the movies

As this is one of the introductory poems one might conclude that Dickman had merely fallen in with a bad crowd, but there are many portraits throughout The End of the West that signal a more permanent cultural divide. The continual flight from one fantasy into another is symptomatic of deeper social problems, where middle class children and their families are falling through the cracks and the traditional routes of hard work, family and religion are not realizing their accustomed beneficial effects. In one respect, The End of the West depicts the terminal end of the promise that America once represented to every succeeding generation of its citizens. For better or worse, Dickman’s poetry never rises to political polemic, for he seems comfortable forgoing a more probing analysis into causation and instead limiting himself to a domestic narrative in which he can chart the decline of the fallen. In this way, the poems’ naive persona serves the dual role of empath and witness and otherwise leaves the politicians, sociologists and philosophers to their own devices.

In The End of the West, Dickman’s style is fully formed and is instantly recognizable, as if well-honed after many years of writing. Each of the eighteen poems have two or more sections, intermixed with lyric and prose lines. Since little or no punctuation is employed, Dickman relies upon his reader’s sensitivity to form and tone, as the usual flatness of his prose becomes a significant counterpoint to the lightness of his lyrical mode. The language used is generally very plainly spoken, even ordinary, offset by Dickman’s unique vision. He does not wow us with fabulously crafted expression that is linguistically intensive or dependent, so much as the insight and beauty of his poetry surprise us when our expectations are lowered by the superficial naïveté of the expression. I say the voice is naïve because it makes observations, or rather verbally performs them, either in a wordy manner or incompletely, as a child might do, rather than condensing thoughts as an adult would; yet this is not to be construed negatively for, in the process of becoming more sophisticated in expression, the adult view may sacrifice the vital obvious that benefits from the fresh eyes that can spy the emperor unclothed. Nonetheless, there is a bit of “see Spot run” here, albeit Spot has a hypodermic in his mouth. Dana Levin’s review of Dickman’s prosody is a must read if one wants a deeper understanding of Dickman’s poetic line.

Frequently Dickman engages in shorthand phrases (which I refer to as “triplets” because they come in three lines) to allusively telegraph a complex of images, like ideograms, expecting the reader will follow and complete the thought, such as in the first poem, “Nervous System,” which is a representative sample of his style:

Make a list
of everything that’s
ever been

on fire–

Abandoned cars
Trees
The sea

Your mother burned down to the skeleton

so she could come back, born back from her bed, and walk around the
 house again, exhausted
 in slippers

What else?

Your brain
Your eyes
Your lungs

The halting pace and clipped rhythms that eventually give way to relaxed prose, the sketchpad of imagery that is suddenly focused by hyperbole and the macabre, all these features tend to impart an innocence, intimacy and vitality to the poetry, as tonal shifts and surprising connections heighten the level of discourse. Overall, it is the quality of Dickman’s sensitivity and vision that wins the reader’s heart. As the territory covered here hearkens to earlier times of his youth, perhaps as much as 20 years before publication, the naive perspective of his observations may be totally appropriate to the task. It is as if Dickman could only properly reveal these intimate details in the persona of a child or young man in order to recall their emotional effect and make them work as poetry. For, in reality, there is nothing unusual about being raised in a single parent household in America, or encountering rampant drug use even at an early age. It is the only Dickman’s portraiture that makes them so.

The End of the West is an operatic or thematic sequence of poems, rather than the usual assemblage that introduces a new poetic talent. Themes, metaphors and images are threaded within the volume. One of the principal themes concerns the false male role model and, ancillary to this, the social consequences that flow from the absence of a nurturing paternal force. Poems such as “Some of the Men,” “Kings,” and “My Father Full of Light” give vent to Dickman’s emotional response to ersatz paternity. So, in “Some of the Men,” karmic justice in this world preempts divine justice:

I could sense my father
sitting alone in his little white Le Car
staring off at the empty parking lot

No radio
No wind
No birds

Just some guy in his car looking out at the blacktop and the shadows
 of the telephone wires

It isn’t a sad scene, not really

Some of us are getting
exactly what we asked for

Some of us
don’t even have
to wait

The stark austerity of the lines intimate withheld bitterness. But this bitterness is not underserved, for the father seems to be an insensitive jerk. In “Some of the Men,” we hear the philistine volunteer some “advice” (“claustrophobic and flat”) at a restaurant “birthday brunch,” an occasion that should celebrate his son rather than threaten him:

What you need to do
is join the Army, the Marines
something

You need to be taught a lesson

The theme of the paternal persecution is again picked up in the succeeding poem, “Kings”

Our crowns look nothing like his crown

needles and light and
needles of light
fingers
stamen

Our crowns are made of dead hair and get swept out with the trash
 or ripped out by hand

Our capes are bath towels
wrapped around our necks
and fastened with
giant safety pins . . . .

