Disorientation, Disgust, and Killing flies

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Michael Dickman’s poems inhabit a place in which “morning makes its way up the street as a loose pack of wild dogs” and we find ourselves—through his sharp pronoun use—feeling complicit in acts of violence that are committed in a landscape whose creator we can’t identify.

The dominant experience out of which contemporary American poets have been writing for the past ten years is the experience of disorientation. Not unlike Georg Lukács’s theory of transcendental homelessness, disorientation is an aesthetic stance in which the poet’s home, family, body—even the words he speaks—are so unfamiliar, so strange to the poet, that he feels he is encountering them for the first time. No matter how false he knows this sensation to be, it is thus the work of the poet to make meaning out of this disconnect, to locate, identify, and communicate his geographical and psychic estrangement in such a way that he dismantles and alleviates our own.

Michael Dickman locates the poems in Flies in a surreal, twilit, suburban landscape that calls to mind the uncanny arrangements of photographer Gregory Crewdson. “We lived in a little blue house with a maple tree in the front yard,” he writes in “Home,” a place where “the stars are / in the ground / with my grandfather” and “the light comes up through his teeth // and // the black grass.” The book’s opening lines, delivered as though to put us at ease—“you don’t have to be / afraid //anymore”—also hint at a threat that grows more terrifying the further Dickman draws us into his world. Dickman has a knack for making us feel we already belong to this world, as his poems inhabit a place in which “morning makes its way up the street as a loose pack of wild dogs” and we find ourselves—through his sharp pronoun use—feeling complicit in acts of violence that are committed in a landscape whose creator we can’t identify:

Killing each other as much as we can
beneath the
pines

The pines
that are somebody’s
masterpiece

It takes Dickman a few poems to find his voice (during which he fumbles with a few of the predictable stanza endings found throughout the book: “any second now/ any second / now,” “you’re a dog / you’re a fucking / dog”), but once he arrives at “Shaving Your Father’s Face,” he hits a pitch that wavers rarely in the book’s remaining pages. Here are the first seven stanzas of “Shaving”:

First I get a father
from some city
of fathers

One with a neck

bright
red

And with all the bird bones in my fingers carefully tip his chin back
            into the light like love
      so I can see
      so I can smell

I tell a dirty joke and drag the steel across the universe

There’s nothing better
than shaving your father’s face
except maybe
shaving

your mother’s legs

Dickman confronts his disorientation with a child’s pragmatism that is all the more gripping for its tenderness and whiff of sensuality. His treatment of the body throughout Flies is fascinating, as he oscillates back and forth between the childlike aloofness above—with women who “lick their fingers/ to wipe my face/ clean// of everything”—and a disgust and aggression toward the body that borders on masochism. “I want to wipe off your face with my face,” he writes, “drag my face across your body like a rag and wring you out onto the sheets.” This is a different approach from that of, say, Frank Bidart, for whom disgust and shame are always aimed fiercely (and foremost) at the self. Dickman, by directing his disgust outward, toward another person, and by refusing to shy away from the ego’s sexual compulsion to consume that person, generates a disgust toward the self that lacks our sympathy, creating a self-loathing that is as terrifying as it is urgent.

Urgency is the dominant means through which disorientation is communicated in Flies, and nowhere is Dickman more urgent than in his long lines, which often spill over the margin of the page into the next line. Listen to the way each of these unpunctuated lines builds, forces, and exhausts its own breath:

You fall down once it doesn’t hurt and look you can see the ash
        you’ve left behind drifting off like snow in summer

(“Stations”)

someone wrote THE KINGS ARE RETURNING in the newly
        poured concrete right before it dried and they returned

(“Imaginary Playground”)

Thirty-three flies bring in a cake from the other room and set it on
        fire singing the song my name sings

(“Killing Flies”)

I have made so many mistakes that I must wake all the Lords up
        early so we can get a head start on cleaning some of this shit up

(“An Offering”)

Often located between stanzas that end with lines of a single word, these long lines trail across the page in such a way that they feel like outbursts delivered in panic, as though our speaker does not know how much longer he has to speak and must therefore speak as fast as he can. It makes for a stunning tactic, as it allows Dickman to communicate psychic disorientation through an onslaught of sound, locating his disorientation not in an image but in his speaker’s inability to govern the rate and intensity of his own utterance.

If Dickman does locate disorientation within a single, physical entity, that honor belongs to the insects for whom the book is titled. We first encounter the flies in “False Start,” where they are cared for like children and disciplined like pets:

My mother sits on the floor of her new kitchen carefully feeding the flies
        from her fingertips

My father trains the flies to walk from one end of his fingers to the other

Next he’s going to train them to walk across his eyelids

How to hide in the holes in his teeth

When he sings and he never sings we will see wings and brains

With the death of his parents later enacted in “False Start”, Dickman creates enough psychic space for disorientation to run rampant. “Stations,” a fourteen-part poem haunted by a crucifix referred to only as “the little cross,” brilliantly destabilizes Flies when the book is at its most vulnerable. But it’s the moment immediately after “Stations” that I want to focus on, as it’s here, in the silence following the book’s loudest and most terrifying poem, that the flies return:

Then it’s the flies
that wake me
up

It’s the flies that gently get me out of bed and slip me into some
        clothes so I can walk around outside

It’s the flies that sweetly call my name

so I’ll know it’s time

walking all over my face
whispering and
eating shit

The ways in which the flies suddenly take on the role of guardians in lieu of the parents is beautifully timed, and the allure of this serendipity is not lost on our speaker. “I love it here,” he says, “and am never going / to leave.” It’s as though the more estranged, the more disoriented Dickman’s speaker becomes, the more he feels at home. And yet, our last major encounter with the flies finds them subjected to murder as a means of accepting and moving beyond the death of Dickman’s younger brother, whose ghost haunts these poems as much as any flies or little cross:

I sit down for dinner
with my dead brother
again

the kitchen is full of flies
flies are doing all
the work

the flies need to be killed as soon as we’re done eating this delicious
        meal they made

These are the last things we’ll do together:

eat dinner
kill flies

You have to lie down next to the bodies shining all in a row like
        black sequins stitching up the kitchen floor

It’s this last sequence, in which the flies oversee the preparation of a ceremony that will culminate in their death, that is ultimately Dickman’s best performance. The sense of fatalism that imbues the poem, the sense that horror must be persevered in order to go on living, creates such a serene and delicate effect that we feel our speaker is emerging from his disorientation. It’s no mistake then that the book’s final poem, “Home,” returns to the flies with fresh eyes. Here we see them “stuck between the single-pane and the storm windows,” stripped of their surreal power as guardians and custodians, but still “turning up the volume on everything.” With this last gesture, Dickman suggests that one’s experience of disorientation is inextricable from experience itself. In the end, it’s the voice, its ability to make meaning and create belonging, that makes the difference. And so Dickman leaves us with the best metaphor for home he can muster: “your voice / there in front of me / where I am going / to live.”


Danniel Schoonebeek's poetry and reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Awl, Publishers Weekly, American Poet, La Fovea, Underwater New York, and Maggy. He was born in the Catskills and may be reached at danniel.schoonebeek@gmail.com. More from this author →