Maybe I shouldn’t read poetry today. Or maybe I just don’t agree with the Academy of American Poets’ choices for the winners of the two most prestigious prizes in American poetry for 2010. In any case, I find Michael Dickman’s second collection “Flies” wanting.
And I feel guilty for it. It mostly addresses Dickman’s older brother who committed suicide and the emotional scars left behind: a worthy subject, and one that most readers will readily sympathise with. Dickman has my sympathies as well, but not enough to blind me to the short-falls of this poetry.
It is called “Flies” for a reason. Almost every poem brings in flies as imagery and gives these very tender treatment, more tender treatment than it does the humans who populate the pieces. In fact, there are so many flies that I began to imagine the poems as set in the dead heat of summer in the South rather than in cool, pleasant Portland, Oregon where Dickman lives. I also was reminded of steakhouse buffets my stepfather used to take us to where the flies lined the beams of the ceilings and blew around the tables like kings. Not a happy reminder. Whatever these flies are meant to illustrate or symbolise is lost on me.
Also, I had to check back with the cover several times to remind myself that I was not reading Charles Bukowski. These lines read so much like Bukowski that I have to wonder, Is Dickman consciously borrowing his voice? If so, what is Dickman’s voice? Imitation on this scale only works as a direct tribute. In this setting one is forced to ask, Why bother writing it at all?
But as I said, I feel guilty for this reaction when I consider what is being written about. Michael Dickman is clearly a man that has, in the words of Bono Hewson: “been in every black hole/ At the altar of a dark star.” (U2, “Moment of Surrender” from “No Line On The Horizon”, 2009). Therefore, his words here are fragments, violent, dirty, and unredeeming. He writes as a lost soul for a lost soul, his brother. I just wish he could have done so with a more original voice. But then, I’ve never really enjoyed the work of Charles Bukowski. If you do, you’ll probably like this collection.