On This Day in 1816: John Polidori Finds a Book
The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Fabio Camilletti* on Fantasmagoriana, celebrating exactly 200 years since the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori held their now infamous ghost story competition during a rainy summer by Lake Geneva.
On the 12th of June 1816, John Polidori ‘rode to town’, and ‘subscribed to a circulating library’; five days later, on June the 17th, he records in his journal that ‘the ghost-stories are begun by all but me’. Who knows when they started reading: on the evening of the 12th, Polidori slept in a hotel, and so he did on the 13th, when he ‘walked home in thunder and lightning’, lost his way, and the police drove him back to the inn; it may have been on the 14th (‘Shelley and I had a conversation about principles, – whether man was to be thought merely an instrument’: a nice appendix to a ghost story-telling night), or on the following days – the Shelleys, at any rate, were always around. The question, however, is in the end irrelevant – the ‘night at Villa Diodati’, as we imagine it, may well not have taken place at all. But the book was there, this is for sure: and, most plausibly, it came from the ‘circulating library in town’, to which Polidori had subscribed on the 12th. In the previous days, he had been reading Tasso and Lucian: from that day on, ghosts, fate, and the principles of life became an increasing concern for the company, until the moment when – as per the entry of 18, at ‘Twelve o’clock’– they ‘really began to talk ghostly’.
Fantasmagoriana had been published in Paris by the Alsatian bookseller Frédéric Schoell (or, more correctly, Friedrich Schöll), a philologist and historian who had entered the editorial business during the Revolution – first in Basel, and later in the French capital – and would later attend the Congress of Vienna as a member of the king of Prussia’s entourage. Schoell’s bookshop was located in the Rue des Fossés-Montmartre (nowadays a part of the Rue d’Aboukir, in the second arrondissment), namely a few metres away from the medieval ruins of the convent and church of the Capucines, which had been ravaged during the Terror and would later be dismantled in the course of Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. In 1798, part of the convent had been hired by the Belgian manager Étienne-Gaspard Robert, better known under the name of Robertson, who had exploited the properties of that quintessentially gothic setting for his show: a mixture of lights, images, and sounds which he sold under the name of Fantasmagorie. In the heart of old Paris, not far away from Place de la Révolution where the king and Robespierre had been guillotined, the book and the show echoed, therefore, each other, both promising an experience of terror behind which, in a sense, sounded as the afterimage of another, and more historical, Terror.
Phantasmagoria was not Robertson’s invention. In the 1770s, an ex-Hussar and freemason named Georg Schröpfer had held necromancy séances in his coffee-house in Leipzig, and his ability in summoning ghosts via a hidden magic lantern had awarded him the nickname of Genspenstermacher (‘Ghost-maker’): Schröpfer’s experiments played with the ambiguity between ‘real’ supernatural and artifice, and so did the shows performed in Paris, since 1792, by an otherwise unknown Philipstahl or Philidor, being the first ones to be advertised under the name fantasmagorie, and which exploited the audiences’ interest in occult subject by selling themselves as a way of debunking credulity towards superstition. The same ambiguity was preserved – and indeed brought to the extreme – by Robertson’s shows, a veritable multi-sensorial experience that aimed at catching the beholders’ imagination completely: audiences were welcomed in the dark vaults of the convent of the Capucines, where meticulous care was paid to generating a ‘Gothic’ atmosphere; among skulls and spectral sounds, lamplights and smoke, Robertson held a speech in which he mixed necromancy and occult sciences, electricity and Galvanism; then full dark ensued, while the lantern began projecting its horrors, including skeletons, ghosts, the ancient gods, but also the shadow of Voltaire or the guillotined head of Danton. Ancient superstition mixed with contemporary history: at some point, the show was forcibly closed by the police when rumour was spread that Robertson could bring King Louis XVI back to life.
