‘Whitmanesque’ Meets ‘Dickinsonian’ in the Poetry of the Dickman Twins

One August afternoon, Michael and Matthew Dickman boarded a bus in Lents, the working-class neighborhood in southeast Portland, Oregon, where they grew up. Michael, who is six feet one and a half inches, with pale, freckled skin, sandy hair, and blue-green eyes behind glasses, and who was wearing a frayed blue shirt and a blue sun hat, slid into a seat toward the back of the bus. Matthew, who is six feet two, with pale, freckled skin, sandy hair, and blue-green eyes behind glasses, and who was wearing a black T-shirt, sank into a seat close by. It was hot outside, and the bus, which was headed downtown, offered refuge from the arid intersection where they had been waiting: Ninety-second and Foster, where a junk-filled antique store with “Closing Down” signs in its windows faced off against the New Copper Penny, an establishment that offered ladies’ nights, and was considerably more tarnished than its name suggested.

The bus had barely swung into traffic when a stocky woman in shorts, with stringy, bleached hair, got up from her seat and stumbled toward Michael, clutching a Big Gulp. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, grasping a pole near Michael for support. “But are you guys twins?”

It is a question that the Dickmans are used to hearing, though it seems to be asked ritualistically, rather than in a genuine spirit of inquiry: the brothers, who are thirty-three, are each other’s double, but for that half inch in height, and for slight, shifting distinctions in body weight, haircut, and eyewear. (Matthew currently favors glasses with squared-off black rims; Michael’s glasses, which have dark-brown rims, are marginally more ovoid.)

“You’re so cute!” the woman on the bus said, gazing at the brothers.

“He’s cuter,” Matthew replied, with practiced graciousness.

Eventually, the woman returned to her seat, and started discussing twins with the driver. “They’re telepathic, you know,” she said. Several other passengers turned to assess the brothers, who bore the scrutiny of delighted strangers with the resigned equanimity typically shown by famous actors who have forgone Bel Air sequestration.

Michael and Matthew Dickman are poets, and though the subject matter of each is varied, they often draw from a similar well of images and experiences: the rough neighborhood of their youth, with its violent fathers, beleaguered mothers, and reckless, neglected kids. Their verse, though, is strikingly different. Michael’s poems are interior, fragmentary, and austere, often stripped down to single-word lines; they seethe with incipient violence. Matthew’s are effusive, ecstatic, and all-embracing, spilling over with pop-cultural references and exuberant carnality. “Kings,” which appears in Michael Dickman’s first collection, “The End of the West,” just published by Copper Canyon, describes the twins’ contemporaries in Lents, exalted and downtrodden:

They used to be good at being alive,
pointing their index fingers at
the trees, passing
invisible sentences
knighting the birds
one by one
All down my street the new fathers
beat the kingness
of the

In “Lents District,” which appears in “All-American Poem,” a collection published this past fall, Matthew Dickman also memorializes the neighborhood:

Dear Lents, dear 82nd avenue, dear 92nd and Foster,
I am your strange son.
You saved me when I needed saving,
your arms wrapped around
my bassinet like patrol cars wrapped around
the school yard
the night Jason went crazy—
waving his father’s gun above his head,
bathed in red and blue flashing lights,
all-American, broken in half and beautiful.

In Michael’s poems, a lot of things are described as dead: a cigar, hair, friends. In Matthew’s poems, hurried sexual encounters upstairs at parties recur. (“And probably not with the same girl,” Carl Adamshick, another Portland poet and a friend of the brothers, says.) Reading Michael is like stepping out of an overheated apartment building to be met, unexpectedly, by an exhilaratingly chill gust of wind; reading Matthew is like taking a deep, warm bath with a glass of wine balanced on the soap dish. “There’s something of the pugilist in Michael,” Major Jackson, another poet friend of the brothers, says. “There is something hard-edged and tough about the speakers in his poems. Matthew has such a big heart; he has very lush, surprising turns in his work.” The poet Dorianne Laux, who has been a mentor to both Dickmans, says, “Michael is a Nureyev—each movement is articulated—but Matthew is a whirling dervish.”

