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Matthew Dickman’s melancholic portraits of impoverished white teenagers dazzle me into the always painful, yet easily forgettable, awareness that many people suffer psychically under the knife of American prosperity. Outside the frame of these poems lurk the children of female-headed homes; parents who work two or more jobs; teenage moms who live in “Drug-Free Zones” and “Urban Renewal Zones,” unkempt neighborhoods whose parks are normally full of drugs; teen addicts slumping toward oblivion; and fathers for whom the closest thing to therapy is domestic abuse. The anger of dejected youth is almost always a cliché) in art, and in mainstream culture that anger among the ruins and squalor is usually black and/or Latino. Matthew Dickman hails from a neighborhood called Lents, a largely white underclass suburb in Southeast Portland, Oregon. He knows something about the sorrow of this world, its call for a kind of toughness of spirit and a sensitivity that must go underground if one is to survive and, more importantly here, the violence that such poverty recreates and echoes in the lives of the dispossessed. His authority is that of the native, unwavering and resolute. But it is his artfulness and large spirit, telescoping without sentimentality the single outlook of a speaker who has escaped such conditions and now looks back, as bluesy as such projects go, that gives his poems a universality of feeling, an expressive lyricism of reflection, and heartrending allure.
no one can say that you were never kind.
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. No one can point a finger at you
without someone else cutting it off.
Now when you get dressed
you get dressed for battle.
People cross the street when they see you
like you were black. Like you weren’t afraid of anything.
I want to say you’re leaving
something important behind.
But I know where you come from
and can’t imagine what it might be.
There is something about my watch, that it glows
and is for children, something about a weight
around my wrist that will never remind me of prison.
There is something about a palm tree
that refuses to be a palm tree
when I look up through the palms and think of lemons.
Something about how my morning is going
makes me pray for a crossing guard.
It’s always about money, isn’t it?
Something that makes us rip our clothes off.
Something about how it folds can make us
break a pool stick over someone’s head.
There is something about my first fight, the chain link
fence shining like a metal waffle
as I doubled over into a roll of quarters and the boy
in combat boots, a swastika inked into his neck
by a girlfriend with a Bic pen and razor
that has nothing to do with empathy but everything
to do with his father standing in line for work.
Something about the indignity of standing
on the sidewalk while other men stand on a dock
unloading a shipment of stuffed animals and lampshades
that makes me think there is something
about industry that feels like an elevator between floors.
Of course, there is something about a black scarf
left on a park bench that denies I ever existed,
and something about a cigarette snubbed out
in a tin can that denies I have ever been faithful,
and with the rain beating the gutters I don’t know
what it is. At any rate
my neighbors are having sex. I can hear them, I can
smell the coffee they made
when they thought they were still getting out of bed,
and there is something about how the woman is moaning,
how her right foot may be pressed down
against the side of his thigh that makes me think
the man squeezing her nipples has never been in debt.
Has never yelled at her because of it.
And there is something about how Ian loved his mother
when he punched her in the face,
knocking her off the stool, because she was a junkie
and because, his fists gnashing their teeth, his mouth
scraping their knuckles, she was his mother.
The unexplainable part when we are sick
with grief and call a cab at four in the morning
with no address, no place to go, standing by the window
in the dark, watching
the car idle in the parking lot, listening to the driver
as he makes his slow way, up the stairs, toward the door.
Whenever I return a fight breaks out
in the park, someone buys a lottery ticket,
steals a bottle of vodka, lights
a cigarette underneath the overpass.
I-5 rips the neighborhood in half
the way the Willamette rips the city in half,
it sounds like the ocean
if I am sitting alone in the backyard
looking up at the lilac.
This is where white kids lived
and listened to Black Sabbath
while they beat the shit out of each other
for bragging rights,
running in packs, carrying baseball bats
that were cut from the same hateful trees
our parents had planted
before the Asian kids moved in
to run the mini-marts
and carry knives to school, before the Mexicans
moved in and mowed everyone’s front yard—
white kids wanting anything
anybody ever took from them in shaved heads
and combat boots.
On the weekend our furious mothers
applied their lipstick
that left red cuts on the ends of their Marlboro Reds
and our fathers quietly did whatever
when trying to beat back the dogs of sorrow
from tearing them limb from limb.
Lents, I have been away so long
I imagine that you’re a musical
some rich kid from New York wrote about credit,
debt, and then threw in Kool-Aid
to make it funny for everybody.
I can see the dance line,
the high kicks of the skinheads, twirling
metal pipes, stomping in unison
while the committed rage of the Gypsy Jokers
square off with the committed rage
of the single mothers.
The orchestra pit is filled with Pit bulls
and a Doberman conducts them all
into a frenzy.
In the end someone gets evicted, someone
gets jumped into his new family
and they call themselves Los Brazos,
King Cobras, South-Side White Pride.
Dear 82nd avenue, dear 92nd and Foster,
I am your strange son,
you saved me when I needed saving
and I remember 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.
When the dogs in my neighborhood go wild
over the patrol car’s red and blue scream, the lights hitting
someone’s window like electric tickertape
and I know some of those dogs are biters
because I was someone they bit,
I begin to think about the lives of men
and how we carry the heavy load of muscle, the rumble and ruckus,
without a single complaint
while vulnerability barely lifts its face from the newspaper.
But I’ve been drinking. I’m a little messed up
and there’s something about cigars and bourbon I no longer want
to be a part of. I remember how Kate would slip out
of her jeans, her bra. How she appled my body;
all that sweet skin and core, the full mouth and pulp.
She was like a country song
playing underneath an Egyptian cotton sheet, the easy kindness
of her body finding its way into mine.
But I have a father somewhere. I have a way
I’m supposed to walk down the street like a violent decision
that hasn’t been made yet.
I don’t care how many hours you put in
weeding the garden
or how much you love modern dance. You’ll still slip back
into your knuckles.
You can carry your groceries home in your public radio tote bag.
You can organize a book club.
You can date an Indonesian hippie with dread-locks
but you are never far from breaking someone’s jaw.
When I was twenty-three I went to a party,
drank two Coronas, and slapped my girlfriend across the face.
I wanted someone to beat me.
I wanted to get thrown into the traffic
I had made of my life,
to go flying over the couch
where two skater kids were smoking pot out of a Pepsi can
and talking about a friend
who ollied over a parked car the same day he got stabbed
at the mall.
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