Prose from Poetry Magazine

From Thought to Sneakered Feet

The weirdly elegaic in Michael Dickman's The End of the West.

by Dana Levin

The End of the West, by Michael Dickman.Copper Canyon Press. $15.00. 

Particularly among the younger poet set, it’s a moment of square books and prose blocks: lines streaming from margin to margin, often morphing mind / feeling / locale / subject / self as they flow, channel-surfing, flipping the dial, dazzled and weary, dazzling and wearying, driven on by engines of hope and worry: lines that well capture that feeling of brakes-off acceleration, inundation (desperate, terrifying, exhilarating), that characterizes so much of our age.

Under such conditions, heavy enjambment arrests me:

I’m not dead but I am
standing very still
in the backyard
staring up at the maple
thirty years ago
a tiny kid waiting on the ground
alone in heaven
in the world
in white sneakers

Admittedly, the narrative relayed above in Michael Dickman’s poem “We Did Not Make Ourselves” is fairly pedestrian, and word choice lacks the lexical exuberance that is another marker of our moment—but never mind: I could spend time with “I’m not dead but I am.”

For ultimately it’s the pace at which I am asked to move through this and all the narrative suites comprising Dickman’s debut collection, The End of the West, that so entices: Dickman (like a host of other white-spacers before and with him) invites me to participate in the construction of memory, of perception, in something that feels like real time; as the lines descend down the page, I literally drop down into experience: from thought (“I’m not dead but I am”) to sneakered feet.

Accrual is what is at work here, not the familiar roll of successive, loosely-connected impressions but the slow build of field and feeling. The field is well-trod: confessionalist in orientation, replete with bad daddies, sex, drugs, and God. But the stance is not that of victim or psychotherapeutic journeyer: it is that of Innocent, the Dumb Jack of fairytale, walking through a blastscape of “failed sex/bourbon and/chlorine,” where “scary parents//...filled holes/all afternoon/then we went to the movies.” The feeling is Dumb Jack too: sometimes it’s hard to tell where innocence ends and trauma-borne dissociation begins:

One way
is to sit very still
and count
your breath

Another way
is to stare out the window
until your mind
disappears

               —From
“Late Meditation”


Look at
Josh’s father—

Stumbling into the bedroom at three in the morning the two of us
asleep
               and all that moonlight
               and beat his son’s
               head against

the headboard


                                               
You fucker you fucker you asked for it


The moon

His jaw splashed across the pillowcase

               —From
“Some of the Men”

The “One way/Another way” construction, the instruction to “Look at/Josh’s father,” are but two examples of the “childlight everywhere” pervading the book. Its diction and syntax often suggest we are reading a primer or a child’s book of games, but, as the passage above illustrates, the “games” described are horrifically adult. No wonder the book begins “Make a list/of everything that’s/ever been//on fire.” The playing field involves sudden and often inexplicable threat and punishment, usually at the hands of fathers: “What you need to do/is join the Army, the Marines/something//You need to be taught a lesson,” one advises during a birthday lunch; even the “stitches/splitting open/in the air” above the speaker in the title poem concur: “You had this shit coming,” they say. “You’re going to be sorry.”

Contemporary poetry usually relays such narratives as that of “Josh’s father” with various combinations (and heat levels) of rage, wail, and woe, but the tone of The End of the West is primarily, and weirdly, elegiac. There’s no indictment or bitterness in these narratives of violence and dissolution; it’s as if their speakers mourn a lost, never-had tenderness between fathers and sons, between men in general, as much as personal wounds. There’s compassion and (dare I say it?) wisdom of spirit in much of the book, as in section two of “Scary Parents,” where Dickman writes: 

The shit-faced gods swam upstream inside them and
     threw wild parties
.........................................................................
wings

did not descend to wrap them up like babies

As promised

Still
there is a lot to pray to
on earth.

A lot of poets today seem shy of engaging the “family drama” lest things on the page get too confessional; I think this is dumb. We all have families; we all experience childhoods with varying degrees of magic and pain; parents are often sources (fruitful, wounding) of depth and complication: what is poetry for if not to introduce us, again and again, to human experience? Even so: while some may find the content of The End of the West old hat, delights of form are many. I would trade nothing for this funny escalation:

We did not make ourselves is one thing
I keep singing into my hands
while falling
asleep

for just a second

before I have to get up and turn on all the lights in the house, one
            after the other, like opening
            an Advent calendar

               —From “
We Did Not Make Ourselves”

The opening processional of meditative thought, the nod off into the stanza break (for just a second) before the leap out of bed, and the sort-of-spooked/sort-of-slap-stick socks-slipping-along-the-wood-floor-of-that-very-long-line that brings in the light: I’m not just thinking with the speaker of this poem, I am moving like him; the enjambments and the sudden line extension across the page teach me how. It’s been some time since I encountered a poetry that, rather than talk to me or think at me, asked me to try on its body. I like it.

Originally Published: October 1, 2009

COMMENTS (2)

On August 28, 2010 at 6:43pm Jeffery Bahr wrote:

There are hundreds of poets in my acquaintance who write better poetry than this, even accounting for the focus. These are worse than diary entries, they are surface treatments posing as revelations. And, yes, I sat in Borders and read as much of The End of the West as I could stomach. Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Why do we care what the New Yorker publishes? There's no money and not much glamor in what we do. There's nothing much at stake except excellence. So why not reward it and abate the slow spiral toward the harmlessly mediocre?

On November 5, 2010 at 9:18pm Terry Valentine (Amateur Poet) wrote:
Yes,

The Brothers Dickman is the perfect example that tiresome insider-ism poetry in America (nephews of Sharon Olds, etc.). After reading "The End of the West" I felt it was reified mediocrity itself. They are the Dane Cook's of the poetry world.

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2009

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Biography

Poet Dana Levin grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and earned a BA from Pitzer College and an MA from New York University. Levin’s collections of poetry include In the Surgical Theatre (1999), Wedding Day (2005), and Sky Burial (2011). Selecting Levin’s manuscript for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, Louise Glück praised the work as “sensuous, compassionate, violent, extravagant.” In the Surgical . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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