Michael Dickman’s second collection of poetry, Flies, winner of the 2010 James Laughlin Award, is a fitting follow-up to The End of the West, retaining what made his stunning debut memorable and fresh, while extending and deepening the reach of its themes and content.
Also still present in Flies is Dickman’s arresting use of enjambment, lack of punctuation, stanzas rarely longer than three or four lines, and an obvious love of white space. Part of what makes Dickman’s syntactical and line breaking stylistic choices so interesting, and many times successful, is the way that they force the reader down the path of poem blindly, never knowing exactly what strange or surreal imagistic twist the poem will enact on its meaning next. In “Flies,” we get:
It’s my birthday again
for the last time
for a year
That enjambment over the second to third lines comes as a shock to the reader, implying, as it does, that the speaker won’t make it to their next birthday. The last two lines bring the reader back from the edge, and speak to the monotony of the birthday ritual, and yet the shortening of each successive gives the impression of something be choked, strangled or cut off, as if each year the possibility, the existence of mortality becomes more real.
These enjambment strategies also allow the speakers of poems to hold differing and sometimes contradictory viewpoints without any problem. Take, for example, “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” where our speaker tells us
Heaven is everywhere
but there’s still
the worldThe world is Cancer House Fires and Brain Death here in America
But I love the world
to the rescue (23).
In the space of seven lines the speaker offers opinions and feelings on enough topics to fill a much longer poem, or perhaps a memoir or two. The poem moves from a seemingly trite line about heaven that wouldn’t be out of place in Sunday school, to a survey of the reality of what the world is, ripped straight from the headlines, to the realization that the world’s ugliness, its duality, is what makes life complicated and rewarding, and finally to Emily Dickinson, Patron Saint of the Hermetic, whose presence in the poem is perhaps a veiled statement as to art’s importance in exploring and revealing Heaven and Earth’s mysteries. Dickman’s poems seem to always want to play both sides, which is part of their charm. Never content to simply take a position and pronounce truth from a single standpoint, their contradictions in content, as well as their confused physical space on the page speak instead to the truth of experience, its messiness and complexity, that can rarely be summed up into one category or another.
As Dickman notes in the acknowledgements, many of the poems in the collection were written in memory of his brother, and the poems clearly exhibit a speaker trying to come to terms with loss, trying to remind himself through the haze of grief that he and others that he loves are still with the living. Sometimes these reminders are expressed as celebratory, and sometimes as a burden. In “Flies,” we learn that “It’s time to drag the family out / so I’ll know I’m alive / and do // a little dance (53). For the speaker, it takes the appearance of family to assure him that he is indeed still alive. But this bringing out of the family has a bitter tinge to it, the family being brought out like old toys, like marionettes, like outdated reminders of a family life that perhaps doesn’t exist for the speaker anymore.
One of Dickman’s strengths is for the unexpected and sometimes grotesque image, and the narrator, the speaker in the collection – and it seems reasonable to attribute a consistent speaker for many of the poems – spends the collection creating this world of the fabulous from which to escape the terror and death of the real world. In this created world, “The flies pull back the top sheet and warm up my side of the bed / pushing my hair back out of my eyes,” and “The kitchen is full of flies / flies are doing / all the work” (54, 70). In this dream world the speaker can once again be with his brother and make him into a superhero as he does in “Dead Brother Superhero,” where,
He saved my brain
from its burning
buildingHe stopped and started the bullet in my heart
with his teeth
Just like that (5).
In this dream world, the speaker can “put on the mask that looks like my brother then I put on the / other mask that looks like my brother,” but can also take part in those everyday rituals that we take for granted until our loved ones are gone, as when the speaker tells us. “I sit down for dinner / with my brother / again // this is the last dream I ever want to have” (63, 70). So that when he tells us, “I love it here / and am never going / to leave,” its easy to see why (54).
But while Flies retains the shock and violence that was so striking in The End of the West, perhaps what stands out more, and what seems a sign of maturity, are the moves towards grace, or at least acceptance, that appear at the end of the collection. Though the speaker loves his dreams, and wishes never to leave, to do so would mean abandoning his life and the world. The final poem, “Home,” offers at its end a move towards a coming to terms:
I could stay here for such a long timeAnd not go anywhere
not even with you
not even if you were
But your voice
there in front of me
where I am going
to live (78).
Here, the speaker, seemingly ready to abandon the world, to stay in the surreal and the fabulous, even if the ghost of his brother moves on, instead chooses to live in something not surreal or dream-like or detached from the world, but something rather mundane, a voice, perhaps his brother’s voice, his memory, which will offer him the shelter and comfort of a home rather than the consuming world of shit and death offered by the flies.
Ultimately, the whole collection, its shifts between the shockingly real and the absurdly surreal, the moments of clarity and of thematic and structural confusion, is a means by the poet to strike a balance between honoring memory and living in reality. And this balance can be summed up best by a passage in the final poem, “What you want to remember / of the earth and / what you end up / remembering,” a mature reminder that life is indeed a balancing act of its best and worst parts, and that perhaps its up to the individual to decide which parts will rule the psyche (78).
About the reviewer:
Nick DePascal currently lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife and son, where he’s working towards his MFA in Poetry at the University of New Mexico. His poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Rattle, Rain Taxi, Tucson Weekly, Sugar House Review, Adobe Walls, and more.