Naming the book Fantasmagoriana meant, therefore, to assimilate the experience of reading to Robertson’s popular phantasmagoria shows, and to offer the reader a comparable hullabaloo of horrors within the three hundred and more pages that each of the two tomes was made of. On the one hand, the equation between literature and magic lantern performances invited readers to approach texts through the visual paradigm constructed by phantasmagoria shows. Let us see a passage from Friedrich August Schulze’s ‘L’Heure fatale’ (original ‘Die Verwandtschaft mit der Geisterwelt’), describing the apparition of a girl’s uncanny Doppelgänger:
Je m’approchai de l’armoire. Mais juge de ma frayeur mortelle, lorsque me préparant à l’ouvrir, les deux battans se déploient sans faire le moindre bruit; la lumière que je tenois à la main s’éteint; et comme si je me trouvois devant un miroir, mon image fidelle sort de l’armoire: l’éclat qu’elle répand éclaire une grande partie de l’appartement. Alors j’entends ces paroles: ‘Pourquoi trembler en voyant ton être propre s’avancer vers toi, pour te donner la connoissance de ta mort prochaine, et pour te révéler la destinée de ta maison?’
[I went towards the closet. But just imagine my mortal fear when, as I was about to open it, the two doors opened wide without a single sound; the lantern I was holding in my hand switched off, and, as if I was standing in front of a mirror, my faithful image came out of the closet; the shining she emanated enlightened a great part of the room. And then I heard these words: ‘Why are you trembling in beholding your very being, who is approaching you in order to bring you the knowledge of your coming death, and to reveal you the fate of your lineage?’]
The whole scene can be visualised and interpreted by making reference to phantasmagoria devices and visual codes: the alternation of dark and light, the closed doors opening, the image coming towards (and not walking, an effect that the magic lantern would not allow); and, finally, the words not being uttered by the apparition, but rather heard by the narrator (exactly in the same way as Robertson’s public did hear speeches coming from the backstage).
On the other hand, the association between visual and textual phantasmagorias also worked the other way round: indeed, the term itself fantasmagorie, plausibly devised by Philipstahl/Philidor, already possessed a strong link with textuality. Literally a coinage after the Greek terms phantasma (‘ghost’, but also ‘image’) and agoreuein (‘to speak’), fantasmagorie can be equally understood as a ‘dialogue with ghosts’ or a ‘summoning of ghosts’, but also (more audaciously, perhaps), as a ‘ghostly talk’. ‘Twelve o’clock, really began to talk ghostly’, would write Polidori in his journal, thereby cryptically making reference to the very title of the book that had given rise to it all.
Like Robertson’s phantasmagoria shows, Fantasmagoriana played with the ambiguity between supernatural and mental ghosts, illusion and reality, theatricality and disenchantment. The subtitle, in particular, was a little masterpiece of ambiguity, by announcing a ‘recueil d’histoires d’apparitions, de spectres, de revenans, fantômes, etc.’ (‘collection of stories of apparitions, spectres, revenants, ghosts, etc.’); indeed nowhere – with the exception of a winking epigraph from Horace, in which the book was said to ‘fill the heart with deceitful terrors’ (falsis terroribus implet) – did the paratext signal that it was actually a literary book. The editor declared himself to be just ‘un Amateur’, and the text to have been translated from the German – which, in France as much as in England, was a label indicating whatever could be uncannily foreign, and overall a synonym for Gothic. No indication was given about the authors of single tales, nor about their original sources.