The Dickmans’ swift and simultaneous rise has aroused suspicion in some circles. “Shoveling pop culture references into sloppy lines does not transform your poems into Frank O’Hara’s,” Michael Schiavo, a young poet and blogger, wrote of “All-American Poem,” in a disparaging post six thousand words in length. Schiavo also declared that “the Dickman twins have put their life story, not their poetry, front and center, have made that the reason you should find them interesting.”


The Dickman Twins. (Tumblr)

In fact, the Dickman twins have made efforts to resist the pairing of their work, as does Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of Copper Canyon: Wiegers accepted Michael’s manuscript without knowing anything of Matthew, and initially opposed handling Matthew’s book, because, as he told me, “Somebody might see that as our attempt to try to make a circus act out of them.” It was only after Michael’s work had been accepted by Copper Canyon that Matthew discovered that his own manuscript had won the A.P.R./Honickman First Book Prize, the reward for which was publication by the American Poetry Review—with distribution through Copper Canyon.

The Dickman brothers’ poems bear reading independently, but, together, the resonance of the work is amplified. Just as Frank McCourt and Malachy McCourt, in their separate memoirs, put forth a tragic and a comic interpretation of their family drama, and Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff provide overlapping portraits of their separated parents in “This Boy’s Life” and “The Duke of Deception,” the Dickman brothers offer two strong perspectives on a shared experience, even though it would be reductive to read either’s poems as frankly confessional or purely autobiographical. “It is shocking to people when they realize that I am almost always sleeping alone, and leaving parties alone,” Matthew told me, though to spend a couple of days walking around the streets of Portland with him is to witness his being greeted by—and grasping to recall the name of—more than one young woman upon whom he seems to have made an impression. (Michael, by far the less social Dickman, is often greeted with similar enthusiasm by strangers, until he identifies himself merely as the brother of Matthew.)

Unlike the McCourts or the Wolffs, of course, Michael and Matthew share more than the same raw material; they share the same genetic material. Although there is a rich body of scientific literature on the subject of identical twins who have been separated at birth—their circumstances help to illuminate the competing influences of genetics and environment on the development of an individual’s health and sensibility—the Dickman twins, who were raised together and have been close their entire lives, seem to offer a parallel experiment. One way of looking at their work—Michael’s Dickinsonian severity, and Matthew’s Whitmanesque expansiveness—is as an illustration of the distinctiveness of imagination, even in two people who are as alike as two people can be.

“I never got a chance to say ‘Shut up.’”

One evening not long ago, after Matthew got out of work, the brothers met at Cassidy’s, a bar in downtown Portland. Matthew works at Whole Foods, behind the prepared-foods counter, where he earns eleven dollars an hour; Michael has a job as a prep cook at a restaurant across town, making nine-fifty an hour. The brothers got their first jobs the summer that they turned thirteen, working for a butcher in a local grocery store. “He would tell us how to clean the deboning knife with this machine, and he was also very interested in counselling us about relationships with girls—he would be spraying bits of body and blood, and explaining how you have sex,” Matthew recalls. (“When you cry like that you sound like meat being tenderized by hand,” Michael’s poem “Ode” begins.) Ever since, through high school and college and beyond, the brothers have supported themselves with food-service jobs. Both have only recently moved back to Portland: Michael from Ann Arbor, where his girlfriend, Phoebe Nobles, had attended graduate school; Matthew from Hudson, New York, where he’d been living with a now ex-girlfriend.

