I’ve visited exactly half of the states that make up our federal constitutional republic. I’m counting states that I’ve lived in, vacationed in, or merely driven through. Some of the states on my list are among the most beautiful places I’ve been to in the world, while others are remembered as blights better left forgotten. The point is that this country of ours contains an immense variety of environments, cultures and qualities of life. So much so that I can’t even begin to fathom what I have yet to see. That’s an exciting thought: knowing that I live in a country where, on any given weekend, I can pack a bag, hop in the car or on a train, and arrive at previously unknown sights.
Matthew and Michael Dickman’s 50 American Plays does an admirable job of capturing some of that excitement: excitement of exploration, of wonder. The poems that make up this collection are formatted as tight, typically page-long plays. They are heavy on personification and symbolism, surreal effect and humor. Stage instructions, if they are given at all, are limited to a handful of words. The title is slightly misleading, however, as there are actually 52 pieces in the collection—the brothers Dickman included both Guam and Puerto Rico. They are organized alphabetically. American entertainment icons such as Duke Ellington, Walt Disney, Bruce Springsteen, and Judy Garland make appearances.
The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, although its best moments occur when it does take itself seriously, and the end result is a mostly fun, loose romp through wild territory. But I can’t help but wonder why. Why format these poems as plays?
Reading the acknowledgements page at the beginning of the book, I learned that six years ago, a staged reading of 50 American Plays was hosted by Provincetown Theater. I have absolutely no way of judging how well this staging went, but much like the collection I’m reviewing here, I’m guessing it was hit-or-miss.
Some of these poems are lovely in their own right. Take, for example, “People Retire to Arizona for Lots of Reasons.” The stage directions are given as “Sunsets and deserts.” A clipped exchange between “An Old Man” and “An Old Woman” reveals a poem of great beauty and precision, where the silvery image of swinging golf clubs take on the delicate form of an angel’s wings. Then there’s the poem “The Coldest Weather in Indiana,” which includes the following lines, recited by “Snow:”
Draped like lace
Between the fencepost
And the sky
I spend all my time
Thinking of water
This is some powerful stuff—poems that dig deep and immediate into the very soul of a
state’s “character,” or the imagery that powers deeply embedded stereotypes, an understanding of qualities on a general level.
The problem is that a fair percentage of the poems that make up 50 American Plays come off as exercises in cleverness. These are often the shortest poems in the collection, so they’re easily forgiven, but still, they feel phoned-in and self-satisfied.
Here’s the entirety of “Missing You in Missouri:”
(A train station).
I miss you
(A train passes by).
It’s worth mentioning that Kenneth Koch seems to travel through the states in this collection as a sort of guiding meta-spirit, always in connection with the shadow of Hamlet. Here he is directing the play in Hawaii (“You don’t see your father/You/Feel your father”), playing Ophelia in Iowa, designing sets in Minnesota, portraying the tortured prince himself in Nevada. The reason for these appearances stems from one of the two epigraphs opening the collection, written by Koch’s great contemporary, John Ashbery: “In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery is the best part.” It’s no surprise then that some of the strongest pieces in 50 American Plays are the most inconspicuous, lamentations from A Bus Stop or A Closed Door.
The second epigram comes from the final lines of D.H. Lawrence’s poem “The Evening Land.” “’These States!’ as Whitman said, whatever he meant.” As frustrating, sad and silly as some of these hybrid play-poems may be, the brothers Dickman have dared to pick up where Whitman left off, exploring inside that confounding exclamation. What we’re left with as readers is at least as ugly and surprising as the country that serves as so much inspiration.