Mayakovsky’s RevolverBy Matthew Dickman W.W. Norton & Co.
Reviewed by Lauren Hilger
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.
Mayakovsky’s Revolver, Matthew Dickman’s second collection, reflects on the suicide of the poet’s older brother in the form of elegies and love poems. One section is entitled “Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral.” These are as powerful and unflinching as the title suggests. When writing of his late brother, there is a sweet, palpable weirdness. Dickman writes of the graveyard when it’s still Halloween. The brother he lost comes in strangely and always lovingly, embodying alternate and imagined lives.
[…] In this life he has a day off
and is going to see a movie and buy some popcorn and sit in a darkness
he can rise from and walk up the aisle like a groom, walk
out into the air again, and down the street, and whistle maybe, and go home.
(“More Than One Life”)
Here Dickman’s long lines, immediate with enthusiasm in All-American Poem, carry grief and a different kind of gratitude. Dickman reminds his readers how good it is to be alive, awful as it is. He brings in his friends, family, city, heroes, and beloved everyday routines.
In a book about mourning it’s difficult to sustain hope. In “Dear Space” Dickman writes, “I can’t seem to live the way I should, without / loneliness, without passing out.” Yet this sadness and recklessness has a youthful resilience. Dickman writes with a kind of forever-teen appeal. These poems seem to exist from within an American adolescence: “socks worn too long” and a lover’s room with “piles of clothes on the floor.”
This adolescent attitude comes in to show another side of being human, not so forgiving, not so sure. In the poem, “Bridge,” two young women insult the narrator; one spits a homophobic slur. Dickman responds with the following: “I don’t know anyone / who would sleep with them, who would / pull their jeans down and lift / their tiny hairs with the tip of his / tongue. Who would want their ass / in his face or the smell of ketchup and pickles slipping into his / mouth.” The poem continues to detail their “heavy bodies,” “dumb thumping,” and “fake jeweled sandals” as he cannot (then does) imagine them throwing themselves off a bridge.
These poems seem perfectly all right making the reader uncomfortable. Women in this collection, not familial, not Anna Akhmatova, are often described as articles of their clothing or displayed body parts. In one poem, the narrator declares, “I wonder if it matters that I can’t remember / her name, although we kissed on my front porch.” This is not to say Dickman doesn’t acknowledge cruelty; to be sure, the voice wonders if he can kill the “mean little kid I keep in my pocket for weakness and rage.” He writes into memories of middle school taunting (“Say you’re fat! Say it, say you’re fat”) and attempts to consider objectification and categorization from both sides.
Dickman’s poems are full of lines to hold onto, that offer something to readers after they’ve put the book down and go back to their lives. (Spilling coffee down my wrist and sleeve will always remind this reviewer of Marie Howe’s “This is what the living do.”) One such memorable and important line comes from the poem, “I Made You Dinner, Bob Kaufman!” where Dickman concludes, “because I don’t have to be in hell if I don’t want to be.”
It’s this affirming sentiment that readers receive and for which readers come to Dickman. He ends these poems to stun:
In the yard while you pick at the grass,
staring up at the sky, and cry and scream for missing it.
Lauren Hilger’s poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Green Mountains Review. She has received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and the Agha Shahid Ali scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
Mathew Dickman received a B.A. from the University of Oregon and has been the recipient of fellowships from The Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, The Vermont Studio Center, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He is the author of two chapbooks, Amigos and Something about a Black Scarf, and two full-length poetry collections, All-American Poem (Copper Canyon Press 2008) and Mayakovsky's Revolver (Norton 2012). He is also the coauthor, with his twin brother Michael Dickman, of the poetry collection 50 American Plays, (Copper Canyon Press 2012).