The Dickmans had gone to Cassidy’s to work on some poems. Each is the other’s first and best reader. “Because he’s my brother, and because of the relationship we have, he doesn’t feel that he is going to hurt my feelings,” Michael explained. “And he’s read all my stuff. He has a sense of trajectory.” Matthew said, “His fingerprints are all over my poems. And because we know each other’s work so much, and have seen it change so much, we can call each other out on something that might seem really great to someone else but is actually old hat.” Each is also the other’s most ardent advocate. “When I read his poems, there is nothing else I want to write but his poems,” Matthew said. “I think, What am I doing with my life? Michael’s poems have that strange, wonderful voice.” Michael, for his part, will not appear after Matthew at a poetry reading, “It would be like Cream following Jimi Hendrix,” he told me. “Reading Matthew is like listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—wild, colorful, fast. And, if he says that reading mine is like listening to Arvo Pärt, punch him in the nose.”

Over beers at the bar, Michael read aloud one of his new poems—spare, disconcerting lines suffused with a piteous sense of loss: “All my snowy friends / piled up inside my bedroom / extinct and smiling / packing ice beneath / my eyes.” Afterward, Matthew took the manuscript and began scribbling on the page. “ ‘All my snowy friends’—that’s so beautiful,” he said. “But this ‘I wanted to beat the shit out of everyone’—the word ‘shit,’ or ‘beating the shit,’ has too much resonance with other poems of yours.”

They turned to a poem of Matthew’s, a barroom narrative describing a late-night encounter with a pretty, idiotic girl: “The woman sitting next to me calls herself Summer / and keeps touching her lips / and scratching her thigh / and ordering a martini / and talking about history.” Michael said, “ ‘The hem of her dress’—that’s sort of like the ‘beat the shit out of ’ in my poem. I was just reading this interview with Mark Strand, and he says you should be very suspect of clusters of words. If a cluster of words comes at you, it was probably written by someone else, and if it wasn’t written by someone else it was probably already written by you.”

Michael stepped away to make a phone call, and a heavily pregnant waitress came by. “Excuse me, but are you guys twins?” she said, explaining that she was expecting twin boys in a few months. She was favoring the names Desmond and Davis. “Maybe—just to throw this out?—another two names that would be great are Michael and Matthew,” Matthew offered, with a twinkling smile.

Michael and Matthew’s mother, Wendy Dickman, didn’t realize that she was carrying twins until she had a sonogram a week before she was due to give birth. Hysterical, she told her doctor that she was paying for only one birth and taking only one baby home.

“Wendy, you only have to pay for one, but you have to take them both,” the doctor gently told her. The boys were born by Cesarean section, Michael two minutes before Matthew, on August 20, 1975. Wendy, who was twenty-nine and unmarried, had become pregnant during a brief relationship, and the boys’ father, Allen Hull, was already gone by the time she brought them home, although he did live nearby. (“I was born after a long night of Black Russians and Canasta,” Matthew writes in a poem called “Love.”) “It was difficult,” Wendy told me. “Matthew would be in the bassinet crying in the living room, Michael in the crib in the bedroom crying, and I would be on the front porch, crying.”

The boys shared a made-up baby language until they were weaned off it, on the advice of their pediatrician, and maintained an unusual sympathy of experience. “If Michael had an ache in his left ear, Matthew had an ache in his left ear,” Wendy said. “If Michael had a cavity, Matthew had a cavity in the same spot. Once, Matthew was playing at the elementary school across the street, and Michael and I were in the house, and Michael started crying and saying, ‘I am hurt, Mommy.’ The school caretaker came across and told me that Matthew had been hurt playing on a jungle gym.” In later years, the brothers started calling each other by the same nickname, which they still use: Pig, which they adopted after reading “Lord of the Flies,” whose final chapter ends with Ralph recalling the “fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” Even so, the differences in their personalities started to emerge early: Michael was more analytical, whereas Matthew was more driven by emotions. Although they were born just two minutes apart, Michael, whose name Wendy had mulled over for months before his birth, was cast as the older sibling, especially in the eyes of Matthew, whose name she’d come up with at the last minute. “Michael was logical, sequential, and a little bolder,” Wendy said. “He would go down the slide, whereas Matthew would kind of look at the slide and assess, and, if his brother did a good job, he might try.”

