Michael Dickman’s new collection, Green Migraine, explores chronic pain, fatherhood, and the poet John Clare through intense, fleeting images that evoke a sublime and sublunary landscape. The book is formed around five different migraines, represented by colors—white, red, yellow, green, and black.
Dickman’s first two collections—The End of the West and Flies, both published by Copper Canyon Press—focus intensely on the lives of others: friends dead in the Oregon heroin epidemic, Dickman’s mother, and Dickman’s brothers. In these early collections, Dickman fuses the fractured, alienated language of Franz Wright with a phantasmagoria unique to Dickman’s particular blend of northwestern American surrealism. The poems in Green Migraine—especially early in the book—pile images on top of each other and create a structure in which the violent shines out of the surreal. The best of these recall the late James Tate’s ability to follow almost meaningless sentences with pronouncements of intense, profound grief. The closing lines of “Red Migraine” best exemplify this:
My brain is a cutter
Scrubbed down to zero
by the rubies
in the halo
I whispered your name into the red air
and you answered.
In this excerpt, Dickman’s speaker himself seems surprised that the name answers.
The weakest poems in Green Migraine, like the weakest poems in Dickman’s first two books, pack so many violent images together that the violence becomes expected and unremarkable—but Dickman’s highs wouldn’t be possible without these lows. A style that is brilliant in part because it risks failure must, from time to time, come short.
The triumph of Green Migraine is the long closing poem, “Lullaby.” Written for Dickman’s son, August (to whom the book is dedicated), “Lullaby” not only exhibits the violent, surreal quality and overall oddness of the early poems in the book, but also introduces new elements into this constellation: gentleness and joy. This change is born first in the speaker—“My pregnant wife one two my brain and how can you be more than one thing // But I am!” Over the course of the poem, the gentleness begins to belong to the world.
Michael Dickman is the winner of the 2010 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for his second collection, Flies. His first book, The End of the West, was published in 2009. He has received fellowships from the Michener Center for Writers, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Vermont Studio Center. His poems are regularly published in The New Yorker, and his work has appeared widely, including in American Poetry Review, Field, Tin House, and Narrative Magazine. He was born and raised in Portland, and now teaches poetry at Princeton University.
by Michael Dickman
Copper Canyon Press, 2016
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-5-55659-451-9
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