Literary Criticism

Reading Michael Dickman – Part II – Flies

The twenty poems in Michael Dickman’s Flies (2011) employ the recognizable forms of his prosody, viz., a lyric mode mixed with prose written in a conversational manner which is sparely punctuated. Flies, however, has a sweeping surrealistic style of portraiture and makes more extensive use of symbolism than does The End of the West. Despite the fact that many reviewers have similarly described his poetic style in this volume, Dickman himself has renounced the “surreal” characterization of Flies in an interview and a reading for Emory University, maintaining that his real-life experience was consistent with that depicted in Flies and, we gather, irreducible to such labels. Notwithstanding this testimony, for better or worse, the literary critic must follow a path that attempts commentary in a way most readers will understand.

The thread that holds the volume together is the death of Dickman’s older brother, Darin, whose ethereal spirit always surpasses that of the flesh and blood family members also featured therein. Dickman, the ever-younger brother, again adopts the naive voice and perspective used in The End of the West, as opposed to one that might be tempted to rationalize and thereby gloss the terrible tragedy surrounding a brother’s death from a drug overdose. Thus, he approaches these difficult and ordinarily suppressed feelings from the viewpoint that inherently rejects “adult” or “sophisticated” conflations of the world and life. In their place he creates phantasmagoric figurations, but with decidedly lighter accents, unlike The End of the West, as if envisioning a better life of hope and happiness and thereby sublimating the nightmare. Because of the increasing sophistication of his composition, the naive persona gives way to a maturing perspective that we see progressing through the sequence of Flies. By thus liberating his internal pain Dickman finds a way to share his growth experience with readers. In the process he expands his representations of our shared mortality, the imperfection and fragility of life, family, and God, to those one might see created by the mind of Hieronymus Bosch in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat (whose art is depicted on the cover of the Flies).

We had a preview of these sentiments in the third section of “The End of the West” where the dead brother is literally portrayed as a “saint” on the order of Saint Francis of Assisi. In Flies, the saint has become superman in “Dead Brother Super Hero“:

He saved my brain
from its burning

He stopped and started the bullet in my heart
with his teeth

Just like that

He looked down from outerspace through all the clouds birds
 dropping like weights

He looked out
from the center of the earth
through the fire
he was


in the doorway
and closed his eyes
his cape sweeping
the floor

He needs superman because the world is a dangerous place, as he observes in “Be More Beautiful”:

Whatever it is I was made for I haven’t yet started

The morning makes its way up the street as a loose pack of wild dogs

Their invisible metal teeth

welcoming all the birds in the neighborhood

and me

The stars are wrong . . .

In “The Sea” the same sense of dread is communicated, even in this uncustomary (for Dickman) literary reference:

Prospero helps the dead Neruda over the weird dunes
covered with bees
and scrub grass

gingerly stepping


the hypodermics in the jellyfish

But the literary reference communicates, at least in part, how Dickman’s inner life in literature is a benevolent guiding force, just as Virgil guided Dante. Dickman clarifies this further in “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue

Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she
 took a shit every morning

or ever fucked anybody
or ever fucked

God’s poet
singing herself to sleep

You want these sort of things for people

Bodies and
the earth

the earth inside

Instead of white
nightgowns and terrifying

Here Dickman moves beyond the existential dilemma that imprisoned him in The End of the West. We sense that he is finding a way to live in the world and accept the cold realities of life:

Here she comes
her hands out in front of her
like a child flying
above its bed

Her ankles and wrists held tightly between the fingers of a brightly
 lit parent home from a party

Flying . . .

Heaven is everywhere
but there’s still
the world

The world is Cancer House Fires and Brain Death here in America

But I love the world

Emily Dickinson
to the rescue

I used to think we were bread
gentle work and water
We’re not

But we’re still beautiful

Killing each other as much as we can
beneath the

The pines
that are somebody’s

This poem represents a move toward psychological maturity that was absent from the The End of the West. The image of Emily being swung around by a parent is anticipated in the fourth section of “False Start” where Dickman’s brother is seen playing with his daughter:

At the end of one of the billion light-years of loneliness

My brother swims out into the ocean with his daughter holding hands
 and talking quietly

Flies drop into the water

His daughter was a fly for a while

Small and black and gleaming in the palm of his hand

He blew on her gently and she woke up

Some miracle

He swam out across the waves swinging her screaming above his head
 and looked like a father

The new daughter

Her new father

False Start” is filled with images of Dickman remaking his world (which is essentially the world composed of his family and friends) in a more positive image. The first and second sections treat the mother and father positively. The third section sees his mother and father reunited in a little red wagon, with Dickman: “Hauling them out of the underworld/The overworld/Dragging them out of their mansions of snow.” The final section has Dickman and his brother in a red boat:

The gods in their mansions are boarding up the windows

Time to move to a different neighborhood

We hold hands in the middle of the ocean and look just like a painting

His paint has now just started to chip away

He needs to be restored

Carefully, now

My brother

Dickman’s work here gains from the leitmotif use of “flies” in “False Start” and other poems in this volume. The classic symbol of mortality (see, cf., Damien Hirst’s works, A Thousand Years and Black Sun) is turned on its head here, where Dickman reinvents it as a benevolent force, at least until we read “Killing Flies.” The presence of the flies warps the visual field and classic symbolism with it, where flies are made to seem salutary and beautiful, and the gadfly, if you will, of Dickman’s poetic creation. So the mother feeding the flies like recalcitrant children, patiently doing a “good job,” evidences her control, a way of fending off the bad spirits. Respectively, the father training flies, whose brains are “the color of his brains” and who are “going to make him rich,” is a wish for his father’s deliverance: “When he sings and he never sings we will see wings and brains.”