They lived in a small, low house, with a maple tree in the front yard and a dusty park a short walk away. Wendy and a female friend had bought it a couple of years before the boys were born, and the friend moved out when the boys were eighteen months old. (“We’d decided that whoever got married first would move out and the other would get to keep the house,” Wendy told me.) The boys’ half sister, Elizabeth, was born when they were four. (Now twenty-nine, she is studying for a master’s degree in social work.) Lents, which was originally a farming community that was annexed to Portland in 1912, was until the early seventies a blue-collar neighborhood of single-family homes, with its own commercial center and a distinct, small-town character. Things started to change in 1975, with the construction of Interstate 205: the freeway sliced the neighborhood in two, requiring the demolition of five hundred houses, and seeding strip joints and bars along Foster Avenue.

As the boys grew older, Lents declined. There were drugs and gangs, including the Gypsy Jokers bikers, who had a clubhouse a couple of blocks from the Dickmans’ home. Asian immigrants began moving into the area in the nineties, and there was a concurrent rise in the skinhead population. In a poem called “For Ian Sullivan Upon Joining the South-Side White Pride,” Matthew writes, “What our neighborhood lacked in compassion / it made up for in baseball bats and chain link / fences. Asian mini-marts and your parents’ rage / swelling inside your chest like someone pumping / up a basketball.”

Wendy Dickman told me, “I didn’t know the changes were going to happen. We had these wonderful neighbors, but I didn’t realize what was there if you went outside our block. I would drive to work, come back, and park my car in the driveway, and I rarely walked anywhere. The boys did a lot of walking, and they were exposed to things that I wasn’t.” The exposure wasn’t just in the streets; it was in the homes of their friends. In a poem called “Some of the Men,” Michael writes:

Look at
Josh’s father—
Stumbling into the bedroom at three
in the morning the two of us asleep
and all that moonlight
and beat his son’s
head against
the headboard

“Humor should be employed to defuse tension, not create it.”
You fucker you fucker you asked for it

The moon
His jaw splashed across the pillowcase.

Wendy Dickman had spent much of her childhood in far more affluent circumstances. Her father had died when she was a young girl, and her mother had remarried a wealthier man, the vice-president of a steel company in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Wendy moved with her mother from Portland. “The most valuable lesson I learned there was that money doesn’t really buy happiness or build character,” she told me. “Those were defining years in how I decided to raise my own family.” (“For a long time my grandfather / tried to kill anyone / who came near him / Wives / Daughters / Stepdaughters,” Michael writes in “Some of the Men.”)

Wendy’s stepfather was also the father of Sharon Olds, the poet. During the Dickmans’ adolescence, Olds became an intermittent presence—although her books, in which she draws on her troubled relationship with her father, were off limits. “She wanted us to have our own experience of her father as our grandfather,” Matthew says. “I know the stories—that he was a fierce alcoholic who did cruel things to his kids and wives. But we also knew him as a sober man who taught us to swim, and magically made us peanut butter and lemonade.” Michael and Matthew have strived to avoid taking nepotistic advantage of their relation to Olds, and have preferred to conceal it—Michael told a professor at college of the connection only after his class was assigned a weeklong study of an Olds poem and he had to excuse himself, on the ground that it was about his grandfather. Both brothers grant, however, that having a poet in the family may have helped them think that a poet was something that one could become.

Wendy did not want to ask her family for financial help, and patched together jobs—she worked in customer service for the telephone company, and wrote policies for an insurance firm, where she is still employed—as well as sometimes resorting to public assistance. “When I was out of money, we would play the ‘cupboard game’—looking in the cupboard and making dinner out of what we found,” Wendy says.

