Flies (Lannan Literary Selections)
Copper Canyon Press, 2011
96 pp., $16.00
If there's anything that the onset (or is it an onslaught?) of e-books should teach us, it's that books themselves matter. For the most part, if the publishing industry crashes, I say they deserve it for keeping the public trust so poorly.
Case in point: the publication of Michael Dickman's new book of poems Flies , recently out from Copper Canyon Press, is one of the major events of the year for people who care about poetry. His first book, The End of the West, was the bestselling debut in the long history of that press, and if it was filled with a sagacious quietness that suggested an author twice Dickman's age, it was also filled with promise. Many of us reacted with a compound clause: that's amazing; I can't wait to see what he does next.
Part of that feeling comes from the fragility of Dickman's lines. His verses seem weightless at the same time that they feel enormous and heavy. That's not a hyperbolic contradiction: think of a blue whale and you have it—this slow, gigantic force. Or, picture the cover of that first book: a photograph by Ralph Eugene Meatyard (Untitled, 1960) depicting a hanging victim, who, due to the camera's trick and limit, seems to float, or even to fly up off the page, when he should be dropping.
The cover of Dickman's new book has a painting from Jean-Michel Basquiat (Untitled, 1982), who is getting a lot of attention these days because he was a terrific painter who died young and tragically, and because he hung around with rock stars. It's pretty perfect, actually, because the painting is a childish outline of a wolf-man, whose skeleton is visible and who is wearing a crown, which is a fitting image for Dickman's older brother, who committed suicide and who is eulogized—indeed crowned—here, as in The End of the West. (Dickman also has a twin brother, Matthew, who is a poet as well.)
Only it isn't perfect. The printer must've had some kind of registration problem, because (on my copy, at least) the graphic is a quarter of an inch too far to the left, so it crosses the spine awkwardly. The same error seems to have occurred on the rear: the left margin is a half inch; the right is a quarter.
Besides that, it is a paperback and only available that way. And not one of the cool waxy paperbacks, or the matte, used with such terrific effect in the new classics from Penguin, but the flimsy, glossy variety that attracts fingerprints and feels old after the first reading.
The poet Ben Lerner is also on Copper Canyon's roster and another young heavyweight. His first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, was reviewed widely to unanimous praise, and his second, Angle of Yaw (among the smartest poetry books this reviewer has ever seen), was a finalist for the National Book Award. And then the third one came out in the same flimsy magazine style, and on the cheapest paper. It might as well have been held together with staples.
I can't tell you how disheartening this is for a poet. We generally expect that publishers aren't going to splurge on our first volume. No matter that we've spent sometimes decades perfecting the content; we figure the first one will be a cheap paperback, but if, after a nomination for the National Book Award, we can't expect a decent object, something we can give to our children, or to our spouse's parents that will convey the seriousness of our vocation, what hope?
It needn't be this way. Wave Books, another publisher in the Pacific Northwest (Copper Canyon is based in Port Townsend, Wave Books in Seattle), is putting out delightful little volumes, mostly of unknowns, in coherent, minimalist sets, and offering hand-sewn artisan hardbacks of most of them for order on their website. Some of these books are terrific. Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation deserves all the accolades that are being heaped upon it. Some of them are juvenile: Noelle Kocot's The Bigger World, though a second book, reads like aborted prompts from an MFA workshop, and CA Conrad's Book of Frank is … well, it's the sort of book whose rear cover explains
CA Conrad is the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.
If that's a joke, it's crass; if it's true in some sense, it's graceless, and either way, it is linguistically incoherent.
But here's the thing: these books are beautiful. The hands feel for them. The eye is drawn. Their heft and spacing and texture suggest dignity and value, even if the poems therein read sometimes, in their entirety,
Tell no one
fat in his
Thin soup, that. But how elegantly served.
Dickman's poetry, on the other hand, shoved as it is to the top of the page as though the book's dimensions were an afterthought, is absent any of that snarky, know-it-all vibe you get from lesser poets. A poem called "Be More Beautiful," is indicative of the wisdom and rue, and sense of threat, throughout these works:
Whatever it is I was made for I haven't yet started
The morning makes its way up the street as a loose pack of wild dogs
Their invisible metal teeth
welcoming all the birds in the neighborhood
The stars are wrong
I was just whispering
into my glass
Mostly, these poems are brave and direct meditations on common life, but not in the aestheticized version of the confessionals wherein the poet cuts an onion so lovingly, so specifically, so poetically that we're supposed to go re-enjoy the world in all its quirky wonder thereafter. Rather, they're concerned with the real difficulties of trying to please one's father; of having friends lose touch due to drug abuse, with everything. But the poems aren't downers like that. Though they concern his brother's suicide, and the many spiritual, economic, and social failures of small-town America, though one entire section begins each new page with the phrase
At the end of the one billion light years of loneliness
there is finally too much magic in these poems to read them as pictures of urban blight, or as fetishized odes to a dysfunctional family.
Instead, there's a rain-washed luminescence about everything in the worlds of these poems. Dickman knows it too, and says as much ("From the Lives of My Friends):
My friends and I climbed up the telephone poles to sit on the power
lines dressed like crows
Their voices sounded like lemons
They were a smooth sheet
Not frightening at all
but beautiful shiny and
full of promise
What kind of light
"What kind of light" indeed. Ultimately, the promises made by all the nonsensical beauty in Flies come true, and the "flies" referenced in the early poems of dejection—"My father trains the flies … how to hide in the holes of his teeth"—become "Embers [that] go flying up to the top branches."
At the end of the book, as distinct from the end of the poem-section, since we're talking about a whole book here, among the "notes on typeface" (Jansen, apparently, from the 1937 serif) one finds an "about the author" section that I mention because it is indicative of Dickman's presence in this book (and in the world too; see him read, if you can): a humility made manifest with childlike honesty. In toto, it reads, "Michael Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon." No list of publications (he has many); no author photo (though he's young and handsome enough to have acted in films), and no quasi-philosophical explanation of what he is trying to do with his poems, just "Michael Dickman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon," which, as a sentence doesn't tell you a lot, but as a gesture, rather does.
All of which is to say: I love everything about this book, except, that is, the book.
Mischa Willett will be spending the academic year of 2011-12 in Germany as a scholar-in-residence at the University of Tübingen.
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