Essay

Faith No More

In his new book, Matthew Dickman confronts a world in which God is everywhere and nowhere.
Image of the poet Matthew Dickman.

In 2000, when he was 47 years old, the poet Franz Wright became involved in the Catholic Church after years of addiction and mental illness left him in a “state of real despair.” As he told Image journal in 2006, “It was clear that for my entire life, I had felt absolutely terrified of other people and did everything possible to isolate myself. … I lived in sinister places and surroundings, sometimes doing illegal things to survive, sometimes being homeless.” The handful of people who attended weekday Mass with Wright offered him a “new sense of unqualified acceptance,” he said, “and [their] love was the most moving experience of [his] life.”

Wright’s post-conversion poems are hopeful without being sentimental. In “Entries of the Cell,” from 2010, his narrator studies a crucifix and offers a lamentation:

Even now, after ten years of more or less failing to act like a
believer, no more capable of maintaining a literal sense of Your
presence than I am of staring directly into the sun—even now
You have not forsaken me.

Wright’s words are a rejoinder to the opening line of Psalm 22, reflecting Christ’s final words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew Dickman’s new book, Wonderland, is full of characters who feel forsaken by God. Much of this new collection—Dickman’s fourth—takes place in Catholic school, where God and Christ are as physical as the poet’s bullied body but are rarely sources of comfort. To the contrary, God is a source of dissonance in Dickman’s poetry. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Dickman was an Episcopalian in a Catholic world, and although he plunders the rituals and ceremonies of Catholicism, he clearly feels distant from that religion. Wonderland suggests that Dickman is not just a spiritual poet, or a devotional one in the mold of Wright, but a poet whose worldview, language, and themes are rooted in the pageantry of the Catholic Church. He represents a tendency in contemporary Catholic poetry—also evident in the work of Natalie Diaz, Patricia Lockwood, and C. Dale Young, for example—to drop doctrinal adherence while retaining a fascination with symbolism. His work occupies a middle ground in which Catholicism is meaningful yet still evokes pessimism, conflict, and doubt.

In a 2015 interview in Granta, the poet Barbara Ras asks Dickman, “Do you think our religious roots dig so deep they become ghosts we can’t shake off?” Dickman replies, “My personhood is in a great part defined by religion…and so my poems are too.” He goes on to explain that “you have to swim through a bunch of blood” to attain whatever is healthy in life, which includes, according to him, “ideas about transformation, forgiveness, empathy, wonder, metaphor…”

This tension between faith and doctrine, theology and dogma, acceptance and rejection is endemic among contemporary poets of religion, particularly those of a Catholic orientation. These poets play with Catholic references, imagery, and language but forgo devotion to the church. In the work of Anthony Carelli, for example, God is abandoned, but narrators still grieve their lost faith. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” from Carelli’s 2011 collection Carnations, two boyhood friends hurl frogs while standing in a creek. They see themselves as sinners but are nevertheless redeemed: “how we are cruel, inscrutable, indefensible, / yet holy.”

Wright, by contrast, is more devotional. In poems such as “Reparations,” readers get the sense that Wright feels unworthy and that an acceptance of being lost is inextricable from his larger search for meaning. “The forgiveness! I know it / will be freely offered / or it won’t, and that is all— / and no one may bestow it / on himself.” Exasperated, he ends the poem with a plea: “Let the heart be moved again.” Dickman’s narrators sometimes feel equally unworthy of divine attention. God is not dead in Dickman’s world, but God is gone.

Ever since Dickman’s first collection, All-American Poem (2008), his narrators have been both drawn to—and disappointed by—God. In “Self-Portrait with Sadness, Wild Turkey, and Denis Johnson,” from All-American, the wry narrator tells of a congregation saddened “because a man they loved, a man who lived / two thousand years ago, died while his mother stood below him in a blue / winter coat and trembled.” His irreverence stumbles on the terse stanza that follows: “I wanted to be a priest when I was twelve.” Back then, the narrator says, “St. Francis spoke to me on the playground.” The saint told the boy, “This is the long and short road, the long arms of puberty, / and at the end of it / the wild fists of the Holy Ghost / holding you up by the short hairs.”

St. Francis returns in Wonderland to deliver imperfect comfort, as in “Saint Francis and the Pine Tree.” The young narrator says, “Before they beat me I knelt down / beneath the pine tree // and lowered / my head and placed my hands // in front of me like two plates.” The flippant tone of “Self-Portrait with Sadness …” is here replaced by one that’s more contemplative: “I thought / of Saint Francis and how he forgave // everyone and was poor / like me though he could have been rich.” The narrator drifts fully into prayer and thinks about how Francis “was kept alive by love.” But while the narrator smells the pine trees around him and recites an improvised prayer, a skateboard slams into his face.

A simple reading begs the question: wouldn’t a merciful God have spared this boy from injury? Although Dickman’s poems suggest that God has forsaken his narrators, that’s not the same as thinking God doesn’t exist at all. Shaken and bloodied, the boy looks up at the pine tree “and it seemed like a father / looking down on me the way fathers do // though the arms moved like a mother.” He’s beaten, but he’s not alone, and he’s protected either by the tree or by dumb luck because the other boys grow distracted and leave.

