Very Important Poems (and Resisting Them)

The trains come through Hickory every few hours. Nothing haunting about it--the clank of freight, the chuff-chuff of speed, and always the whistles. I love it. Not much like the morning carillon of the National Cathedral, my neighbor at home, but lovely--and much livelier company around 3 AM. 

I've been focused on finalizing my manuscript. Reminds me of one of those puzzles in which you are supposed to slide squares numbered 1 through 15 back into order, except the painted numbers on these squares are has worn away--I can just barely feel the outline of their cardinal molding under my fingertips. This week I added a poem back in, which required editing it so it didn't over-echo with the poems before and after it, and which moved everything around so that suddenly another poem seemed worthy of coming back in, then a third. Turns out that first poem isn't invited back after all--it is a sestina I wrote in 2005, and just feels too young--but I suspect that if I hadn't faux-included it, and labored accordingly, that third poem would have never found its spot. So much of organizing poetry manuscripts is about liberating yourself, or tricking yourself, or both. 

Of course, I wouldn't be spending all this time on order (for better or worse) if I was drafting. But a couple of attempts to write this week faltered, because I think there is only one poem left to write for this book, and I want so badly for it to be a Very Important Poem. A poem that makes the reader jump in the air, like a character in a Toyota commercial. A substantive poem that turns into a two-pager when you galley it up. A poem that ties up all this manuscript's threads of travel, of love, of loneliness, with one potent truth claim. Bah. You can't write that way. You can write a poem out filled with urgency, or mouth-watering food descriptions, or good knock-knock jokes, but beware trying to write the Very Important Poem. 

To paraphrase something Jane Hirshfield said, in an interview with Michael Collier on the topic of "unearned luck," you can't bless your own poem directly; you can only acknowledge outward. 

So, I need to back off, and let a poem sneak up on me. Far from DC's annual April carnival--cherry blossoms & readings galore--my way of celebrating National Poetry Month has been to prioritize time with books. I spent this week with recent collections by Philip Schultz (who I also had the pleasure of interviewing on Friday), Anne Champion, Allison Benis White, Jane Hirshfield, Mary Biddinger, and Matthew Dickman. His Mayakovsky's Revolver is particularly worth your attention.

Because the collection is dedicated to Dickman's older brother, who died of an overdose, it would be easy for this collection to overflow with Very Important Poems. But Matthew Dickman neither eulogizes nor lionizes. The diction is conversational. The line breaks add energy, though there are no stanza breaks, no overt plays with form. Instead, you will be drawn in by the voice, whether proclaiming "The Summer's Over, Jack Spicer!" or creating an "Elegy to a Goldfish." The speaker locates lightness in pain. In Paris, we find Portland. These poems are loose and brave and funny, though the whole time you know you're on a bridge looking out over a very dark river. 


Because I miss you I have made a pile of clothes
along the bed, your exact height and weight. I’ve invented
you for a night! I put the dumbbells
of my hands around the sweater that’s your waist and let them
fall asleep there. The moon is in the yard
floating through the blinds, becoming a zebra
with glowing stripes, asleep on the floor. In my fourteenth dream
about you we were in Paris. But I’m simpleminded, and also
I want to be with you in Paris! I want baguettes
and petit déjeuners. I want the rue de la Lune and hotel sheets.
French handcuffs and French bottled water. I have
added another T-shirt to you
because maybe by now you’ve had dinner. In the morning I will
attach a couple wires to the socks and boxers
that are being your head. I’ll pull down a big heavy switch
and see if you don’t rise up, moaning, your arms out
in front of you, your legs
beginning to kick, and I will hold you up and kiss you
where your mouth hurts because it’s new and was only a handkerchief.

~Matthew Dickman