‘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.”

Continue reading

Stoker’s Fan Letter to Walt Whitman…


Art here & below: Nathan Gelgud.

‘When Bram Stoker discovered Walt Whitman, he was a young man only just beginning a literary career that would eventually create one of the most enduring and lucrative characters of all time. At the time, Stoker was beginning to cut his teeth as a literary critic, dissatisfied with theater writing in Dublin and publishing his reviews for free in the Mail.

Stoker was also sharpening his critical skills in literary salons and among friends by defending Whitman, whose poetry was beginning to creep across the Atlantic to condescending reviews. The iconoclastic poet spoke to the young writer so intimately that Stoker found himself defending him whenever necessary and recommending him whenever possible.


Writing reviews, reading and defending Whitman, and publishing his first short stories all seem to have been stirred in the same boiling pot in Stoker’s twenties. Stoker felt so overwhelmed, and his first letter to Whitman was so personal, that it went unsent for four years. When he did finally send it, he enclosed with it another letter about his miniature crusade to enlighten his countrymen to Whitman’s gospel.’



Check Out The Poet’s Billow Blog…

The Poet’s Billow is a resource for moving poetry…and so much more! Read about the site here:

The Poet’s Billow..


Let’s share and support each other’s blogs.


Japanese Death Poems


(Left: Frontispiece) Calligraphy by Japanese Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768). His poem by this name is written above the character 死 (shi, death). It is printed on page 6. (Courtesy of Tanaka Dai-saburo and Graphic -sha, Tokyo.) 

Here is a beautiful, haunting collection I came across this afternoon. The Japanese character on the cover (below) is the character for “death”. Fascinating that it is so lovely, like a work of art in itself.

I am reading these delicate, deeply profound, and even humorous poems as I am sipping a piping hot cup of Gyakuro green tea; and I find myself looking out a nearby window, over a wintry city in the western U.S., and considering how different the cultures of nations can be from each other. But that is also the beauty of them, I believe.

Death is not something to be feared—that is the message I am receiving here. And, yet, we do fear it in western culture, don’t we? The contrast between eastern and western thought can be seen, here, in these two excerpts from the opening of this collection:

Wakaishu ya
shinu ga iya nara
ima shiniyare
hito-tabi shineba
mō shinanu zo ya


O young folk–
if you fear death,
die now!
Having died once,
you won’t die again

♢ • ♢

“Death in itself is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not

– Dryden

♢ • ♢

Here are three death poems from the book:

♢ • ♢


Died on the twenty-first day of the eighth month, 1281, at the age of seventy-two

Three and seventy years
I’ve drawn pure water from the fire–
Now I become a timy bug.
With a touch of my body
I shatter all worlds.

♢ • ♢


Died on the twelfth day of the second month, 1360, at the age of seventy-seven

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going–
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

♢ • ♢


Died on the twenty-second day of the third month, 1390, at the age of sixty-eight

Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.

♢ • ♢


The Poet, a reblog…

This is a nice poem by fellow poet and blogger, Jennifer Novotny.

I especially like the final two stanzas, where she likens the poetic urge to a deluge…and our ignoring the creative impulse to running the risk of drowning.

Writing a poem
is like waking up
for the first time.

It’s like seeing someone
as a stranger.

The poet is the thinker
looking at life
from a Dutch angle.

Read the complete poem here: The Poet


Could Words Be Lanterns to Light Our Way?

Is poetry a source of light for you? Can words show us the way home? the way to joy and enlightenment? the way through the dark? the way to Truth?

In the King James Bible, in the Psalms I believe, is a well known verse that reads:

“Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Stretching a bit..but, perhaps—just perhaps—words are divine?

In the opening of the Gospel of John, in the same King James Bible, a verse reads:

“In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with god, and the Word was god. And…the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

Perhaps words are like gods—shapechanging and powerful; mysteriously unknown; ambiguous and unmerciful; edgy and beautiful—who all the while long for an incarnated form?

Emily Dickinson said in a poem that a word, once written down, to some people, is then considered dead. But she victorian-woman-with-an-oil-lamp-at-night-on-a-cobbled-street-lee-avison-1writes, that, to her, the word only begins to really “live” once it has been penned.

“…and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.”

– The Letters of Emily Dickinson

In this brief excerpt from one of Dickinson’s letters, she compares her poetry, her life’s seeking, even, to a lantern; one that she uses to find herself. This metaphor implies the existence of a darkness, and something lost within it, which may be found using light.

Like with all good poetry—and all good art for that matter—there isn’t always a “meaning” to be found behind it; it may just point the way. Like a literary weathervane. There may be a strong wind coming. We may be in for a thunderstorm.

And, there may not be a meaning behind this idea of word lanterns either.

But, I kind of like the idea, don’t you?

Happy Writing. And keep the light on…

The Sanguine Woods


Images: Fine Art America, Pinterest

#King James