The narrator says that he stood “in my rugged robe of blue jeans and T-shirt, / and hugged the tree, and kissed it.” St. Francis becomes his patron and guide but as a preternatural force rather than a dogmatic one. The next summer, the narrator continues, “I felt God walk away / and chose my cock over sainthood.” In Dickman’s poetry, spirituality mixes with more earthly concerns, including sex. Because he’s not a Catholic in practice, perhaps he feels freer to appropriate Catholic ritual and symbolism for coarser purposes. And he usually does so earnestly, not in parody. Still, I would call Dickman a Catholic poet but not in practice à la Wright or Mary Karr, for whom faith, however irreverent, is ultimately salvific. Rather, Dickman’s poetry is Catholic in culture, allusion, and atmosphere. In his poetry, God is both everywhere and nothing.

In “The Order of Things,” from Wonderland, a second grader in a Catholic school experiences the sting of God’s abandonment. The young narrator hides in the bathroom, “swinging / from the bar above the door to the whitewashed stall” until a nun drags him out and leads him to seek penance “before each of my teachers,” as if he were “following the Stations of the Cross.” He’s not the only young sinner forced to testify. There is one “at each station”: a girl “who’d been forced / to stand the whole day / over the spot where she peed / in the library.” Another boy is “marched through the mall, past the food court and arcade” while wearing a sign that reads “I wet the bed.” The poem’s narrator laments that “no one tried to stop it.”

A similar sense of God’s abandonment runs through Miscreants, by James Hoch, published in 2007. Hoch’s boys live in southern New Jersey, near Philadelphia, in a Catholic world disfigured by suffering. It’s a place where a boy experiences “the wild misery / of not being able to be anyone but himself.” Boys take their own lives in Hoch’s world. In “Sound of a Body Falling Off a Bridge,” a boy silently drifts off Normanwood Bridge toward his death in the Susquehanna River. The narrator can’t find a “word for this / in any language.” The boys plunge to their deaths unremarked, and it’s the poet’s task to memorialize them:

You’ll have to trust the words
for the way his face twitched, went
stone-white, for how unbeautiful
his body comprehended night,
for a breath not taken, for the arrested
air in his lungs. For anything else,
you’ll need something like a life, or memory.

Dickman’s older half-brother, Darin Hull, committed suicide in 2006. The poet eulogizes him in Mayakovsky’s Revolver, the most secular of his books, published in 2012. The absence of faith in that book makes sense. Dickman’s characters feel no divine presence anymore. In the poem “Dark,” the narrator thinks of broken boys:

[I] can’t imagine how broken he is,
or how ruined
walking home under the heavy oak trees, or how he’ll figure it out—
walking off a roof, stepping up into the closet,
sliding a paring knife over his smooth arm.

That elegiac space—boys broken, aimless, numb—is what unites Hoch and Dickman. “Antarctica,” from Miscreants, could have been written by either poet. The similarity suggests that both men are pursuing the same question: what fills the void left by God? The poem begins with boys kneeling in a dugout: “[We] leaned our heads back, / eyes twitching gone, and popped nitrous // canisters into the communion shapes / of our mouths.” (Before Vatican II in the 1960s, when the Catholic Church reconsidered its role in the modern world, Catholics received communion directly on the tongue while kneeling.) Afterward, the boys in the dugout experience a spiritual transformation and “slipped inside where everything seemed to be falling snow.”

Hoch, like Dickman, specializes in forgotten boys. The same adventurous mischief that leads the former’s characters “to break an arm latching on / to the bumper of an Impala” also drives them to drugs:

Like this
you said, sliding a needle, watching
dope plunge, the body’s rush and tow
until you felt something like an angel
hovering above, but it was only pigeon
feathers deviling the air.

Of course, the boys’ drug use ends tragically: “some dead, dying, locked up // or jailed in themselves.” When Hoch’s narrator now sees boys “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” he remembers that his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” The desire to quiet our bodies is also a desire to be still. Bodies are never enough, Hoch writes in the disquieting, 22-part “Bobby Almand,” the centerpiece poem of Miscreants: “Somehow the body keeps us / looking beyond form, keeps us // marveling over its hollows.”

Dickman’s debut appeared months after Miscreants and shares with it a kind of hard-edged religiosity. Poverty is part of the texture of life, as in the poem “Lents District,” named after the neighborhood in southeast Portland in which Dickman grew up. It’s a breathless litany of childhood fights, drinking, smoking, and the rise of “shaved heads / and combat boots.” Halfway through the poem, the narrator admits, “Lents, I have been away so long / I imagine that you’re a musical,” a quip that exaggerates both the violence and euphoria of his hometown. By poem’s end, though, the narrator seems thankful: “I am your strange son, / you saved me when I needed saving.”

