On the Dickman Brothers

Stephanie Burt

My brother opened
thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body
until it wasn’t his body anymore.

That’s how Matthew Dickman describes the death, in 2007, of his older half-brother, Darin Hull. His loss isn’t the only topic in Matthew’s poems, or in the poems of his twin brother, Michael, but it is one for which both poets are known – widely known, in the US, as poets go. They have now been introduced to the UK in an unusually designed volume: Brother (Faber, £10.99) contains ten of Michael’s and ten of Matthew’s poems about or connected to Darin, taken from their first two US books (The End of the West, All-American Poem, Flies and Mayakofsky’s Revolver), and printed tête-bêche (upside down with respect to the other). The publisher’s stunt emphasises their common subject and their disparate styles. Michael relies on sparse lines, ecstatic extremes and negative space; Matthew, by contrast, remains an effusively conversational writer, a realist who appreciates minutiae.

Michael seems to find his own phrases shocking: ‘I wish I could look down past the burning chandelier inside me//where the language begins/to end and//down,’ the opening poem concludes. When he writes, ‘In my home in my brain/I’m at home,’ it’s an achievement: he doesn’t normally feel at home anywhere. The pauses and blanks underneath the longest lines, or in front of the shortest, represent a disorientating melancholy he still can’t fit into words. Such attention to the ineffable make the poems feel religious even when they take secular subjects:

All down my street the new fathers
beat the kingness
out
of the
kings

‘False Start’ says – five times – that Darin’s death gave him a ‘billion light-years of loneliness’. Light-years measure distance, not time: the poems reach out over an impossibly remote expanse, but we hear and understand them anyway. You can call them brilliant or banal, but you’re not likely to call them incomprehensible.

You might also call them morbid, or Gothic. A poet who exclaims ‘I lost all my bets/on the living/and the dead-for-now’ may well share something with earlier singers of the unhomely and uncanny, from Thomas De Quincey to Ian Curtis. His Earth, like theirs, is a purgatory where anything can happen and no one can leave: ‘My brother is hanging from the branches/Hanging or swimming/Our T-shirts absolutely blaze.’ He entitled his second book Flies because they thrive on dead matter: ‘The kitchen is full of flies/flies are doing all/the work.’ To live in his head is to live alongside corpses: ‘You have to lie down next to the bodies shining all in a row like black/sequins stitching up the kitchen floor.’ Such work, its lines hyper-long or super-short, can hold very little of a middle way, an ordinary adult life: it takes place in deep space, or in remembered teenage hangouts, childhood bedrooms, morgues: ‘My brother is my mattress//My mother turns off/ the trees/and//tucks us in.’ It’s hard to imagine how such poetry – however haunted or haunting it may seem today – will read in fifty years. Its author has already moved on: the best poems in Green Migraine (2016), some of which examine fatherhood, are better than anything here. Yet Michael couldn’t have written those poems had he not written these first, and their charge is hard to deny.

In their twenties Michael and Matthew became quite famous as actors: they played the precognitive twins in the 2002 film Minority Report. ‘Whenever we weren’t actually shooting,’ Michael told the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead, ‘we would be in our trailers reading Ted Hughes.’ By then they had already decided, together, to make poetry their primary work: their first books appeared in 2008 (Matthew) and 2009 (Michael), from the same publisher, Copper Canyon, which would later publish a collaboration between them called 50 American Plays. Mead’s 2009 profile set a standard for the attention they continue to get: she addressed their complicated family (their stepfather was Sharon Olds’s father), their youth in a rough part of Portland, and their simultaneous literary ascent (both attended the same creative writing programme in Austin, Texas). Their lives make good copy; but their lives alone couldn’t make the poetry popular – when I read with Matthew at a festival in 2013, the queue for his book seemed to run the length of the tent. In any case, if poets’ lives determined their poetry, the twins’ poems wouldn’t feel and sound as different as they usually do. Matthew gets crowded and talky where Michael stays stark; Matthew tells stories to which Michael only alludes. Matthew loads up on seeming trivia, proper nouns, facts (‘the composer’s name is Valentin Silvestrov’) while Michael concentrates on first and last things.