At first, the boys were enrolled in the elementary school across the street from their house, but their mother withdrew them after they started to complain of stomach aches. “I went to speak to the principal, and as I was walking over there this little five-year-old boy outside the school looked at me and said, ‘Fuck you,’ ” Wendy says. “I looked at him and said, ‘Thank you, because you just helped me to make a decision.’ ” Thereafter, the brothers attended a succession of private Catholic schools from which their mother managed to wrestle scholarships. (Wendy was herself Episcopalian.) “We were fiercely picked on,” Matthew said. “We were weird; we were twins; we had these government-issue glasses; and our last name had the words ‘dick’ and ‘man’ in it. So we came home crying a lot of the time.”

Although they went across town for school, they hung out in the neighborhood with a crowd of skateboarders whose homes were considerably less secure than their own. “My mom created a very safe place in what ended up being a fairly rough neighborhood,” Michael says. “Our friends loved to come over. There was food, even if at times it was bread and gravy and rice. No one was drunk out of their minds beating anybody.” Even so, the brothers’ antics were riskier than their mother knew at the time. They started drinking at twelve, and went to parties at which gang members shot off guns in the street outside. Still, they observed limits. “I always had the sense that, if Matthew or I were drunk, Wendy could deal with it, or, if we got kicked out of school for a week for having some acid, she could deal with it,” Michael says. “But there were some things—heroin, meth—there was no dealing with this.” Some of their friends were less restrained. In a poem called “Scary Parents,” Michael writes, “I didn’t shoot heroin in the eighth grade because I was afraid of / needles and still am / My friends couldn’t / not do it— / Black tar / a leather belt / and sunlight.”

Their own father, although mostly absent, did bequeath them one important legacy: an older half brother and half sister, to whose mother he had earlier been married. Darin Hull, who was six years the twins’ senior, often went to watch their baseball games, and he became an idolized figure, although he eventually developed drug and alcohol problems. He died of an overdose two years ago. (“My brother opened / thirteen Fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body / until it wasn’t his body anymore,” Matthew writes in a poem called “Trouble.”) Dana Huddleston, who was eleven years older than they were, became a frequent babysitter. “The bond between them is stronger than anything I have seen,” Huddleston says. “They used to wake up having the same nightmare. They would be yelling the same thing, both sitting up in bed crying.”

“Dana and Darin were incredibly important,” Michael says. “They were the first people who explained to me that parents could be nuts sometimes, and you didn’t have to do everything that they wanted you to do as a result.”

Sometimes their father would make an awkward appearance. “He would come by for birthdays and things, but it was usually a disaster,” Michael says. “The year we turned thirteen was a big deal,” Matthew says. “I remember he bought us alarm clocks, and took us to the zoo. At the time, we were skateboarders. My head was shaved, except for long bangs, and Michael’s hair looked like someone had literally put a bowl on his head and shaved all around it. So going to the zoo was kind of strange.” The last of the birthday outings, Matthew recalls, was when they were seventeen. “I had been doing coke all night, and I got home and found that we had to go and have lunch with our father,” he says. “It was a really strange lunch. He brought a couple of flyers about how he thought we should go in the military.” (The Dickmans’ father now lives in Sisters, a small town in central Oregon. They last saw him at Darin’s funeral.)

The brothers’ more ill-advised adventures have entered their personal mythology, if not always their poetry, and when they took me for a walk around their old neighborhood—four years ago, their mother moved to a suburb north of Portland—they pointed out, with some embarrassment, the walls they had daubed with graffiti, the schoolyard where they had skateboarded, and the park where they had received a city-funded free lunch on summer afternoons. “It was over here where we shot off your friend’s .45,” Matthew said, as we walked past the worn grass of the playing fields.

“I don’t think it was a .45—that would have sent me back, like, ten feet,” Michael replied. “It was a smaller handgun. Nobody got hurt. I remember that it was really scary. We weren’t, I think, very tough. We hated all that stuff. We were so happy to find books.”
“And lucky,” Matthew said.

“At this point, I’m just happy to still have a job.”

