In September at Tweetspeak Poetry, I published a five-part series on the Beat Poets, that group which included Frank O’Hara, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and noted for their iconoclastic lives as much as their iconoclastic poetry. They flourished in the 1950s and 1960s (Ginsberg well beyond that) and helped shape the era we now simply call “the 1960s” (with its characteristic line of “if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there”).
I’ve found their poetic heirs: twin brothers, both published poets, living in Portland, Oregon: Michael Dickman and Matthew Dickman. Michael is the author of two poetry collections: Flies (2012), which I reviewed for The Master's Artist, and The End of the West (2013). Matthew has published All-American Poem (2008), which won the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize, and this year published a new collection, Mayakovsky’s Revolver.
I connect them to the Beats because their poems often flow like a poetry slam. One can easily envision a reading in a coffeehouse (although the “smoke-filled” rooms of the 1950s would not likely be found today, at least in the United States). And one could imagine the listeners nodding and snapping their fingers, just like they did with the Beats.
But there’s also more. And it’s apparent in Maykovsky’s Revolver. These are poems about tragedy, loss and memory, sometimes dark poems. One wants to say the Dickmans are too young to be writing authoritatively on loss, but the fact is they are not.
The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) – imprisoned three times by the czarist regime in Russia, he embraced Marxism and became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Disillusioned by how the party (and Russia) was developing under Stalin, he shot himself in 1930. His daughter disputed that account, however, believing his death was made to look like suicide.
Matthew and Michael Dickman’s older brother committed suicide. Both have written poems about his death, and Matthew has several in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, like this one:
Anything You Want
My living brother
is treating us to dinner. He opens the menu wide like a set of wings
across the table. Anything you want
he says. His voice warm
above the shining heaven of the silverware. The other one,
my dead brother, is sitting
in the dark in the graveyard, his back leaning back against his name.
I’m walking by with my favorite drug
inside me. He’s picking at a scab on his wrist.
He looks up, opens his arms
wide above the grass. Anything you want, he says. His body
to wash out, his voice slowly crawling back.
The first line tells you this is a poem about death, long before the grace is mentioned. A living brother implies a dead brother. The images of a set of wings (angels?) and a shining heaven suggest death as well. And then Dickman hits with the reality of his dead brother in the graveyard. His back hides his name; he is slipping deeper into memory. Even as he opens his arms, reaching out, his body is “washing out” and it is taking an effort to remember his voice (“slowly crawling back”).
A dark poem, yes, but also, oddly enough, a hopeful one. Back to that first line, “My living brother.” Despite his older brother’s suicide, life is still there, family is still there. There is brokenness, but there is still life.
In Mayakovsky’s Revolver, Matthew Dickman’s poems are often dark, and raw, sometimes brutally so.
They are also painfully honest, laying bare a soul.
Top photograph by Xoan Seoane via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.