Michael Dickman, Green Migraine
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press
2016, 75 pages, paperback, $16
MICHAEL DICKMAN’S WORK doesn’t follow the conventions proliferated amongst modern poetry. While much of contemporary poetry is written in stichs—poems of symmetrical lineation and meter, not broken into stanzas—Dickman’s poems are vast and austere, somewhat sparse, but somehow expansive. In contrast to techniques typical of today’s verse, Dickman’s poems are composed of inconsistent stanzaic patterns, unconventional linebreaks, strikingly incongruent lineation, heavy use of white space, and almost entirely no punctuation; all of which compliment his disjointed, highly associative content. This erratic form, coupled with Dickman’s reluctance of explicit statement and his constant leaping between seemingly unrelated imagery, allows ambiguity—the range of possibility, not vagueness—to flourish. Although poets before him have employed similar techniques—W.S. Merwin, Jorie Graham, and Franz Wright come to mind—Dickman redefines these techniques by pushing them to their absolute extremes, finding an exciting new place for poetry.
Looking at “Nervous System,” the first poem from his debut collection, The End of the West, it is obvious that something thrillingly different is occurring,
I wish I could look down past the burning chandelier inside
where the language begins
In his new collection, Green Migraine, Dickman has refined his tools and moved into a more mature subject matter. Gone is the cheap humor of Emily Dickinson taking a shit and lackluster profundity like “We Did Not Make Ourselves.” Thematically, rather than exploring violence and his childhood, Dickman’s new poems emphasize two themes: parenting, through a joyous anxiety; and the natural word, primarily though animal imagery.
“Bee Sting,” the first poem in Green Migraine, blends these two themes. The poem begins tenderly with the one line stanza, “Crying in the cosmos that doesn’t sound like you.” Dickman immediately narrows the focus from the distant interstellar to the intimately physical, opening the following tercet, “Crying in our arms.” He then integrates these distinct revelations, closing the tercet with “in the cosmos in our / arms.” But before readers are able to resolve these lines, Dickman leaps further into unrelated imagery,
Missile static and afterburn in the petals
A child’s drawing
The poems’ surface-level obfuscation works to evoke within readers the same emotional intensity, the same distressed apprehension, and the same jubilant wonder of his speakers. “Bee Sting” continues,
Some riddle from before we were born that sounds like a
river and spreads on toast
from flower to
The first needle
The honey in the pot
The poem is convoluted, but Dickman is inviting this confusion. The duality of imagery evokes the honest, but often unspoken mixed emotions people have when becoming parents. Images such as “Crying in our arms,” “honey in the pot,” and pollination suggest fertility and nurture, while the contrasting images of missiles and bee stingers suggest the apprehension and concern.
In a recent episode of The New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast, Dickman described John Clare, the 19th-century English pastoral poet, as “a poet I’m obsessed with.” Clare’s vivid poems illustrating rural England are so comprehensively detailed, ornithologists refer to his work as field guide. Clare’s influence has been so immense that it is difficult to discuss nature poetry without discussing John Clare—for Dickman, it is difficult to discuss the natural world without discussing John Clare. These new poems brim Clare’s influence and often memorializes him, depicting his presence as ubiquitous throughout the natural world. In “Lullaby,” a long poem written for his newborn son, Dickman enthusiastically imparts his fascination,
Animals are here
and night and day and noises
are here and wolves
Trees are here and John Clare is here
In “John Clare,” an epistle directed toward Clare, Dickman acknowledges his own distance from nature. Dickman begins with an informal tone reminiscent—not of Clare—but of his own twin brother, the alluring poet Matthew Dickman, and his conversational and hyper-pop-culture referential work,
Now I remember
I wanted to talk to you
between your Selected Poems
and the punk rock music
playing on the radio
This opening stanza admits Dickman’s own obsession with artifice, as absent from this list of things Dickman could think to talk to Clare about are elements of the natural world. Although Dickman directs this poem toward Clare, his subject matter and use of apostrophe are more inclusive, allowing the reader—who in epistolary poetics always a voyeur—to participate as interlocutor. When Dickman asks, “Do you know what it’s like here?” he isn’t being rhetorical, nor is he speaking to Clare. Instead he’s talking to the reader, indicting contemporary society’s obsession with the artificial.
Dickman recognizes in youthfulness an intimacy with nature. In a surreal scene depicting adolescent skateboarders and cattle, Dickman integrates the artificial habitats of man with the natural habitat of animals,
Children play in the past
in pastures and now I remember
7-Eleven parking lots
Cows move through the fields to the fence and won’t move
Dickman has always been a bit of a nature poet, but now he seems to be trending toward ecopoetry. While there are ecological subtexts—such as a critique of urbanization depicted by the merging of pastures and parking lots, as well as a critique against how man confines animals—the strongest sentiment is a longing for an intimate relationship with nature.
In the third section, Dickman depicts the aforementioned skateboarders seeking such a relationship,
The boys ollie over the dogs
in their dreams
some of the boys
kiss them on the mouth
Dickman’s first two collections garnered him quite a bit of attention. However, the thesis of much of this discussion was more concerned with the anomaly of Dickman and his identical twin brother both being poets. While both being considered promising young writers, this discussion is detracting, implying their notoriety stems from being siblings, not being talented. With Green Migraine, Dickman has separated himself from this conversation, and it appears that, in due time, he will be amongst the most important contemporary American poets—if he isn’t already.
Born in Portland, Oregon, poet Michael Dickman grew up with his mother and twin brother, poet Matthew Dickman, in Lents, a suburb of Portland. He earned a BA at the University of Oregon and an MFA at the University of Texas-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. Dickman’s elegiac free verse poems explore the difficult, often violent spectacle of personal memory; voice, in Dickman’s work, is a character unto itself, at once hopeful and spare, speculative and warped. As Rebecca Mead noted in her 2009 New Yorker profile of the Dickman twins, “Michael’s poems are interior, fragmentary, and austere, often stripped down to single-word lines; they seethe with incipient violence.” Dickman’s poetry collections include The End of the West (2009) and Flies (2011), which won the Academy of American Poets’s James Laughlin Award. A former Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, Dickman won the 2008 Narrative Prize and has received residencies and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He lives in Portland, Oregon.