And yet the brothers share poetic goals. Poetry, for both, is essentially personal, dramatising an ‘I’. It rejects decorum, and seeks authenticity. It incorporates chaos, or mess, that it can’t quite contain; it emerges from trauma, even when it ends in praise, and it connects the domestic to the macabre. Each of them usually turns out his best work when he is most like the other:

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.

That’s Matthew, but it’s almost eerie and over the top enough to be Michael. So is this:

You should come back
from the fields with your pockets
full of grain, your feet covered in hardened clay, back
from the planet
you discovered but never had time
to name.

If Michael risks grand whines, Matthew risks producing regular-guy monologues, like any number of affable poets from America’s 1990s (Campbell McGrath, for example). Matthew aspires

To walk barefoot on the cold stone
and know that the woman you love is also walking barefoot
on the cold tile in the kitchen
where you kissed her yesterday, to be standing in a bookstore
and smell the old paper and the glue
in the spines.

Stronger poets speak to us, for us, or about us, but they don’t sound so aggressively generic, so much like so many of us. In the disturbing, superb ‘Elegy to a Goldfish’, on the other hand, Matthew remembers when he and his brother, having killed their sister’s goldfish, forced her to eat a tangerine segment: ‘it was me who pushed/ the sticky fruit into her throat/like a bloody foot/into a sock.’ That’s not anyone’s life, nor anyone’s simile, except his own.

When we read an obituary, or a eulogy in prose, we want to know what the deceased did, how he spoke, what he was like before he got sick. We get such things from Brother, but not often; the living Darin is either a tersely depicted cool adventurer, or someone already mentally ill, ‘stuffing his wrists with razors/like strange envelopes or building the pyramids/of pills that would take him to Tutankhamen’. Most of Matthew’s poem ‘Trouble’ lists ways in which famous artists (Monroe, Hemingway, Sarah Kane) and other public figures took their own lives. Michael’s ‘Dead Brother Superhero’ sets up a modern martyr, ‘Drinking all the blood/or whatever we/have//to save us/who//need to be saved’. Neither brother sets out to glamorise suicide, or opioids, or psychosis. And yet if you read their poems too fast, or inattentively, that is one thing they might seem to do.

You can reread these poems and find other subjects. One is the city where the twins grew up, not the hip city of the TV show Portlandia but the frankly dangerous neighbourhoods the twins remember from the 1980s, ‘the logging gone and the Indians gone/but for casinos and fireworks and dream-catchers’. The brothers also write about friends and relatives who have died or come close to death or persevered through recovery programmes, as in Matthew’s eight-page ‘On Earth’: ‘On earth/ survival is built out of luck and treatment centres/or slow like a planet being born.’ And they also address (as Mead did) their friendly dependence on each other. The oddest moments come when it’s hard to tell whether a twin, or Darin, is meant. Is Matthew, or Darin, Michael’s mattress? Did Darin, or Michael, abet Matthew’s cruelty to goldfish? (I think Darin’s the mattress, Michael the accomplice, but I can’t be sure.)

From ‘Dead Brother Superhero’ to Matthew’s 13-part ‘Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral’, Brother presents itself as a memorial to Darin. And yet at its most compelling – like most ambitious poets’ ambitious elegies, from ‘Lycidas’ to In Memoriam to Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’ – it does as much to introduce views of the world as to introduce the deceased: it lets us imagine how we might feel about our own future death, and about the deaths of our closest friends, and about losing the places that have shaped us. ‘I want the ground/my brother is buried in,’ Matthew declares, ‘to be the field that I am standing on. So we can be together.’ You can’t always get what you want; in fact, if what you want is to bring back the dead, you can never get it. That’s one of the reasons we have poems.