*

None of my friends
are kings

anymore

They used to be good at being alive, pointing their index fingers at
 the trees, passing
 invisible sentences
 proclamations

knighting the birds
one by one

All down my street the new fathers
beat the kingness
out
of the
kings

when they came in for dinner
and when they
went to bed

In The End of the West, the parent-child conflict and resulting ambivalence gives rise to some brutal and violent scenes, as this one in “Scary Parents”:

Ian broker his mother’s nose because she burned the pancakes

She left hypodermics
between the couch cushions
for us to sit on

Or this one in “Some of the Men”:

Look at
Josh’s father —

Stumbling into the bedroom at three in the morning the two of us asleep
 and all that moonlight
 and beat his son’s
 head against

the headboard

 You fucker you fucker you asked for it

The moon

His jaw splashed across the pillowcase

The gruesome beauty of the poetry forces us to look at facts we would otherwise instinctively recoil from. Moreover, his testimony has the ring of truth, for in my own parochial school days I can vividly remember seeing a younger student on his knees begging the nun who was his teacher not to tell his father he had been disobedient in class. One just knew by the look of utter anguish on his face that, if his father was told, that kid would be beaten in a way that would clearly qualify as child abuse today.

However, despite this, Dickman’s posture seems staged in some respects, as he often skews the substance of his family portrait in the interest of providing a charged poetic image, apparently eschewing any inclination to get under the skin of the real life characters that populate his world. In “Some of the Men” even the figure of a beloved grandfather (the father of poet Sharon Olds) is made to seem perplexing, as if Dickman is unaware that an individual personality may be complex and multifaceted with positive and negative attributes:

Think of my grandfather, still drunk or asleep, passed out on top of my
 grandmother
 so she has to wait for him
 to come to

along with the late
Redwood City morning
the light skipping in
across

the swimming pool

The smell of failed sex
bourbon and
chlorine

Dead cigars

He taught me how to swim

with one of his hands beneath my legs and another beneath my stomach
how to cup my hand, how
to turn my head

Inhale and exhale
and move gracefully
through liquid

* * *

For a long time my grandfather
tried to kill anyone
who came near him

Wives
Daughters
Stepdaughters

What is it called when insects are stuck forever in a kind of amber?

Then he got sick
and he was going to die anyway
and he stopped
trying to kill people

Then we could fall in love

The portrait is surely two-dimensional, even if it the account be largely true, and, unfortunately, because this is a consistent attribute of his naïve persona, we become inordinately forgiving of Dickman’s use of isolated incidents and hyperbole (like “kill”) as being universally indicative of character. That Dickman writes such poems well into adulthood, offering as their fulcrum the conflicted persona of a much younger man, may present a problem to readers who seek a finer and fuller expression of the complex of issues he introduces. When your life story becomes the basis of your art the reader is forced to search the record to determine whether the narrator can be trusted, whether portraits ring true. As his are broad characterizations, without qualification or explanation, we do not have a sure sense of a deeper exploration going on beneath them. Events are presented in discrete scenes without a past or future outside the sketchy narrative that may be derived from the volume’s other poems. Despite his rage Dickman does not confront his real-life antagonists, so these conflicts are never resolved. As large as his emotions range, Dickman’s enmity spills out in wisecracks and ironic asides, brooding contempt and a coveted desire for comeuppance, as it does in the final section of “Some of the Men”:

Some of the men are standing in their backyards at night, looking up
 at the stars
 listening to the freeway

Their hands in their pockets

Everything’s just
as it was

My hands
in my pockets, curled
into tiny
fists

My belt buckle

gleaming

The tacit threat of retribution through patricide becomes more explicit in “Marco Polo,” but it is a promise that we know he can never fulfill. The most that Dickman can do is to sever the patrimonial lineage on paper:

My great-great-grandfather, my great-grandfather, my grandfather
 and my father
 all looking back
 over their shoulders

Half asleep in metal desk chairs

moving the ice around
in their drinks

Do you know who’s going to kill you?

