In case you are wondering, as I know I was, Vladimir Mayakovsky was an early 20th century Russian poet and playwright who committed suicide. Further, Frank O’Hara penned a poem simply titled “Mayakovsky,” where he writes, “That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest” and then, “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again.” Maybe Matthew Dickman was alluding to both of these poets in his new collection of poetry Mayakovsky’s Revolver. The poems in this collection—mostly quiet and often startling elegies— are concerned with suicide, this “blood on my chest,” and these “catastrophes of personality.” That is to say, at its most intrinsic level, Mayakovsky’s Revolver examines not just the contours, angles of grief, but how grief contours and molds us.
I feel like I have written about my favorite poem in the collection, “King,” before: maybe that’s because I think about it all the time.
Dickman begins: “I am always the king of something. Ruined or celebrated,/ newly crowned or just beheaded.” These opening lines contain both a narcissistic grandeur and a day dreaming vagueness. Dickman is “king” not of a specific palace or country, but of “something,” an entity of which he himself was not certain. Then he writes: “I sit in the middle/ of the room in December/ with the windows open, five pills and a razor. My lifelong/ secret. My killing power and my staying/ power.” Besides for the obvious poetry wordplay with “lifelong” which could also be read as “life long,” Dickman also hints at the duality about life and death. By etching out the suicidal scene, the pills, the razors, the open window, and himself sitting there, Dickman shows that our “staying power” is twisted with our “killing power.” He has chosen the staying power, and that is his secret. I am fascinated by this “staying power,” a force that chooses to continue being a force as oppose to a force that chooses to abort.
Dickman’s poem turns when he introduces his brother. He writes:
[S]o I put on my black-white
checkered-Vans, the exact pair of shoes
my older brother wore when he was still a citizen of the world
and I go out, I go out into the street
with my map of the death and look for him,
for the X he is,
Maybe it’s the shoes that make these few lines so powerful for me. Dickman chooses a simple wardrobe piece, shoes, black-white checkered Vans to hark back to his older brother. Shoes take us places, walk the earth, and ground, and dust with us, protecting the soft and vulnerable soles of our feet from the harsh elements of the land. To me, the selection of these shoes indicates a desire to be closer to what is now missing, re-unite with a lost soul (I’ll refrain from soul/sole play). Dickman’s “the map of the dead,” his search for the “X” that his brother is, evokes the language of abstraction. How does one become an “X,” if not for in her death. X marks the absence of being, but also a treasure. Dickman scavengers for his brother, who was once a “citizen of the world” so that he can:
[p]ut the scepter back in his hands, take the red
cloak from my shoulders and put it around his, lift the crown
from my head and fit it just above his eyebrows,
so I can get down on one knee, on both,
knees, and lower my face and whisper my lord, my master, my king.
Although I have read these words, this poem, many times, there is still something that startles me as I type them out, thinking about them now. The narcissism essential to the earlier lines of this poem has vanished. Now, Dickman submits to the memory of his dead brother, and his desire to revive him. This was the brother who he idolized and now he longs to idolize him again. Ultimately, this poem is about the lost sibling, the brother who once represented everything but now can only be an X, an absence. However, what intrigues me is Dickman’s metaphoric trajectory from being the king to crowning his brother as king. Dickman. This poem is about the X: the absence. When what we revered has vanished, and we are seized only with the memory cards of what once was, we try to re create what we once admired when we are alone. This is what Dickman seems to saying to me. The void resulting from the loss of a sibling who was king to him has put him in a position where only he can be king, a position he does not fully comprehend, now he is king of “something.”
It would be useful here to point out that many of the poems in this collection are haunting elegies that Dickman wrote upon the suicide of his older brother. Earlier in the collection, in “Coffee,” Dickman writes:
I’m sitting near a hospital where psychotropics are being
carried down the hall in a pink cup,
where someone is lying there and doesn’t know who
[…]Once, I had a brother,
who used to sit and drink his coffee black, smoke
his cigarettes and be quit for a moment
before his brain turned it armadas against him, wanting to burn
What fascinates me about “Coffee” (and also “King”), is how Dickman just, at the end, throws it in there, like it is a by-thought instead of the crux of the poem: “Once, I had a brother.” This is Dickman’s skill. He tells you his story, intimately conversing with you as one would with an old friend, and he reminds you that although his poem seems to be about himself, what actually throbs beneath the language, words, and story, is an ache for his older brother. Dickman’s conveyance of grief is not melodramatic or saccharine, he does not make sweeping proclamations. Instead, he is subtle.
This is not to say that Mayakovsky’s Revolver is a depressing collection. At times, Dickman is exuberant and playful, reminding me of a current-day Frank O’ Hara. His poem, “I Made You Dinner, Bob Kaufman” reminds me of O’Hara’s “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” In the last lines of the poem, Dickman writes, “I made [aioli] from scratch/ because I don’t have to be in hell if I don’t want to be.” This is Dickman’s staying power, his choice to drink coffee in the hospital cafeteria; ultimately, while this collection of poems meditates on mourning, it also realizes and quietly celebrates living.