Recently, The New Yorker (May 6, 2013) published Michael Dickman’s poem, “From the Canal.” It is a brilliant poem for its allusive symbolism, imagery, imaginative verve and the heightened sense of emotion that Dickman instills within in it. On the surface, the poem has a breathless delivery, a feeling of life’s immediacy, of an otherwise ineffable scene captured in pure images and feelings. It has a positively exhilarating mood, even in the face of its acknowledged complicity in the human instinct to thwart nature with artifice.
In the poem’s first section, the poet addresses someone or something unknown, whose incomprehensible vernacular is likened to a tree’s leaves or nature’s green growth, so Dickman begins in a pastoral lyric: “Small fistfuls/ of green light hang/ from your every/ word.” He parenthetically confesses, “An alphabet I can’t read,” before renewing the lyric, “Illiterate/ in sunlight.” This is an embraced illiteracy that promises mystery from which no rationalizations may flow. As punctuation is absent, Dickman relies upon his reader’s sensitivity to form and tone, and the succeeding prose line (as do all prose lines in the poem) becomes significant because it counteracts the lightness of the lyric. He observes “box turtles” stacked “like newly minted money.” We may not be able to translate nature’s vernacular, but hard currency is something we do understand, and the image is startling reminder of the other, more dominant, meaning of “green” in modern American life.
The joy of being in this moment draws an immediate inclination to impatiently alter it with synthetic substitutes, viz., drugs, as if nature’s spiritual presence (the one extolled by Romantics like Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats) could not possibly be enough for him, as if the experience must be transformed again and again. The poet’s mind travels from drugs to cherry blossoms to dogwoods and then a spray of flowers, each image and thought an effort to enhance and supersede the one before it. But the perfect communion with nature seems to require some self-sacrifice (“I would like to chop down my shoulders into flowers//A spray of flowers”), which is a contemporary twist on James Wright’s neoromantic apotheosis in “A Blessing” (“Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom”). Dickman trades on the earlier poem’s feelings of transcendence, not as a natural inclination to a more refined state of being, as Wright would have it, but as a form of imaginatively (if outlandishly) enhancing the reader’s sense of Dickman’s personal investment in the emotions being conveyed. Part of this recitation is performance art intended to get the reader as jazzed as Dickman seems to be.
In the poem’s second section, we are urged toward, if not to regard as a thing of worship, the preternatural blue heron that “looks back one million years from the muddy bank” and rises in a space-age “liftoff” through a “shower curtain/ of dragonflies and/ pollen.” Like Greta Garbo, the heron “wants to be alone,” but the symbol becomes more personal (and political) with the flat declaration, “It wants to stand on one leg forever,” which is then spun into a manic lyric: “And be a ballerina/ in curved space and/ a black crown.” The lyric schizophrenically evokes the mad comedy of the dream image while constructing an inviolable symbol of remote (and possibly banished) royalty. Perhaps the blue heron symbolizes the Dionysian spirit of man and nature, both of which are on the defensive in today’s world. The awe and ecstasy of the moment stops the world, “so still that I can’t breathe.” But then the ecstasy itself is interrupted by figurations of man’s dominance in the mise-en-scène (“The joggers pound the dirt and will never die”) where nature stands apart (“Fish asleep on the bottom/ Insects screaming in the trees”). These lines read as a matter of fact and may be taken variously, as positive or negative reflections on the state of nature, depending upon the reader’s bias. Yet we know that man and nature are symbiotically united; one cannot live without the other.
In the final section Dickman renews the pastoral lyric, “Gnats rise as one/white-feathered lung/and breathe” (in contrast to the poet’s breathlessness), but they have “nowhere to go” [to which we must empathically sigh]. The facetious fantasy of providing the gnats with a home (“Maybe they want to build a little city/inside my chest”) turns into a sardonic joke, with the human body serving at nature’s convenience (in the comic lyric, “Floor after floor/of air-conditioning/and glass”), turning the tables on the classical biblical formulation that presumes man’s dominance over nature and conjuring an ironic reminder that our bodies are indeed inhabited after death. Yet here man and nature appear to be deprived of unique and subsisting spiritual value. This is not Whitman’s “body electric,” but the dumb terminal. Dickman’s question (in prose): “Why do I keep waiting for something to change when I know that nothing will change?” ambiguously signals, on the one hand, exasperation and a frustrated desire for change, and on the other, an instinctive reassurance of nature’s permanency. The specter of the conflict between man and nature is called forth by this rhetorical question and sets the stage for the final pastoral lyric, “Light crumples/ against the hammered brass/ heads of the frogs” (a beautiful image, though physical light is rendered vulnerable to the [man-made] brass-headed frogs), which is immediately followed by a prose line describing two boys carrying a snake “like a live extension cord,” the latter image serving as a fitting symbol of the dynamic tension of the postlapsarian conflict, which man seems to be winning here, though victory threatens his ultimate destruction.
We have come to understand nature in terms of human, commercial and commoditized equivalencies, which must serve as a poor substitute for our inherent “illiteracy” about nature. We embrace the mystery and awe that nature inspires, but can only interpret it in terms of our daily existence; therefore, our response to it is perforce conflicted. While the poem is ultimately an exhilarating poetic effort, it also leaves us with a void, a feeling that we are missing something, that we have not mastered nature’s secrets and that our “waiting for something to change” may in fact be a clear indication of our restlessness in ignorance.
Since the Renaissance we have been entrenched in the struggle between scientific consciousness and spiritual imagination. In his review of Max Nicholson’s The Environmental Revolution Ted Hughes wrote in respect of the ecological crisis and the role of the poet:
The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his more progressively desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost. The basic myth of the ideal Westerner’s life is the Quest. The quest for a marriage in the soul or a physical reconquest. The lost life must be recaptured somehow. It is the story of spiritual romanticism and heroic technological progress. It is the story of decline. When something abandons Nature, or is abandoned by Nature, it has lost touch with its creator, and is called an evolutionary dead-end.
In “From the Canal,” the natural scheme of things, the pastoral refuge and the personal freedom that America once promised, the individual microcosm, and the magic and wonder of life itself, all are suspended in the poem’s balance. The human instinct to transform each natural aspect of flora and fauna into their synthetic new-age counterparts effectively alienates nature from its essential identity. While this is a classic modernist theme, it has specific applicability in the time of global warming and the contraction of America’s positive influence in the world. “From the Canal” is certainly a highly original work of art and one of Dickman’s finest poems.