In high school, the twins were “very confident, and very interesting for their age—there was a certain amount of maturity, or should I say sophistication,” Ernie Casciato, their English teacher, who became a mentor, says. They were also reliably bad students, and on one occasion they took advantage of the frequent confusion of their identities by splitting their subjects between them while preparing for their final exams, so that Michael took the history and biology tests twice, and Matthew sat for English twice.

During those years, they started to write poems. “Michael had developed a crush on this girl, who gave him a book of Pablo Neruda poems,” Matthew recalls. “She was a junior and we were sophomores. I also met someone older than me, and she was reading Anne Sexton. We both wanted them to take their shirts off and kiss us, and we decided that if we wrote poems that might help us in our venture.” Michael says, “I got the Neruda book, ‘The Captain’s Verses,’ and I didn’t look at it for ages, and then I thought, I had better read this, because then I could talk to her about these poems. And I read them, and it was an unbelievable experience. I read it over and over, and I was in tears. I could not figure out what was happening. I had no idea that anyone could say things in this way.”

They would bring their compositions to Casciato to read. “It was always about love,” he told me. “I would say, ‘You can write about something else once in a while—there’s flowers, and trees, and rivers. There are feelings that you have other than that.’ But that was the major stuff: love, and the pursuit thereof.” (When Casciato acquired his first computer, the brothers used their talents on his behalf, conducting a chat-room conversation with a woman who later became Casciato’s wife—as if they were dual, freckle-nosed Cyranos de Bergerac.) Casciato was also the school drama teacher, and in that department the twins excelled; their mother had put them in after-school acting classes before they turned ten. Casciato cast them in a school production of “Tartuffe”—Matthew was Tartuffe, Michael was Orgon—and they played Mechanicals in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Portland’s “Shakespeare in the Parks.”

“They had, for their age, very few inhibitions,” Casciato told me. “They fed off each other. They thought alike, they acted alike.”

As teen-agers, they began loitering for hours at Powell’s Books, the vast emporium that has helped make Portland’s literary culture more highly developed than that of much larger American cities. They forged the habit, as yet unbroken, of deliberately misplacing volumes that they wanted to buy but couldn’t immediately afford, in the hope of retrieving them later. By the time they left high school, they were both obsessed with contemporary poetry: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Philip Levine—also a twin—and Charles Bukowski. “Reading Bukowski was, like, ‘Wow, you can write about anything,’ ” Matthew said. “I didn’t identify with, but I recognized, the type of masculinity in those poems—the injured, desperate bravado.”

After high school, Michael enrolled at Portland State University, where he studied creative writing and theatre; Matthew spent four years at Portland Community College, where he also did a lot of acting, before eventually graduating, in 2001, from the University of Oregon. They applied to creative-writing programs, and went to the only one that accepted both of them: the University of Texas at Austin. They continued to be involved in theatre, and in the mid-nineties they appeared in a small independent movie called “Anoosh of the Airwaves.” In it, they had to enact a fistfight. “There was a stunt guy there to plan it all out, and we said, ‘You know, we’ve done this before,’ ” Michael says. Afterward, they briefly signed up with a talent agency, in the hope of getting work in commercials.

Some years later, they received a call from a casting director in Hollywood, Denise Chamian, who was looking for twin brothers to appear in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Minority Report.” Michael and Matthew were cast as the “pre-cogs”—identical twin brothers who are able to foresee crimes before they happen. “I was searching for twins all over the country, and we needed a very specific look, and they were perfect, look-wise,” Chamian told me. “They were very pale, and kind of unearthly looking—people who looked like they had not been out in the sun much in their life.” The roles were not particularly demanding artistically, though they were physically: the Dickmans were required to have their heads and eyebrows shaved and to lie, muttering, in a vat of warm water with their skulls wired up. “It was the best job for poetry ever,” Michael says. “Whenever we weren’t actually shooting, we would be in our trailers, reading Ted Hughes, and then we would leave and take cabs to bookstores and spend our per diem on poetry. On our days off, we would make coffee in one of our hotel rooms and write poetry all day.”