That grace note returns in “Grief,” also from All-American Poem. When grief arrives, personified as a “purple gorilla,” the narrator explains that you must offer her some dinner, pay her attention, and “make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed.” He continues, “I am not afraid. She has been here before / and now I can recognize her gait / as she approaches the house.” There’s a conversational, even confessional quality to his long, lone stanza:

We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,
crying in the checkout line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.

Grief puts her purple arms around the narrator, and he wonders if it’s a romantic gesture. But as she recites the names of the living and the dead, he becomes “aware of each syllable, each vowel / wrapping around the bones like new muscle.”

Wonderland grafts the vague but moving spirituality of Dickman’s early poems onto his Catholic youth. In the book’s first poem, “Teenage Riot,” boys skate, drink, and drift across town, “flipping off cops and skinheads” in equal measure. Their bodies are nearly formless, “wind cutting” around them when they “flew / off the lip of a ramp.” They join into a loose brotherhood, aware that “the only way to run / through the neighborhood // was to run through it / together.” When one of the boys is jumped, a friend stabs the perpetrator, and “[t]he man, startled, sat down, right there on the asphalt, / right in the middle of his new consciousness, / kind of looking around.”

That transfiguration is followed by “Transubstantiation,” a poem whose young narrator is sick at home. He’s feverish, so his mother takes him to the store to buy a popsicle.

We are holding hands, standing in
front of the big automatic doors
which silently swing open
so we can
walk in together, so we can
step out of the heat and step
into a world of fluorescent light and cool, cool air.

The only communion here is that between mother and son, and the transubstantiation, if that’s what it should be called, is a miraculous metamorphosis of air. A mysterious man, perhaps the mother’s ex, places his arms around her shoulders and then encircles her neck. She lets go of her son’s hand. The man yells and cries. The mother does too. “Everyone is / standing so still,” the boy says. Meanwhile, the air conditioner’s constant shhhhhhhhhh fills the newly transformed space.

By introducing Catholic language and sentiment into mundane, secular settings—a grocery store, in this case—Dickman enacts his own transubstantiation. Something similar happens in “Minor Threat,” a poem that recalls Gerard Manley Hopkins’s God-haunted naturalism. In the middle of a Portland street, a maple stands witness to random violence and petty grievances:

its leaves making the wind into a body that flies down the street
and scatters in the rustling front yards,
the roots
under us all, moving like medicine in the woody
dirt.

The maple transcends the “queasy Southeast Portland light,” which seems a transubstantiation of sorts, however modest.

In one of the book’s five poems titled “Wonderland,” the parents of the narrator’s friend scream at each other during an argument. “Caleb will go into the house / and find his mom in the weird dark // of his parents’ bedroom / where he will kiss her busted lip, crawl // onto the bed and hold her,” the narrator says. Suffering is a refrain in Wonderland, and it repeatedly engulfs mothers and sons. In “Minimum Wage,” mother and son “are on the front porch lighting each other’s cigarettes / as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs / at being a mother and son.” In “Bad Love,” the narrator feels “like / a mom” because of how intensely he loves his sister, although it’s a damaged love. He says, “I’m thinking let it be like this forever, let her cry and cry, / let her struggle / if it means / I get to hold / her.” These relationships, though flawed and fractured, indicate that even amid suffering and God’s insufficiency, grace can prevail.

The Catholic boys in Wonderland look toward God, but when divinity fails, they turn to the bodies around them. It’s as if Dickman shunts the spirit of Catholicism—communion with others for a greater good—into a world in which God is gone. In “Lost Boys,” the narrator is “always / sixteen, moody and stealing cigarettes” as he prowls his old childhood neighborhood. He’s in Lents, familiar stomping ground for Dickman’s characters, where the corner is plagued by “boys who were born here, death tucked away // in their hands.” But the narrator is no longer a boy, although he still feels rootless: “I’m not getting beat up. I’m not high, / not really. / I’m just walking around // looking up at a sky that looks like a closet.”

Like Carelli and Hoch, Dickman writes of characters who long to feel something and often ransack the language of Catholicism to do so. In “Walking the Dogs,” the narrator thinks “we are // all alright, the thing that is not God whispers to me, you are / not alone.” Why isn’t it God, though, and why do Dickman’s narrators distrust transcendence? His poetry suggests that faith is no guarantee of safety or happiness, even when his forsaken boys pray devoutly. In “Sidewalk,” the narrator remakes the world into instances of divinity. He tells himself that he’s “Brave enough for the dark / if there’s a cross in it, a telephone pole, / or a weirdly shaped tree.” Wonderland offers a contemporary Catholic vision of the world—a vision that is world-weary and sometimes pessimistic yet longs to discover meaning beyond the suffering of everyday life.

The book is also a testament to the permanent mark of faith. In the end, Dickman’s sentiment that God is out there, even if he is silent, is not so far removed from Wright, who, in “Rosary,” offers this coda: “Mother of space, / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” In Dickman’s work, God is everywhere and nowhere at once, a riddle matched only by the profound enigma of faith itself.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2018

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor at The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Sewanee Review.