I stumbled across him by accident. One thing led to another and another, the way it often happens surfing the internet. And there it was, a video of Matthew Dickman reading at the San Francisco Zen Center.
And I was blown away. Yes, I actually was. The same way Emily Dickinson said poetry affected her—as if the top of her head had been removed—“blown away” I believe is the expression we’d use today.
Now, Dickman’s poetry isn’t Zen, or even spiritual. It’s earthy, sometimes crass and crude, lightly humorous. Hip, you might say, in the way the beat poets were hip, so clued into the “street life” of their age, with such insight and understanding, that they could be said to speak for that generation.
So I think is Dickman’s poetry, though since I’m not from that generation, and don’t normally speak that language, I may be wrong.
So please listen and tell me. Am I right? Does he capture something from today’s youth that expresses its particular angst and yearning , love and loss, in a way that both elevates and exemplifies it?
I’m trying to figure out just what captivates me in listening to him read his poetry. It’s so unpretentious and unassuming:
Like a scrap of paper blown down a dirty sidewalk that takes on a beauty of its own without meaning to.
Like that paper bag being blown around and around in the film “American Beauty.” Remember? It’s like that.
In this way, it may be Zen-like, after all. In that his blunt, sometimes unbeautiful images strike you as an unexpected blow over the head, like that “thwack” from the Master’s stick on the student’s head, that makes you wake up and “see,” but you’re not sure yet what you’re seeing, only that this quick-silver clarity is already fading, while something solid and meaty seeped unawares into your bones and shored them up.
If you’ve felt this way before, you know what I mean.
If you haven’t, don’t stress, you will.
Listen to Dickman read his poetry. See if it happens to you. Tell me if it does or doesn’t do what I say. I really want to know. People either love his work or hate it, I’ve heard, so either way I’m open.
Below you’ll find Dickman reading “Slow Dance” one of his fan’s favorite poems, and below that you can read his poem “V”.
If you want more, pick up his book All-American Poem.
Or go to the blog where I first found Matthew Dickman reading at The San Francisco Zen Center. It’s about 22 minutes long, but well worth the time it takes to listen to it.
Matthew Dickman reads his poem “Slow Dance” at Narrative Night 2008 in Seattle, Washington.
By Matthew Dickman
The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm
with her little sister
is wearing a shirt that says
TALK NERDY TO ME
and I want to,
I want to put my bag of groceries down
beside the fire hydrant
and whisper something in her ear about long division.
I want to stand behind her and run
a single finger down her spine
while she tells me about all her correlatives.
Maybe she’ll moan a little
when I tell her that x equals negative-b
plus or minus the square root
of b-squared minus 4(a)(c) all over
2a. I have my hopes.
I could show her my comic books
and Play Station. We could pull out
my old D&D cards
and sit in the basement with a candle lit.
I know enough about Dr. Who
and the Star Fleet Enterprise
to get her shirt off, to unbutton her jeans.
We could work out String Theory
all over her bedroom.
We could bend space together.
But maybe that’s not what she’s asking.
The world’s been talking dirty
ever since she’s had the ears to listen.
It’s been talking sleazy to all of us
and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb
that makes me want to wear a cock ring
or do it in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.
Maybe, with her shoulders slouched
the way they are and her long hair
covering so much of her face,
she’s asking, simply, to be considered
something more than a wild night, a tight
curl of pubic hair, the pink,
complicated, structures of nipples.
Maybe she wants to be measured beyond
the teaspoon shadow of the anus
and the sweet mollusk of the tongue,
beyond the equation of limbs and seen
as a complete absolute.
And maybe this is not a giant leap
into the science of compassion, but it’s something.
So when I pass her
I do exactly what she has asked of me,
I raise my right hand and make a V
the way Vulcans do when they wish someone well,
hoping she gets what she wants, even
if it has to be in a galaxy far away.