Brother, Matthew Dickman and Michael Dickman, Faber & Faber, 2016, £10.99 (paperback)
Syllabus of Errors, Troy Jollimore, Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, 2015, £12.95 (paperback)
These two striking collections, taken together, illustrate the strengths and weaknesses within contemporary reworkings of certain defined modes of American verse. Brother, the book-length lament by the Dickman twins for their brother who took his own life, is starkly split between two modes. Matthew Dickman’s ‘half’ of this tête-bêche production by Faber, displays the currently-popular Frank O’Hara-style urbanity, free- and fast-moving in its content and often prosey in its intonations. Michael Dickman, however, presents a slowly cumulative, more imagistic or even symbolist poetic – constricted forms, repeated words and ideas from poem to poem. In complete contrast, Troy Jollimore’s carefully-constructed and various Syllabus of Errors seeks to create a poetry of ideas, one often filled with humour and mockery in the Wallace Stevens mode, but one also providing moving reflections upon loss (again), and upon the relation of self and world in troubled times. The two books, therefore, provide important insight into the state of US poetry at this time.
The Dickmans’ Brother brings together poems by the twins previously published in separate collections in the US. Michael Dickman inventively adapts the imagistic modulations of his poems around the white spaces on the page in order to slow voice and perception, to approach the awful subject of the brother’s loss with reverence and care. The white space of the page becomes, in effect, the absence which the poetry must seek to negotiate, even as it recognises the impassable gulf between the living and the dead. The poems settle upon recalled or dreamt moments of togetherness now torn away:
We hold hands in the middle of the ocean and look just like a painting
His paint has just now started to chip away
He needs to be restored
Carefully now My brother
Each line almost floats into the mind like those animation effects on Powerpoint slides; they require us to hold them, bear them with us, as we move across the spaces of the page. This is a potentially interesting adaptation of a preoccupation in American poetry, with the unmediated image, to a confrontation with tragic circumstance. The patient clarity of the verse and what it shows from poem to poem builds possibly to a real sadness and tribute. On the other hand, the images which repeat in the poems are often disappointingly banal in this circumstance (light, fire, flies, bodies), as are the references to time, to hand-holding, and the predominant pathetic fallacy which reads the brother’s death everywhere into the world. Michael Dickman’s contribution to Brother, therefore, offers an odd mixture of anguished imagism and an overweening portentousness and sentimentality which ultimately grates: there are some decent moments, but the poems usually at their end fall into bathos.
It is something of a relief, then, to flip the book over and encounter Matthew Dickman’s relaxed and free-wheeling poetry, although, again, the charge of sentimentality is heavy there. At least from moment to moment, it feels as though the poetry is inventive and flexible in recalling the brother and inventing various afterlives for him.‘In Heaven’, for instance, shows real verve in accounting for all that has gone away through its child’s-eye account of what ‘heaven’ might be:
No dog chained to a spike in a yard of dying
grass like the dogs
I grew up with, starving, overfed, punched in the face
by children, no children, no firecrackers
slipped down the long throats of bottles in the first days of summer,
no sky exploding, no blood, no bones…
The casually-witty mode of this, the knowingness, does not detract from the way we are made to attend to the world drawn here, the apocalyptic glamour and violence into which the brother’s (and another close family member’s) death are being fitted. ‘Elegy to a Goldfish’ disconcertingly links the killing of the fish by the poet and his now-dead brother to a younger sister’s time in hospital and thence to an ironic take upon humanity’s inhumanity:
…my little sister, your one love, flashed white
and pulsed like neon
in a hospital, her eyes
rolling back into the aquarium of her head
for a moment, and in every country
countless deaths, but none as important
as yours, tiny Christ, machine of hope, martyr of girls and boys.
At this ending of the poem, then, the killing of the fish catches up, through the open syntax, that further possibility which the multitudinousness of the world that has crowded its sentences hitherto have failed to offer. It is a shame then that, too often in Matthew Dickman’s contribution to Brother, the endings of the poems cannot rest in this kind of strangeness. Instead, as with his twin’s work, there is a frequent dying fall back into a more predictable version of loss and grief.
Troy Jollimore’s Syllabus of Errors offers a set of variations on the theme of birdsong; it takes the idea of variation and unexpectedness into its rhythm and intonation. In the title poem of the book, for instance, the seemingly logical and successive ‘instructions’ for learning and understanding the world rapidly shift, from phrase to phrase, into a less obvious embracing of many modes of experience and emotion:
…the seeds of delayed understanding
will come to you, drifting softly from some
high branch or low cloud to lodge in your hair,
on a Tuesday morning, perhaps. Whence come tears.
Whence comes the tuning of faint melodies
voiced by devices of ancient assembly…
There is a constant and paradoxical unpredictability through repetition to these poems, whose energy often pivots around logical-illogical ‘Whences’ and ‘As ifs’. There is again a shade of O’Hara in the book’s urbanity, but at the same time a Stevens-like mockery. ‘On Beauty’ for instance proposes that:
…desire is constitutional,
that we are fixed to perpetrate the species –
I meant perpetuate – as if our duty
were coupled with our terror. As if beauty
itself were but a syllabus of errors.
This is clever, and can be clever-clever, stuff. ‘Homer’ uses the ancient poet, and Schliemann’s excavation of Troy, to write of a decaying baseball, for example (‘He’s not/calling a spade a spade’). Yet the whole collection is carefully orchestrated around the notion that what the birds are singing is usually beyond our ken, and that humanity cannot negotiate even an infantile understanding of what it is the world might mean. In ‘Oriole’, the bird balancing itself on the sagging clothes line demonstrates all that we don’t know, the urgency of what is trying to speak to us but which we don’t register, the ‘thousand years’ that must pass before our ‘eyes open,/the wayward atoms/of our nests and tongues/having been dispersed’.
The test of this poetry’s wit is its potential for expression of real loss and grief; those aspects of living where I’ve argued that the Dickman twins ultimately come up short. Jollimore’s Syllabus of Errors has a section, ‘Vertigo’, which contains an elegy for a lost friend. Again it is the limits of understanding and expression which, rather banally, underscore this plaint:
There is so much I
would like to tell you.
Instead, I carry and reread your letters,
your small handwriting
poignant in the gathering dark.
As with the Dickmans, this is emotion imposed upon the poem rather than enacted within in; our response is directed, not left to us to have. On the other hand, this seeming lapse is not illustrative of what the Syllabus of Errors otherwise provides us with. ‘Vertigo’ comes at the end of a book that has amply relished the energies and varieties that can be told and sung of the world, ‘The New Joys’ which carry us along line by line in a genuinely exciting, daring, expectation and exuberance:
We are now free to do whatever we like,
and the new joys, the unprecedented ecstasies,
are laid out before us like a platoon
of dead birds on a long wooden table, cooked
to perfection, birds of every size or species…
Steven Matthews is a poet and critic who was raised in Colchester, Essex, and now lives in Oxford. His poetry collection Skying was published in 2012 and he has been a regular reviewer for journals including the TLS, Poetry Review, and The London Magazine. He has been Poetry Editor for Dublin Quarterly Magazine. As a critic, Steven Matthews has published books on a wide range of twentieth- and twenty-first century poetry in English, including writing on Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Les Murray, and contemporary Irish poetry.