Wonderland: Poems, by Matthew Dickman
After having read this collection of poems, one wonders if the author is writing under some sort of nom de guerre or whether it is that his extreme focus on sexuality in many of these poems is an aspect of his writing from the point of view of decadent contemporary moral standards without any such jibe through his name. In reading a book like this one must be aware that unlike many books of this kind, the poet is treating this particular subject with a considerable amount of ambition. It is ambition that is not always achieved, it must be admitted, but there is ambition here. The poet is at least trying to write something that would win awards and win respect as a poet, and that is worthy of at least some appreciation. It is hard to celebrate when someone aims at a low target and hits it, the low target being unworthy of their efforts because it shows a lack of ambition and confidence. Still, this book, if it does not aim low in terms of literary ambition for a set of poetry dealing with growing up, it does aim low in terms of morality, and that is sadly a major failing.
In terms of poetic ambition, this book is a short one of less than 100 pages but one that appears to be a poetic cycle. Several of the poems here are titled by a particular time, from 1 A.M. to 8 P.M., and they show an increasing frustration with life and a willingness to engage in self-destruction to avoid the problems of living alone and being unable to sleep on a normal schedule and seeking intimacy but being denied it. A few of the poems reflect on the subject of rape, one of them dramatically portraying the rape of the narrator/poet and another musing about how people who hate their bodies like he does tend to be the sort of people who rape or abuse their partners, which seems a superficial as well as an unkind judgment. There are other poems here that deal with the memory of relatives and the painful memories of youth and the loss of faith and the deliberate choice of sexuality over holiness, decisions which many have made but which cannot be approved of. This is the sort of poetry that wallows in the mud rather than seeking to rise above the sometimes grim and unpleasant matters that have to be dealt with in life.
Ultimately, it is this book’s moral failure that makes it impossible to wholeheartedly recommend. A poet with more tact and less directness might have been able to pull this book’s approach off better and caused less offense through being more oblique. The author, though, like many of his age range, feels it totally unnecessary to show restraint in either his personal life or in poems that refer to that personal life, and the result is unfortunate. Whether the author is ambiguously referring to someone as his partner or compared the criticism he suffered because of his sins with some sort of melodramatic martyrdom (as in St. Francis And The Palm Tree), or is talking about how he misses wearing black lipstick and sleeping with everyone while his sister fends off the unwanted attention of other guys, this is not a book that aspires to any sort of elevated morality. And all too often that lack of morality sabotages the author’s desire to receive respect from any audience except one that shares his own sins and who celebrates depravity in the interests of verisimilitude. Give me poets like William Stafford any day over this sort of thing, though.