By Matthew Dickman
74 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95.
My first thought about the poems in Matthew Dickman’s new collection, “Wonderland,” was: Why doesn’t every poet write this way? That doesn’t mean that I want every poet to write irregular lines about his or her childhood, just that I wish others wrote with Dickman’s clarity and ability to engage.
A friend who lives in another country said recently that “I am still baffled by America. … I cannot understand why there is such a love affair in the country with a joyless obfuscatory poetry that wears out its welcome, for most of us, ultra-rapidly.” (Somewhat earlier, Nietzsche said, “Poets muddy the water to make it seem deep.”) I’m not sure Americans do feel that way about most poetry any more than Brits were in love with beans and toast at one point in their culinary history. It’s just that beans and toast were what they had till something better came along.
Dickman’s poems are that something, and they have been since his debut collection, “All-American Poem,” appeared in 2008, the same year hundreds of American poets kicked themselves for not having come up with that title first. There and in the several books since, Dickman looked back from time to time at his younger days. “Wonderland,” though, is devoted almost entirely to an early adolescent self, one old enough to skateboard and get into fistfights and think about girls. Remember when you were not a child and not yet an adult and your parents didn’t understand you and sexual intimacy was real but it was something that happened in the next town over, not yours? All you had were the kids you hung with. In “Teenage Riot,” the first poem in “Wonderland,” a strange man attacks one boy in the poet’s gang without provocation, so another boy stabs him, and the man sits down, “right there on the asphalt, / right in the middle of his new consciousness, / kind of looking around.”
Life can be that simple. It can be that strange: You do something stupid, somebody else does something stupider, and the next thing you know, a door opens into your “new consciousness,” and you don’t know whether you’re in this world or some other. We grow and age that way, and as we do, the ratio between the elements in that template changes, but the elements themselves stay the same: surprise, pain, wonder. And then poetry, if you write or read the stuff, because, for all our advances, a poem is still the most efficient machine, not to explain our experiences, but to organize them and allow them to be at least partially understood.