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The Poetry That Matters Most: On Matthew Dickman's Mayakovsky's Revolver

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There was a time, not too long ago, when every Matthew Dickman poem I came across made me smile. I was in awe of his poems. In truth, they were the kind I wanted to be writing: young, unimpeded by their critics and enjoyable to read -- incredibly enjoyable. As much as I have loved poetry, I don't particularly like that it can be so opaque, and in Matthew Dickman's poems I believed there was a promising, alternate path for me to follow, forged by a poet I would be reading for the rest of my life.

So, of course, the book I looked forward to most this year was Matthew Dickman's Mayakovsky's Revolver. I looked forward to it like I was 12 and it was a new video game. I counted the days, I felt them go slower for all the waiting; I even periodically googled the book, to see if its release date had been moved up or pushed back. I had heard and read a couple of the new poems and I knew that it was a book built around a series of elegies for the poet's older brother, but once I finally received my copy of Mayakovsky's Revolver I realized very quickly that it was not the book I expected it to be. It was not a book anyone was going to be smiling through.

Because however much Mayakovsky's Revolver is a book powered by its elegies, nearly all of the poems concern death and suicide. Trouble loomed in Dickman's 2008 debut, All-American Poem, but never quite like this:

"Mayakovsky's Revolver"

I keep thinking about the way
blackberries will make the mouth
of an eight-year-old look like he's a ghost
that's been shot in the face. In the dark I can see
my older brother walking through the tall brush
of his brain. I can see him standing
in the lobby of the hotel,
alone, crying along with the ice machine.
Instead of the moon
I've been falling for the lunar light pouring out of a plastic shell
I've plugged into the bathroom wall. Online
someone is claiming to own Mayakovsky's revolver
which they will sell for only fifty thousand dollars. Why didn't I
think of that? Remove the socks from my dead brother's feet
and trade them in for a small bit
of change, a ticket to a movie, something
with a receipt, proof I was busy living,
that I didn't stay in all night weeping,
that I didn't stay up
drawing a gun over and over
with a black marker, that I didn't cut
out the best one, or stand
in front of the mirror, pulling the paper trigger until it tore away.

In another poem from Mayakovsky's Revolver, "Blue Sky," Dickman writes: "I'm wondering / if it matters that I am stepping onto the flat head of a concrete gargoyle, / looking down at the parking lots below." In another, entitled "King": "I sit in the middle / of the room in December / with the windows open, five pills and a razor. My lifelong / secret. My killing power and my staying / power."

As these quotes suggest, Mayakovsky's Revolver is a book of dark and reeling poems. Its elegies are bluntly sad and its poems touching on suicide, often idealizing it, are difficult to read. Unlike All-American Poem, you may want to put down Mayakovsky's Revolver, returning to it only after you've spent an afternoon outside. It can feel damning and steely ("Everything that has happened will happen again"), it can feel oddly voyeuristic (as in "I sit in the middle / of the room in December / with the windows open, five pills and a razor..."), and it can strain to reassure ("I don't have to be in hell if I don't want to be"). When the ebullient, charming Dickman we had met in All-American Poem reappears in Mayakovsky's Revolver, it is often outweighed and outdueled by the Dickman suddenly on the ledge.

Yet none of this necessarily suggests Mayakovsky's Revolver is a weaker book of poems for all its darkness. The climate has changed and, until you get to the last poems ("Getting it Right" and "On Earth" are vintage-Dickman), you probably won't be smiling, but Matthew Dickman's poetry remains as vital as it gets. He's not always a "perfect" poet -- in some moments he can sound a little too naïve for my taste ("whatever strength he had / as an older brother, as someone / his sister could look up to from behind her big blue eyes") -- and yet, there is no other poet writing today that I would rather be reading.

"Anything You Want"

My living brother
is treating us to dinner. He opens the menu wide like a set of wings
across the table. Anything you want
he says. His voice warm
above the shining heaven of the silverware. The other one,
my dead brother, is sitting
in the dark in the graveyard, his back leaning back against his name.
I'm walking by with my favorite drug
inside me. He's picking at a scab on his wrist.
He looks up, opens his arms
wide above the grass. Anything you want, he says. His body
beginning
to wash out, his voice slowly crawling back.

In the poetry world, this is the stuff of controversy and debate -- for reasons I won't waste your time with here. In the world, I think this is the poetry that matters most. The resonating qualities of "Anything You Want," which concludes the thirteen-part series, "Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral," are the qualities I covet most about Dickman's work and those that make his poems so appealing and unusual in poetry - his poems are a joy to read, with an imagination that is singularly playful and magnetic ("His voice warm / above the shining heaven of the silverware"); it is poetry written by a young man, expressive and emotionally honest, about people in his life and the city he grew up in (Portland, Oregon). It can also be funny and romantic, sweet and earnest. Poets love the idea of a public poetry, but can't stand the face of it when it's here -- if Billy Collins was our last public poet, perhaps it is Matthew Dickman that will emerge as our next, which would be a blessing.

As strange as it can feel and as strange as it may sound, it isn't always easy to enjoy the thing you love. You can forget what it is about that thing that made you fall in love in the first place. Matthew Dickman's poetry has always reminded me of why I fell in love with poetry. I think it will make others remember, too; it may even make you fall in love with poetry for the first time. I'm already waiting for that third book.