I’m going to kill you.

Dickman does himself a disservice because of these shortcomings. At least where his poems about his family relationships are concerned, he never achieves the emotional penetration or poignancy of, for example, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, partly because he is not as forthcoming and partly because he relies so much upon the reader to make assumptions.

Eventually, these sentiments turn toward the loss of God in “Good Friday,” the spiritual father in lieu of the real thing. The poem in three sections that begins:

I think the light
appearing, then
disappearing

across the trunk of the live oak
is the boss of everything

Not You

Not Your hands tearing up the grass in the neighbor’s yard, fashioning
 little green crosses
 no one can fit on

We can put them to our lips though

and whistle

Religion becomes a toy in Dickman’s hands and is never the basis of a serious meditation. “Good Friday” concludes with a torture scene out of Abu Ghraib, a total rejection of divinity:

If You came back and it happened again
we would shave Your head
and attach black wires
to Your solar system
We would turn the dial
You would see Your mother
Your childhood
and small pockets behind
Your eyes

turn to lightning

Someone would wipe You clean with a towel

Someone
would put You
in the ground

He does not specify who “we” is meant to signify. The human race? America? Dickman’s generation? Maybe it is true that the modern Christ would be rejected as soundly as he was 2000 years ago, as Dickman states, but it is not clear why he feels this way, except that he appears to believe that Christ/God has no redeeming social or spiritual value, as he writes in “Late Meditations”:

Do you think His arms
are going to make
a cradle

for your head

so you can finally
fall asleep? . . . .

We are trying
very hard

to be alone

God’s redeeming value, if any, provides a venue for romantic love, and some of Dickman’s most beautiful poetry comes out in the religious setting of “Returning to Church.”

I had forgotten
all the promises they make
at church, singing
or

not singing—

A new body
A living water

I wanted to be very still and listen to her voice moving out in front of me

There are two houses

The dark and quiet
house of God
and the house of her

voice

Nevertheless, despite the fact that he finds comfort among the believers (“I don’t have to explain//Hand after/hand//I don’t have to be embarrassed”), mortality’s icy touch prevents him from indulging in another lost cause:

What does God promise?

It’s winter so
the orange and red bellies of the fish
look like small flies

Soon everything will ice over

There won’t be
any room, not
anymore

This is an elementary approach, at best, to the quest for divinity, and such questions demand something more from any author who entertains them. Aside from theology, though, “Returning to Church” is a great poem, no two ways about it.

Midway in this life’s journey there is a lot of other collateral damage, including Dickman’s principal love interest. The erotic encounters that begin “Into the Earth” subsequently shift to lost love, and finally this matter of fact ending is tossed off:

No one I loved had died for almost two years

Then Amy bled out
in a bathtub

There is shock value in this, but we are unprepared for its significance as poetry, and the earlier parts of the poem offer no fitting prelude. Biography absent the context of formal purpose cannot evolve into art, personal anguish aside.

The volume’s final poem, the eponymous “The End of the West,” is a tour de force of family histories whose terminus is the author’s twilight of spiritual torpor and guilt:

My muscles latch and unlatch
with little clicks
opening

like a door
into Your house

You had this shit coming, they whisper
from the corner

You’re going to be sorry

Notwithstanding the breadth of “The End of the West,” the poem “Seeing Whales” achieves majesty and mystery (even as we must force our way past the heroin chic that the poem trades on) that is, ultimately, the best of what Dickman brings to the art. It is a three section poem that begins:

You can go blind, waiting

Unbelievable quiet
except for their
soundings

Moving the sea around

Unbelievable quiet inside you, as they change
the face of water

The only other time I felt this still was watching Leif shoot up when
 we were twelve

Sunlight all over his face

breaking
the surface of something
I couldn’t see

You can wait your
whole life

and concludes with this section:

By now they are asleep
some are asleep
on the bottom of the world
sucking the world in
and blowing it out
in wave-
lengths

Radiant ghosts

Leif laid his head back on a pillow and waited for all the blood inside him
 to flush down
 a hole

After seeing whales what do you see?

The hills behind the freeway

power lines

green, green
grass

the green sea

In such terms, Dickman’s poetry finds the essence of existentialism in the absence of family, of God, and of lasting love which is the sine qua non that makes life worth living day after day. In The End of the West, the implacable need to fill this void seems only abated by the white whale of the ineffable poetic moment.



Categories: Literary Criticism

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