All American Poem, Matthew Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2008
When the buzz that Pink Floyd’s new album, The Wall, was to be released in the spring or so of 1980, I couldn’t stand the wait. The anticipation drove me crazy. I was fifteen years old and had hair down to my knees. I waited for what it seemed years, and then, finally, the double album hit the shelves. I ran to Crazy Eddie’s, a record store in Westchester County, and laid down my seven dollars for the double vinyl set. When I got home, I ran upstairs, ripped the plastic wrap off the record, locked my door, and proceeded to drain the life out of the those four sides of vinyl over the next three days. I listened obsessively headphones on, horizontal on my blue rug. I read and re-read every linear note, every lyric, and each piece of language on the inside and out of the record jacket until I was sure I knew everything about the making of the record and every note of the music. I almost didn’t eat.
This experience was not new or exclusive to the Pink Floyd opus. I had it with The Rolling Stone’s Some Girls, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and countless other records of my youth. It was an engagement with art that was like sex before I knew what sex was. This kind of listening, this desire to bond with the music was a desire to be inside it. And in doing so, everyone of those records delivered.
Matthew Dickman’s first book of poetry, All-American Poem, delivers the way those LPs delivered. It is a great book of poetry, one of the great first books of poetry to arrive in the last ten years. Dickman’s poetry will be compared to Whitman’s, O’Hara’s, Stern’s and Koch’s. His poetic voice is full of singular magic, Dickman magic. It’s a poetry so good, I can’t stand it. This is the kind of poetry that makes other poets want to write better; it makes me want to write better, be a better poet, and sometimes a trapeze artist. There is a messy freedom in his language, the kind of mess that you might find if you walked into an art room created exclusively for four year olds. Yet, it all makes sense in the way the Buddha makes sense or a garden full of nightingales and daffodils make sense. That’s what you want in poetry, if you are a reader of verse and you are trying to get in touch with your mind and your body all at once—a beautiful mess. Matthew Dickman’s poetry is such a gift. The work is full of love and strain, tenderness and light, and extraordinary intimacy as can be seen in the first nineteen lines of Slow Dance:
More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dinning room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance.
Dickman has the beautiful ability to make me feel like I am in my body while I am reading his words. The poetry makes me feel like there is a body that is my own, a body that is my own but ultimately belongs to the world. In one moment you are reading about his body, his love and whiskey and neighborhood, and the next minute he’s talking about Jack Gilbert or Valentin Silvestrov or Peter Parker. This poetry slips between membranes of experience and always at the center is a big, beating heart that won’t stop, that won’t shut up it’s so beautiful. What’s beautiful is this:
Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills
to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter
hung in the Tahitian bedroom
of her mother’s house,
while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes
you can look at the clouds or the trees
and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.
The performance artist Kathy Change
set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves
out of the music industry forever.
I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French
philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped
from an apartment window into the world
and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead
roles, leaped off the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign
when everything looked black and white
and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway
put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho
while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree
and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened
thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body
until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like
the way geese sound above the river. I like
the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful. (Trouble)
I give you these long quotes, because Dickman’s poetry is about breadth. His cadence is as much a part of his form as his formlessness as there is a kind of capricious chaos neither capricious nor chaotic. The language is a music, and one has to understand that when you jump into the poems they will take you places you could have never imagined but which feel altogether familiar.
I will say it again—Dickman’s language is music: parts rock, pop, soul, classical and jazz. It’s the best of America. And I tell you this, I could not believe that he was able to sustain it, the voice and music, in the nine pages of the title poem; he does. The poem is a tour de force that had me, partly out of jealousy, envy, desire and love, comparing it to Ginsberg, Hughes, Whitman, Hoagland and, then, back to Ginsberg. But it is none of these poets; this is all Dickman surprising and somersaulting and making love with and to every piece of language at his disposable. All American Poem is fierce, here is what you are in for:
I want to peel off a hundred dollar bill
and slap it down on the counter.
You can pick out a dress. I’ll pick out a tie: polka dots
spinning like disco balls. Darling let’s go
two-stepping in the sawdust at the Broken Spoke.
Let’s live downtown and go clubbing.
God save hip-hop and famous mixed drinks.
Let’s live in a cardboard box. Let’s live
in a loft above Chelsea, barely human, talking about
the newest collection of Elizabeth Peyton,
her brilliant strokes, the wine and cheese.
You can go from one state to another and never
paint the same thing twice. In New Mexico
we could live by a creek and hang our laundry
on the line. Let’s get naked in the cold waters of Michigan.
Let’s get hitched in Nevada. Just you, me and Elvis.
This is beginning just keeps on burning the pages up. You turn one page, it burns up, and leads you to next. And again and again and again. Fire.
I have read the poems in All-American Poem three, four, maybe five times. I have read this book like I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 27 years ago. I have read these poems and the linear notes and blurbs and acknowledgements and notes on type over and over again so I could become as close to this text as humanly possible. I have spent hours with All-American Poem and I have destroyed it to the point where it is now part of my being. All-American Poem is not a book that you read the way Exile On Main Street is not an album that you merely listen to. You have an experience with it—with this voice, with these poems, with Matthew Dickman’s music and spirit—and then you run like hell, away from it, so you can tell the rest of the world as quickly as possible.