The ‘Amateur’ was Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès, a geographer from Marseille who, at that time, was already forty-five years old. He spoke nine languages, and had an excellent knowledge of Germany and its culture (in 1804 Napoleon and Talleyrand had sent him to mobilise the French émigrés in that country); Fantasmagoriana was a sort of divertissement from his real activity, that is to say geography and travel writing, but surely it was a well-planned book, aimed at presenting a fashionable and up-to-date literary genre to the French public. Five tales out of ten had been published just one year before, within the first two volumes of the anthology Gespensterbuch (literally, ‘Book of Ghosts’) printed in Leipzig by the publisher Göschen; one of them, ‘La Chambre noire’ [(or. ‘Die schwarze Kammer. Anekdote’), had been conceived as a sequel to Heinrich Clauren’s ‘La Chambre grise’ (or. ‘Die graue Stube (Eine buchstäblisch wahre Geschichte’), which had appeared in 1810 in the Berliner newspaper Der Freimüthige, and was equally included in Eyriès’s anthology. The editors of Gespensterbuch, and the authors of the majority of tales selected by Eyriès, were two writers coming from Saxony, Johann August Apel and Friedrich August Schulze, the latter under the pseudonym of F. Laun. Fantasmagoriana also included a tale by Apel, originally appeared in the 1810 volume Cicaden, and by a long piece extrapolated from Johann Karl August Musäus’s Volksmärchen der Deutschen, an anthology of German fairytales published between 1782 and 1786. A varied, albeit consistent corpus (all authors came from Eastern Germany, besides the cradle of German Romantcism) crossed thus the Rhine, also crossing, immediately afterwards, the Channel: if the Diodati company would read the French text, as early as in 1813 the thirty-two year old Sarah Elizabeth Brown Utterson, the wife of the antiquarian and collector Edward Vernon Utterson, translated a huge part of Eyriès’s anthology, entitling it Tales of the Dead and publishing it with the Londoner bookseller White, Cochrane and Co.
Sarah Utterson too decided to remain anonymous: her translation, she would write in her brief ‘Advertisement’, had been ‘the amusement of an idle hour’. Utterson suppressed three tales, adding one on her own – entitled ‘The Storm’, and presented as ‘founded on an incident similar in its features, which was some years since communicated to me […] as having actually occurred in this country’; she significantly abridged Musäus’s ‘L’Amour muet’ (or. ‘Stumme Liebe’), translating it as ‘The Spectre-Barber’, and added to each tale epigraphs taken from the British literary tradition, especially from Shakespeare. The targeted use of quotations had become a customary practice in Gothic fiction since M.G. Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and indeed all Utterson’s choices seem to aim at captivating the British reader by connecting with that national tradition: although, she writes, ‘the multitude of contemptible imitations’ of Ann Radcliffe’s novels has ultimately nauseated readers, whose ‘want […] at length checked the inundation’ of this flood of books, perhaps stories such as these ‘may still afford gratification in the perusal’. By so doing, Utterson’s anthology marks the entrance of Fantasmagoriana into the more mature literary market of Georgian England, but at the same time it corresponds to the domestication of the French anthology into the more normative categories developed by that market in terms of genre: indeed, Tales of the Dead is a fully Gothic book, as the title makes explicit in avoiding every reference to phantasmagoria, and hence to the sphere of artifice and deception. While Utterson’s cuts transform ‘L’Amour muet’ into a veritable ghost story, by isolating within a much more complex tale the only supernatural element, she also suppresses precisely those stories – Schulze’s ‘Le revenant’ (or. ‘Der Geist der Gestorbenen’), ‘La Chambre grise’, and ‘La Chambre noire’ – in which the supernatural was explained with natural causes, thereby eroding the constitutive ambiguity between reality and deception that had formed the backbone of Eyriès’s anthology.
In France, Fantasmagoriana had instead been produced and received in a very different context, as testified by the publication, within the space of ten years, of at least three works that try to ride the crest of its popularity by echoing its title: J.P.R. Cuisin’s Spectriana, published anonymously in 1817; Gabrielle de Paban’s Démoniana, of 1820; and Charles Nodier’s Infernaliana, appeared in 1822. Tellingly, all these works explicitly refuse to be labelled as fictional books, and are rather collections of stories relating supernatural or uncanny events, mostly looted from such eighteenth-century repertories as the treatises on occult phenomena by Augustin Calmet or Nicolas Lenglet du Fresnoy, but also from Gothic or fantastic fiction (from M.G. Lewis to Jan Potocki). In particular, publishing his book, Cuisin is concerned about specifying how his work differs from the
foule de rapsodies connues sous le nom de manuel des sorciers, fantasmagoriana, etc., qui ne méritent pas plus de créance que d’estime. On nous pardonnera sans doute d’avoir pris un titre aussi futile que celui de spectriana; c’est un tribut que nous avons payé à la manie de l’époque où nous vivions.