Even with such unusual opportunities, it became clear to both brothers that acting would have to become secondary to writing. “To be an actor takes up a lot of the same stuff as if you were going to try to make writing, and I couldn’t figure out how to do both,” Michael says. “Poetry just occupied my thoughts more.” They submitted poems to journals, and applied for fellowships—often the same ones, which occasionally resulted in some uncomfortable competition, such as when Matthew was accepted to the Fine Arts Work Center, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “He was going to go to Cape Cod and hang out for two months,” Michael recalls. “He had got this great news, and I kept waiting for my phone to ring—shouldn’t they call me now, like they just called him? And they weren’t going to call, and they didn’t. But our work is so different that if they gave it to him they weren’t going to give it to me: ‘Sorry, we don’t like your stupid, spooky, lots-of-white-space poems; we like his intense, celebratory thing.’ ” (Michael reapplied the next year, and got the fellowship that time around.)

The Dickmans became assiduous about seeking out writing mentors, among them Dorianne Laux, whom they first met in the late nineties. “I was teaching at the University of Oregon, and they made a phone call and asked if they could come and take me to lunch and talk about the program,” she says. “We ended up spending hours talking about poetry. They were incredibly passionate about it.” The poet Joseph Millar, who is married to Laux, says, “They talked about poetry the way that young people used to speak about rock and roll, or surfing, or cars. The enthusiasm was not the intellectual enthusiasm of a professor or a critic. It is the enthusiasm of a practitioner.” One of Laux’s poems, “Savages,” was inspired by the way the brothers and a couple of their poet friends would sprawl in the stacks at Powell’s: “They buy poetry like gang members / buy guns—for aperture, caliber / heft and defense.” Later, Michael found another mentor in Denis Johnson, the poet and novelist, who taught him in a class at the University of Texas; he sometimes visits Johnson at his home in Idaho, where for fun they shoot at trees with semi-automatic rifles.

“Look. They say sit, you sit. They say roll over, you roll over. Where’s the prob?”

“To some extent, they are Artful Dodgers,” Major Jackson, who met the brothers while Matthew was at the University of Oregon, says of the Dickmans. “They know how to surround themselves with people who have enormous hearts and generosity and are enthusiastic about art and literature and music.” One of the more artful dodges in Matthew’s career happened at the age of eighteen, when he met Allen Ginsberg, who was appearing at Powell’s. “He is signing this pile of books, and he looks up at me and he says, ‘How’s your love life?’ ” Matthew recalls. Matthew fled in embarrassment, only to return a little later. “I went right up to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry, how’s your love life?’ And he sort of smiles and he says, ‘I’m really old; my love life is what it is.’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t promise you anything, but would you like to meet my twin brother?’ And of course this poor man says, ‘Yes, I would love to meet your twin brother.’ ” Ginsberg joined the brothers for tea, and the next evening took Matthew to dinner. “After dinner, I decided the game was sort of up, and I said, ‘I just want you to know that I am not going to sleep with you, but it’s early enough in the evening that if you want to find someone else I don’t mind leaving,’ ” Matthew recalls. “He laughed and said, ‘No, I am having a good time. Why don’t we just go to my hotel room and visit.’ So we went up to his hotel room, and he orders a gin-and-tonic for me, and I am sitting there smoking Export ‘A’ cigarettes and eating chocolates that have been left on his pillow, and he and I have this incredible conversation about poetry.”

Eventually, Ginsberg said that it was time to go to sleep. “He wrote down his address in New York, and he gave me a couple of poems that he had been writing drafts of, and he sat down on his bed,” Matthew told me. “And I sat down on his bed next to him and just told him how wonderful it had been, and thanked him. And then I thought, This is ridiculous, and I turned in and kissed him, and we kissed for probably fifteen minutes. And it was so sweet and wonderful, like kissing a mushy orange.”

