Michael Schiavo on the Dickmans (mostly Matthew)
This is not Whitman containing multitudes that contradict nor New York School abstraction of logic or language. This is just a bad poet writing about a subject with which he has no connection.
Wow. This is, I believe, the most persuasive ultra-negative review I’ve ever read. I’m just floored by it.
Here’s another little snippet:
“In that they are a confidence game, yes, these poems are very American. But even then, Dickman lacks the invention to keep the dupe’s (reader’s) attention like a true bunko artist should. He bores you by the end of the first poem and by the end of the first section, you get the idea. Dickman admits his deceitful ways in an interview when he describes how he and his twin tried to scam Dorianne Laux to get into the University of Oregon: “‘We called her and pretended we wanted to apply to grad school,’ he said. ‘We met in her office and within 20 minutes, tops, she knew we were full of it. She could see we were kind of hustlers but we loved poetry.’” It’s one thing to love poetry; it’s another to be able to write it. The key word, though, is pretend: pretending to be interested in others, pretending to be poets.”
And then he turns to a larger, even more fascinating, point:
“I’ve spoken about the poetry, given numerous examples of how inadequate it is (you can open up to any page and find similar or worse passages), but you now ask: Why bring up the personal aspects of the poet? This is out of bounds. Should we not judge the poetry on its quality alone? Yes. And while it is our fervent wish that bad poetry will bury itself under the weight of it’s own practiced sincerity, we must have counter-voices to those who promote this kind of work, which is: simplistic argument delivered by a monotonous, inconsistent voice that gives no attention to the details of language, image, tone, or emotion.
And in this very particular case, we must talk about the personal, the how-the-book-came-to-be, for the Dickman twins have put their life story, not their poetry, front and center, have made that the reason you should find them interesting. I will say now that I have not read Michael Dickman’s first book, The End of the West, but I have read some of the poems it contains. Michael seems to know how to break a line and use the page better than his brother but what kind of praise is this? Like saying of a basketball player: “He sure knows how to dribble.”
You can’t stop a person from putting down his private thoughts in a notebook. But you can certainly discourage him from inflicting them on the public. Perhaps more galling than the fact that Matthew Dickman was encouraged with so much time and money to write such bad poetry is that Tony Hoagland—who judged the APR/Honickman contest and wrote the book’s introduction—and Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, and Major Jackson—who give the back cover blurbs—are all established poets who should recognize from the first few lines that Dickman’s poetry is not just incompetently crafted but is juvenile in all other respects as well. Really: these are people who teach PhD students at the University of Houston, edit poetry at the Harvard Review, and instruct undergraduate and graduate poetry students at the University of Vermont, Bennington, North Carolina State, Warren Wilson, Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, and NYU.
Poetry progresses on the master-apprentice relationship, on finding contemporaries with whom you have rapport, as all arts do and should. Master artists see in apprentices the gift to advance the craft and they help them to do this through their own instruction as well as their advocacy to entities, both public and private, that support artists who will contribute to their field.”
So here's a voice from the other side of the argument, from Major Jackson in The Boston Review, followed by one of Dickman's poems, selected, I suppose, by Jackson.
Matthew Dickman’s melancholic portraits of impoverished white teenagers dazzle me into the always painful, yet easily forgettable, awareness that many people suffer psychically under the knife of American prosperity. Outside the frame of these poems lurk the children of female-headed homes; parents who work two or more jobs; teenage moms who live in “Drug-Free Zones” and “Urban Renewal Zones,” unkempt neighborhoods whose parks are normally full of drugs; teen addicts slumping toward oblivion; and fathers for whom the closest thing to therapy is domestic abuse. The anger of dejected youth is almost always a cliché) in art, and in mainstream culture that anger among the ruins and squalor is usually black and/or Latino. Matthew Dickman hails from a neighborhood called Lents, a largely white underclass suburb in Southeast Portland, Oregon. He knows something about the sorrow of this world, its call for a kind of toughness of spirit and a sensitivity that must go underground if one is to survive and, more importantly here, the violence that such poverty recreates and echoes in the lives of the dispossessed. His authority is that of the native, unwavering and resolute. But it is his artfulness and large spirit, telescoping without sentimentality the single outlook of a speaker who has escaped such conditions and now looks back, as bluesy as such projects go, that gives his poems a universality of feeling, an expressive lyricism of reflection, and heartrending allure.
When the dogs in my neighborhood go wild
over the patrol car’s red and blue scream, the lights hitting
someone’s window like electric tickertape
and I know some of those dogs are biters
because I was someone they bit,
I begin to think about the lives of men
and how we carry the heavy load of muscle, the rumble and ruckus,
without a single complaint
while vulnerability barely lifts its face from the newspaper.
But I’ve been drinking. I’m a little messed up
and there’s something about cigars and bourbon I no longer want
to be a part of. I remember how Kate would slip out
of her jeans, her bra. How she appled my body;
all that sweet skin and core, the full mouth and pulp.
She was like a country song
playing underneath an Egyptian cotton sheet, the easy kindness
of her body finding its way into mine.
But I have a father somewhere. I have a way
I’m supposed to walk down the street like a violent decision
that hasn’t been made yet.
I don’t care how many hours you put in
weeding the garden
or how much you love modern dance. You’ll still slip back
into your knuckles.
You can carry your groceries home in your public radio tote bag.
You can organize a book club.
You can date an Indonesian hippie with dread-locks
but you are never far from breaking someone’s jaw.
When I was twenty-three I went to a party,
drank two Coronas, and slapped my girlfriend across the face.
I wanted someone to beat me.
I wanted to get thrown into the traffic
I had made of my life,
to go flying over the couch
where two skater kids were smoking pot out of a Pepsi can
and talking about a friend
who ollied over a parked car the same day he got stabbed
at the mall.