[crowd of rhapsodies known under the names of The Wizard Handbook, Fantasmagoriana, etc., which do not deserve more credit than they deserve appreciation. It shall doubtlessly be pardoned to us if we have chosen such a frivolous title as Spectriana: it is the tribute we paid to the mania of the age we are living in]
This consideration is very interesting, as the ‘mania’ of the age Cuisin is referring to is not exactly what one might expect. Indeed, unlike Utterson, Cuisin is not complaining about the flood of Gothic and supernatural fiction, but rather about the vogue of scientific entertainment that had been proliferating in revolutionary France, and which had resulted in the massive publication of amateur works aimed at disseminating scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge to the broader public. Most of these works discussed issues that were very popular at the time – including electricity, ventriloquism, automata, animal magnetism/mesmerism, and occultism – and proposed entertaining ways to make experiments with science. Such is the case of the Manuel des sorciers Cuisin mentions, which is in fact a compilation of mathematical and arithmetic curiosities, enriched with a great number of magic tricks and parlour games involving numbers; in the subtitle, the anonymous author specifies how the book belongs to the genre inaugurated by Henri Decremps’s claimed La Magie blanche dévoilée (1783 and 1784), namely one of the most famous eighteenth-century handbooks of stage magic. In other words, Fantasmagoriana may be assimilated, on the one hand, to the many works dealing with supernatural beliefs that proliferate in post-revolutionary. On the other, it may be equated with books, such as Le Manuel des sorciers, dedicated to conjuring and illusionism, and to mixing popular science with entertainment.
From this angle, rather than a repertoire of images and themes nourishing – to a more or less extent – the literary outcomes of Diodati, it is interesting to read Fantasmagoriana as a veritable imagination-triggering engine, which, by moving on the edge between reason and credulity, illusion and reality, science and the supernatural, invites to explore a little bit further the limits of possibility, and turn a story-telling parlour game in a rainy summer into new patterns of invention.<
Read Tales from the Dead (1813 translation by Utterson):
*Fabio Camilletti is Associate Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick. In 2015 he completed a new edition of Fantasmagoriana, and since then he is working on a project on anthologies of the supernatural in Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe.
All hail the turtle…?
Sadly, not since 1986. But IT 2017 is still a very good film.
(In my opinion, there are no real spoilers here; that being said, please read at your own risk.)
I give IT, the new film version of Stephen King’s book, a solid B+. Had I been able to see both chapters in the “duology” at once, I might have been able to hump that score up a notch. I’ll admit to wanting to let that B+ inch its way toward A- on the merit of the acting from a few of the kid actors in it, and the digital monster effects on not just the clown but the other things that went bump in the Derry night. I do not like the new Well house concept. And I dislike some changes at the storm drain and in the homophobic hate crime at the canal in Ch 2 in the book, the concept of which was changed: and the terror of which was diluted in the new film.
Skarsgaard beats Curry at the storm drain and in many other places. Curry was just too Uncle Charlie the Molester for me in a literal interpretation of King’s Pennywise as a “Hi Georgie!”-weird-uncle-takes-you-to-Coney-Island-for-hot-dogs-then-fondles-you-on-the-ferris-wheel-while-listening-to-the-Dodgers-on-a-handheld-transistor-radio brogue that I absolutely loathe. Curry won though in places for his mockery of the kids and his zaniness that bordered on insanity. Think the ending of the 80s film Clue.
The 90s TV series like many series made in the 80s and 90s of King’s books, suffers from horrible corniness. The 90s series’ dialogue was truer to the book than that of the new film, which I like, but I’m not sure that matters much in the end (Kee-rect?). Some of the kid actors stole the show like Eddie and the “fuck this, fuck you, fuck that!” kid with the bottle-thick glasses. The absence of adult characters was a bit Hannah Montana…but the scares were real scares.
The performance at the storm drain by Skarsgaard will be hard to match by any scene in any horror movie anytime ever. Absolutely chilling.