In “Slow Dance,” a funny, romantic, erotic, and unreservedly sentimental poem of Matthew’s that has proved such a favorite at readings that he feels almost obliged to retire it—“I don’t want it to be my ‘Free Bird,’ ” he says—he describes the “slow dance of siblings”:

Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.

Matthew told me he first realized that his brother’s mortality was separate from his own during a visit to a relative who was dying in the hospital, when the twins were about thirteen. A nurse came to draw blood, and Michael fainted, cracking his head on the tile floor; at the sight of his brother’s blood, Matthew fainted, too, though his fall was broken by a hospital chair. Matthew was sent home, but Michael was taken to the emergency room. “I remember being terrified that my brother wasn’t going to leave the hospital,” Matthew says. “But there was part of me that also thought, What would happen to me then?” He hopes that he dies before Michael, he told me: “As unloving as it is, I hope I go first, because I think otherwise I would go a little crazy.”

Matthew’s work is full of tender images of his brother—“That great and mythic friend of mine, that lucky charm,” as he calls him in one poem—and articulates the seductive, mysterious suggestion that twins, through their origin, have special access to the experience of union. “It is a magical thing that they have, and that twins have,” Joseph Millar says. “There is a sort of archetypal, mystical quality about it. I am sure it has its drawbacks, but there is a bond between them which is deeper than words, and it is interesting that they have chosen an art form which is often trying to say the unsayable.” But if Matthew’s work evokes a love forged before the dawning of consciousness, and expresses a striving to replicate that merging in every subsequent encounter—with an erotic partner, or with entire populations—Michael’s speaks of the ultimate solitariness of the individual, twin or not. (“I’m not dead but I am / standing very still / in the backyard / staring up at the maple / thirty years ago / a tiny kid waiting on the ground / alone in heaven / in the world / in white sneakers,” Michael writes in a poem called “We Did Not Make Ourselves.”) Franz Wright, who is a friend and mentor of Michael’s, says, “What Michael is tapping into is what everyone secretly feels, which is that they are alien and apart, and have been since childhood. He does it in a way that is very understated, and very moving. He goes into that fear and loneliness and that alienation that originates in childhood, and comes back with comforting news from there.” Michael says, “It is amazing that Matthew can write about the two of us dancing at a party—I have never done that, and it has never interested me. The times that family members have come up in my poems, they have their beginnings in people I know, and hopefully it gets much stranger.” When I told Michael that Matthew had told me he hopes he dies first, Michael smiled affably and said, “Yeah, he’s an asshole.”

Not long ago, the brothers were approached by Pablo Van Dijk, the publisher of Kunst Editions, in New York, with a proposal: that each would write a poem for the other about their birth, to be published together in a chapbook, of which only ninety-nine handmade copies would be produced. The poems that the brothers wrote are as unalike as twin poems can be. Matthew’s is crowded and rhapsodic, its run-on lines breathlessly merging mother and brother and brother. “Twins floating / in each other’s arms / inside her arms. My brother / is being born with me / and so / I have never been alone,” it reads. (“It’s a love poem—I can’t help it,” he told me.) Michael struggled to write his contribution to the book. After completing it, he told me, “It was hard to write it and have it be a piece of art, and not a love letter to Matthew, which is something so specific that I wouldn’t think it would have worth for other people to read.”

Michael, too, has imagined their shared birth, but his poem is just thirteen lines long, each incantatory phrase suspended in white space, carefully set apart from the next, like an unborn child sealed in a bath of amniotic fluid. “The body unfolds and unfolds and makes / a human being,” he writes. “Everything I am not / is walking across the room towards me / and looks just like me.” Each brother had gone some way toward capturing the mystery that is every child’s birth; but together they had given expression to the peculiar, doubled mystery of their own. ♦

(from an article published in The New Yorker, April 2009)

One response to “‘Whitmanesque’ Meets ‘Dickinsonian’ in the Poetry of the Dickman Twins

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