Green Migraine by Michael Dickman

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At the risk of negligent comparison—as comparisons so often are—I couldn’t help think of Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” when reading Green Migraine, Michael Dickman’s newest book of poetry. Carver’s renowned poem takes its fame from how it compresses the great ambitions of poetry to six unassuming lines. “And did you get what / you wanted from this life, even so?” We spend our lives first determining the components that make this question, and then grasping after and tamping an answer. And that answer, “To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved on the earth.” It’d be easy to see this as a simple poem. Clear, unornamented, honest. And while it is those things, its triumph is that it conjures an eternality imprinted by mortality.

It is this paradox, of the infinite in the finite, Michael Dickman enacts in Green Migraine. Dickman accomplishes this by way of scope; his vacillations from cosmic to minuscule are swift, but never reckless. He deftly directs this momentum in both individual poems and the book as a whole, starting with the first lines, “Crying in the cosmos that doesn’t sound like you // Crying in our arms / in the cosmos in our // arms.” From grand and boundless to personal, as close as flesh. Then back again. Dickman doesn’t just blur the boundaries between the universal and personal, he slides one on top of the other, like a lens. So, in moments we see through the universal into the individual and then, just as suddenly, a reversal. In doing so, Dickman emphasizes relativity, that the enormity of life is constructed by the living. We see the bee “Alive in the center of the room.” The bee sees itself “Alive in flowers.”

Green Migraine spans five migraines, of varying colors intensifying by degree. “White Migraine” inaugurates the series as perhaps the most harmless and blameless in the color scheme. And it is here that Carver haunts the line. “Everything / I ever wanted glows / in the moonlight // What do you want?” And then, “Are you loved?” appears three times as later in the poem, proceeded by the penultimate stanza, “My master / plan” and the final line, “is happiness.” To be clear, I don’t assume Dickman intentionally calls on Carver or, a more precarious insinuation, that he writes under subconscious influence. I mean only to compare their success at creating an enveloping minimalism. “It turns out white can make the world // absolutely clean // On all fours / the universal position / of love is white.”

A violence ensues in Dickman’s lyric that is neither malicious nor calculated. Instead, it is the natural violence that occurs in the chaotic transition from living to dying, and death transfused back into life. “Foxtrot,” for example, follows the speaker into a field where he finds the carcass of a fox, “Dead on the dance floor . . . Ants walk right through your ribcage.” Even among the death and decay, minute life continues in molecular movement. In a poem titled “Deer Crossing,” deer run through night,

Night noses
brown river and white
bellies
suitcases for flies
maggot bath and
shit slick

Dickman’s language provokes, his lines rife with shit and maggots, but such unequivocality honors the innate state and evolution of atrophy. There is little room for propriety or decorum. The scarcity of the page further emphasizes Dickman’s fidelity to minimalism. For a lyricism markedly without mess, Dickman insightfully intones the detritus of life and death—notably the liminal movement between. “It’s either spring or it’s not.”

But Green Migraine is not about cessations, death, ruins, or not solely. The poems brim with life (and are thus able to reflect the anxieties of life’s antithetical, death). Images of birth reoccur throughout the pages: eggs beaten and frog eggs growing, eggs bursting from their shells. “The light of the world / beads up on one perfect / green leaf.” And, “It doesn’t hurt / when a leaf falls / to the ground.” Green Migraine is cognizance and nature in tandem, helixing poems about either color or creature, migraine or animal (fox, worm, dog, and innumerable birds). The human is in the nexus: part animal, part wonderer, part instinct, part intellectual. The tension of this distinguishes us from our wild companions and landscapes, though we are often no lessen driven by our aged and innate impulses. Only we have the intellectual dexterity to reflect, and with reflection comes anxiety.

In “Where We Live” Dickman enters into evolutionary oscillation; again, death begets life begets death. “I used to live / in a mother now I live / in a sunflower.” And then “Here it’s spring // Over and over and over again // I used to live / in a cloud now I live / in a crow.” Animals both muscular and meager, strong and swift, populate the poems of Green Migraine; they crouch in juxtaposition to the human animal, mirroring its instincts, fears, furred body. But then, divergence as the animal springs back into the shadowed woods while the human stands, conscious, aware of her mortality in the way the a mere animal is loyal only to its immediate needs. In “Dog Vertigo”:

Some teeth down there
some hair and gray
gums

Some grass and dirt
down there some gristle
and whimpers

All stupid grinning death running around the yard making a little child cry from each busted grass blade

Most of Dickman’s poems extend this pattern—short lines, tercets and monostitch, and a long line bleeding off the page—creating a rhythm that reads as punctuated then urgent. Dickman’s use of form mirrors the intellectual interiority of Migraine as a whole, executing control then relinquishing the line.

“Lullaby,” the last poem of Green Migraine, is an aware and nervous poem about the conspicuous possibility of loss, its unrelenting hover, especially in the context of new—and thus, fragile—life. “Well we are blood people // The afterbirth sloshed into a blue bucket smelled like finger paint // All three of us stayed on earth in ruined underwear and tubes going in and the delivery room floated.” This poem announces itself, clearly, as the emotional nucleus of Green Migraine, as both core and culmination to a body of lyricism decidedly interested in the textures, tangibles of a life at once gritty and solemn. “He was huge / not in love yet purple brown / purple red and looked around and was not a baby toy // He was a WOLFBOY.” And then the “blood left back at the hospital the mud washed off and all that blue animal hair down the drain.”

Which is not to say that there is less animal in new, tiny human life, but that we scrub clean what we can from our skin, and position ourselves directly in the tangle of a conundrum: do we listen to the animal in us longing to live in the moment, or look outward, forward, and let it form us? Earlier in Migraine Dickman writes of light, how it “scribbles its name on every living thing then erases it so what’s left is more of a whisper than a mother.” Is there inherent anxiety in the fleeting, the finite, the light that becomes whisper, or is it placed there by way of human apparatus?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter; perhaps knowing the origins of our mortal angst wouldn’t influence or alter our behaviors. Because life’s precariousness is terrifyingly physical with terrifying repercussions on the nonphysical. At least, Green Migraine seems to point us in this direction. In “Lullaby” wildlife from each of earth’s ecosystems pay respects to the human birth. “Animals are here / and night and day and noises / are here and wolves / and birds.” The predator and the branch singer honor new life and the dangers forthcoming, the physical dangers but also maybe the danger implicated by human consciousness, in straying too far from impulse. Dickman’s simple cadence is worth quoting at length:

Your flat animal breathing
hard all night

The house breathing

Some fur still on you we haven’t rubbed off yet

Some oil we need to lick

A floodlight in a crib
A glass of milk asleep

You are so new
you could be gone tomorrow
and no one would know what to do

Raymond Carver didn’t just want to know, intellectually, he was beloved; he needed to feel it, call it out. As we may remember, Dickman first invites us into the whorled thrumming of Green Migraine with a cry in the cosmos. Naturally then, the last page and the last lines of the lullaby are another kind of welcoming, “Hello AUGUST // Little boy hello again hello.”  The line encourages a trek back to the first page; and the cyclic reading evokes infinity.


Caitlin Mackenzie is a poet and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon and working in book publishing. Her work can be found in Fugue, CutBank, HTMLgiant, Structo, and Lambda Literary among others, and her poetry was recently nominated for the Forward Prize. More from this author →