I may go see the new film again just for that scene. Or maybe I’ll wait until after I finish my reread of the novel in which King uses many Lovecraftian tropes (that do not appear in either film) which elevate the book to a cosmic-horror piece of art neither film has been able to match to date.
And that’s a shame.
My advice: Do King a solid and read his novel for the masterpiece of horror that it is. Reading is good for your brain, Georgie.
All hail the turtle…
IT: The Inspiration
by Stephen King
In 1978 my family was living in Boulder, Colorado. One day on our way back from lunch at a pizza emporium, our brand-new AMC Matador dropped its transmission-literally. The damn thing fell out on Pearl Street. True embarrassment is standing in the middle of a busy downtown street, grinning idiotically while people examine your marooned car and the large greasy black thing lying under it. Two days later the dealership called at about five in the afternoon. Everything was jake–I could pick up the car any time. The dealership was three miles away. I thought about calling a cab but decided that the walk would be good for me. The AMC dealership was in an industrial park set off by itself on a patch of otherwise deserted land a mile from the strip of fast-food joints and gas stations that mark the eastern edge of Boulder. A narrow unlit road led to this outpost. By the time I got to the road it was twilight–in the mountains the end of day comes in a hurry–and I was aware of how alone I was. About a quarter of a mile along this road was a wooden bridge, humped and oddly quaint, spanning a stream. I walked across it. I was wearing cowboy boots with rundown heels, and I was very aware of the sound they made on the boards; they sounded like a hollow clock. I thought of the fairy tale called “The Three Billy-Goats Gruff” and wondered what I would do if a troll called out from beneath me, “Who is trip-trapping upon my bridge?” All of a sudden I wanted to write a novel about a real troll under a real bridge. I stopped, thinking of a line by Marianne Moore, something about “real toads in imaginary gardens,” only it came out “real trolls in imaginary gardens.” A good idea is like a yo-yo–it may go to the end of its string, but it doesn’t die there; it only sleeps. Eventually it rolls back up into your palm. I forgot about the bridge and the troll in the business of picking up my car and signing the papers, but it came back to me off and on over the next two years. I decided that the bridge could be some sort of symbol–a point of passing. I started thinking of Bangor, where I had lived, with its strange canal bisecting the city, and decided that the bridge could be the city, if there was something under it. What’s under a city? Tunnels. Sewers. Ah! What a good place for a troll! Trolls should live in sewers! A year passed. The yo-yo stayed down at the end of its string, sleeping, and then it came back up. I started to remember Stratford, Connecticut, where I had lived for a time as a kid. In Stratford there was a library where the adult section and the children’s section was connected by a short corridor. I decided that the corridor was also a bridge, one across which every goat of a child must risk trip-trapping to become an adult. About six months later I thought of how such a story might be cast; how it might be possible to create a ricochet effect, interweaving the stories of children and the adults they become. Sometime in the summer of 1981 I realized that I had to write about the troll under the bridge or leave him–IT–forever.”
Source: Lijla’s Library; book cover artwork: tie-in to the 2017 film, IT.
On the Supernatural in Poetry*
Anne Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho)
[*First appeared in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, Vol. 16, no. 1, 1826 (pp. 145-152)]
One of our travellers began a grave dissertation on the illusions of the imagination. “And not only on frivolous occasions,” said he, “but in the most important pursuits of life, an object often flatters and charms at a distance, which vanishes into nothing as we approach it; and ’tis well if it leave only disappointment in our hearts. Sometimes a severer monitor is left there.”