I think Dickman appreciates that the lighter touch in Flies may threaten to place a gloss on reality, reducing the poetry. Yet he appears to draw a heightened sense of self-awareness from it as he demonstrates in “Shaving Your Father’s Face“: “I tell a dirty joke and drag the steel across the universe.” He has doubtlessly realized that everyone unconsciously alters reality as a means to escape it (cf. “The Motive for Metaphor” by Wallace Stevens), and he has decided to ride this pony (or fly) to see where it takes him.

There’s nothing better
than shaving your father’s face
except maybe

your mother’s legs

My bedside manner is impeccable

The white foam stays white

Dickman may be toying with us by deliberately shaving above the Oedipal complex, but there is wit and humor in this conceit. Notably, in “Shaving My Father’s Face,” the father is “a father/ from some city/ of fathers,” and thus, personal histories are swept aside so that a normal, non-dysfunctional relationship can be imagined (“It’s as if his chin is made of Christmas lights you have to shave the dust and family off it takes forever”). The “white foam stays white” because no blood is spilt. The shaving is a way of altering a viewpoint (“I’m shaving my brain”):

The universe wants a close shave
It wants its hair
and tight

You could bounce a dime off Dad’s skin

My hand
on you face can you
feel it.

While this may be territory previously covered by Stevens and many other poets, Dickman puts a nice spin on it with his own comic opera or, better, musical thriller à la Sweeney Todd–Next To Normal. Furthermore, although Dickman’s treatment lightens the mood of this volume, Flies still delves into more frightening aspects of the past, as in “All Saints” and “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Untitled.” A more complex discourse on faith occurs in the fourteen section poem, “Stations,” again demonstrating maturity in his approach to the subject matter.

Lastly, Dickman finds himself at the end of the mourning process with the final three poems, “Killing Flies,” “Above Love” and “Home,” which resolve the emotional turmoil and announce an apparent commitment to embrace life anew. In “Killing Flies” Dickman imagines a time when he is older than his brother, leaving the “toxic green” of the flies, thereby signaling this return to normality:

I will look
more and more like him
until I’m older
than he is

Then he’ll look more like me

if I was lost

The flies need to be killed as soon as we’re done eating this delicious meal they made

They serve us anything we want
in toxic green tuxedos

shit wings

My brother and I wipe our mouths
scrape our chairs back from the table
and stand up

These are the last things we’ll do together:

Eat dinner

Kill flies

Despite the difficulties of the roadway traveled in Flies, there is great sense of relief and repose in the ending of the volume, a true subsidence with genuine artistic merit.

What you want to remember
of the earth and
what you end up

The flies get stuck between the single-pane and the storm windows

Turning up the volume on everything

I could stay here for such a long time

And not go anywhere
not even with you
not even if you were
finally leaving

But your voice
there in front of me
where I am going
to live

The surrealist technique that Dickman employs in Flies works to his advantage, as he need not engage in the more difficult portraiture that realism demands; this allows the natural poet in him to work on intensifying emotional characterizations which are his strongest suit. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but all artists have weaknesses and strengths; it is the ability to play to strengths while stretching to improve weaknesses that shows the best side of an artist. Let me be clear, however, that Dickman’s work to the present is nowhere near investment grade, as he himself would readily admit. Unless you are committed to Dickman’s personal life and naïve persona, which tends to be uncomfortably sentimental at times, few poems in Flies are worthy of revisiting (though there are some); very few indeed spark with the kind of new life of original expression that one is accustomed to seeing in the best poetry. All one has to do is compare Dickman’s work with the early work of any of greats to see how short he falls. For starters, Dickman needs to step outside the claustrophobic world to which he confines himself in The End of the West and Flies. He has considerable talent, and I expect that he will fulfill it soon enough.

Accordingly, I reject comparing Dickman with other poets or writers (including his brother, Matthew), as much as those comparisons might burnish or tarnish his reputation. All such comparisons are ultimately worthless and invidious. Every poet must stand his own ground. Dickman has doubtlessly studied classic, modern and contemporary literature and can be assumed to have absorbed and rejected any prior model. Instead, the poetry feels like an evolution of the Austin sensibility depicted in Richard Linklater’s films (e.g., Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia and A Scanner Darkly), and the Northwest grunge rock of Dickman’s youth, the result being a passive aggressiveness that became the only bastion of defense for a number of white male artists who came to maturity at the turn of the 21st century. I do not say that these were his influences, albeit his connections with Austin and Portland are indisputable, only that his poetry has an affinity with the work of these other significant artists.

Michael Dickman’s poetry bites the hand that feeds it, but now a little less furtively than before. His poems are carpenter ants undermining the wooden foundation of the ubiquitous and never-ending television commercial that promises everything, just as the social and political forces have undermined his lost generation. What is important about Flies is Dickman’s maturing vision and his increasing control over technique. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see dramatic changes in his poetic expression in the coming years, and this could be very exciting for the poetry world.


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