These truisms, delivered with an air of discovery by Mr. S––, who seldom troubled himself to think upon any subject, except that of a good dinner, were lost upon his companion, who, pursuing the airy conjectures which the present scene, however humbled, had called up, was following Shakspeare into unknown regions. “Where is now the undying spirit,” said he, “that could so exquisitely perceive and feel?–that could inspire itself with the va,rious characters of this world, and create worlds of its own; to which the grand and the beautiful, the gloomy and the sublime of visible Nature, up-called not only corresponding feelings, but passions ; which seemed to perceive a soul in every thing: and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combinations of its incidents, kept the elements and local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect. So the conspirators at Rome pass under the fiery showers and sheeted lightning of the thunder-storm, to meet, at midnight, in the porch of Pompey’s theatre. The streets being then deserted by the affrighted multitude, that place, open as it was, was convenient for their council; and, as to the storm, they felt it not; it was not more terrible to them than their own passions, nor so terrible to others as the dauntless spirit that makes them, almost unconsciously, brave its fury. These appalling circumstances, with others of supernatural import, attended the fall of the conqueror of the world–a man, whose power Cassius represents to be dreadful as this night, when the sheeted dead were seen in the lightning to glide along the streets of Rome. How much does the sublimity of these attendant circumstances heighten our idea of the power of Caesar, of the terrific grandeur of his character, and prepare and interest us for his fate. The whole soul is roused and fixed, in the full energy of attention, upon the progress of the conspiracy against him; and, had not Shakespeare wisely withdrawn him from our view, there would have been no balance of our passions.”–” Caesar was a tyrant,” said Mr. S––. W–– looked at him for a moment, and smiled, and then silently resumed the course of his own thoughts. No master ever knew how to touch the accordant springs of sympathy by small circumstances like our own Shakspeare. In Cymbeline, for instance, how finely such circumstances are made use of, to awaken, at once, solemn expectation and tenderness, and, by recalling the softened remembrance of a sorrow long past, to prepare the mind to melt at one that was approaching, mingling at the same time, by means of a mysterious occurrence, a slight tremour of awe with our pity. Thus, when Belarius and Arviragus return to the cave where they had left the unhappy and worn-out Imogen to repose, while they are yet standing before it, and Arviragus, speaking of her with tenderest pity, as “the poor sick Fidele,” goes out to enquire for her,–solernn music is heard from the cave, sounded by that harp of which Guiderius says, “Since the death of my dearest mother, it did not speak before. All solemn things should answer solemn accidents.” Immediately Arviragus enters with Fidele senseless in his arms…
“The bird is dead, that we have made so much of.
–How found you him?
Stark, as you see, thus smiling.
–I thought he slept, and put
My clouted brogues from off my feet, whose rudeness
Answered my steps too loud.”–”Why he but sleeps!”
* * * * *
I am only sorry I didn’t read this novella by Michael Wehunt sooner! I bought it then slipped it onto my bookshelf. It’s so thin, I didn’t see it, snuggled up to that big fat hardback by a very popular horror novelist, whose fiction is good, but not as good as the fiction Wehunt is writing here.
I am not only in awe of the sharp, lean prose style and insight into character the story shows. It is also entertaining, enjoyable to read, creepy, haunting, a sneaker-upper on you; and it seems craftily self-aware of the dark nature of its own beauty. You can sense this in the story’s misleadingly mild tone, and in the careful descriptions—and thoughts and behaviors of—characters Lorne and his wife, Gwen, both of whom tell the story along with a peripheral narrator who lurks in the shadows.
There is also a unique prose structure to the tale that I really like and a texture to the sentences I have not seen before, like those of a poet, each word ripe with meaning and depth.
You will leave The Tired Sounds, A Wake aware of the fact that a hitherto unknown dread lurks quietly along the periphery of your awareness. It will feel as though it has always been there, under the other side of the bed, quiet and waiting. And, because Wehunt is such a masterful writer, the effect of this realization will leave behind an ashen mark that will not wash off.
Good fiction is wonderful. But great fiction is rare and not something we genre lovers and horror readers talk about enough. Wehunt is among the great literary weird fiction writers writing today. And on my own personal list, he’s in the top 5. So, go and buy his story collection, Greener Pastures (link below), so we have something worthwhile to talk about on FB, for god’s sake. (Wehunt has other stories out there online. And a novel coming soon.)
Check out his website here:
The Tired Sounds, A Wake was a limited numbered print edition novella and I believe they are already sold out. But hopefully Wehunt will collect the novella in a future story collection.
Until then…Link to purchase Greener Pastures:
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
knighting the birds
one by one
All down my street the new fathers
beat the kingness
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.”