This is a longer poem than those I’ve featured to date on The Scallop-Shell, but when I heard it last night I knew I had to write about it. Portland, Oregon’s Matthew Dickman read to a joyously-smashed crowd of our best and brightest at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, finishing up with ‘Getting It Right’, a buoyant paean to getting it on. Dickman’s lines fizz with the all-embracing energy of Frank O’Hara and the chameleonic strangeness of desire, occasionally leaving a surprising darkness in their wake.
Getting It Right
by Matthew Dickman
Your ankles make me want to party,
want to sit and beg and roll over
under a pair of riding boots with your ankles
hidden inside, sweating beneath the black tooled leather;
they make me wish it was my birthday
so I could blow out their candles, have them hung
over my shoulders like two bags
full of money. Your ankles are two monster-truck engines
but smaller and lighter and sexier
than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge;
they make me want to sing, make me
want to take them home and feed them pasta,
I want to punish them for being bad
and then hold them all night long and say I’m sorry, sugar, darling,
it will never happen again, not
in a million years. Your thighs make me quiet. Make me want to be
hurled into the air like a cannonball
and pulled down again like someone being pulled into a van.
Your thighs are two boats burned out
of redwood trees. I want to go sailing. Your thighs, the long breath of
under the blue denim of your high-end jeans,
could starve me to death, could make me cry and cry.
Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas,
a holy place, a hill I fell in love with once
when I was falling in love with hills.
Your ass is a string quartet,
the northern lights tucked tightly into bed
between a high-count-of-cotton sheets.
Your back is the back of a river full of fish;
I have my tackle and tackle box. You only have to say the word.
Your back, a letter I have been writing for fifteen years, a smooth stone,
a moan someone makes when his hair is pulled, your back
like a warm tongue at rest, a tongue with a tab of acid on top; your spine
is an alphabet, a ladder of celestial proportions.
When I place my fingers along it there isn’t an instrument in the world
I’d rather be playing. It’s a map of the world, a time line,
I am navigating the North and South of it.
Your armpits are beehives, they make me want
to spin wool, want to pour a glass of whiskey, your armpits dripping their
their heat, their inexhaustible love-making dark.
Your arms are the arms of nations, they hail me like a cab.
I am bright yellow for them.
I am always thinking about them,
resting at your side or high in the air when I’m pulling off your shirt. Your
of blue and ice with the blood running
through them. Close enough to your shoulders
to make them believe in God. Your shoulders
make me want to raise an arm and burn down the Capitol. They sing
to each other underneath your turquoise slope-neck blouse.
Each is a separate bowl of rice
steaming and covered in soy sauce. Your neck
is a skyscraper of erotic adult videos, a swan and a ballet
and a throaty elevator
made of light. Your neck
is a scrim of wet silk that guides the dead into the hours of Heaven.
It makes me want to die, your mouth, which is the mouth of everything
worth saying. It’s abalone and coral reef. Your mouth,
which opens like the legs of astronauts
who disconnect their safety lines and ride their stars into the billion and
voting districts of the Milky Way.
Darling, you’re my President; I want to get this right!
I can’t compete with the poem itself for a killer opening, so instead I’m going to talk about verbs. There’s about a dozen of them in the first sentence alone, blitzing the reader with the sheer exuberance of things being done to things; but the narrator’s actions are all conditional, held back (barely) by his ‘want’s and ‘could’s, and the poem transfers its generative power, and the reason for its existence, to its subject. Specifically, her ankles – ‘they make me want to sing’ – it’s an invocation to a muse in superzoom. ‘Of ankles and the woman, I sing.’
In the second line, ‘want to sit and beg and roll over’ initiates a pattern of insistent but constantly-altering movement, leading up to a dizzying enjambment (‘roll over/under’) which propels us forward. The language is inexhaustibly polymorphous, jumping from milk to monster-trucks, but at the same time utterly single-minded; all the ideas spiral off from and return to a single body part, and the narrator moves from his lover’s toe to head, paying close attention to each in turn. Most get about five to seven lines in the spotlight – the ankles more than twice that.
It’s a voyage of discovery in the tradition of John Donne’s ‘roving hands’; when the spine is compared to a ‘map of the world’ to be navigated, ‘O my America! My new-found land!’ sounds a distant echo. The poem, like the lover’s thighs, is one ‘long breath’, its supple lines of varying length suggesting a single, repeatedly-reshaped observation and declaration, creating the illusion of urgency and presence in one hugely magnified moment of apostrophe. And as with Donne, the force of sexual persuasion finds darker analogues in other kinds of force; Dickman introduces undercurrents of punishment, kidnapping, revolutionary violence, as the poem sweeps forward like a forest fire, catching up everything in its wake, including the speaker.
He flits from role to role like the characters in the folk song The Two Magicians – musician, fisherman, weaver, taxi – and the lover’s spine, as map and alphabet, seems to offer the possibility of decoding and fixing that which constantly threatens to spin into intangible plurality. Image after image is cut loose like the astronauts who ‘disconnect their safety lines’, an act the poem somehow changes from sure-fire suicide into a triumph of the democratic process.
Donne is ‘all princes’ to his lover’s ‘all states’, but Dickman doesn’t limit himself to monarchy. The narrator speaks not as an unelected ruler, but a voter and a loyal citizen, reframing the previous lines as so many attempts to be the best lover he can be. The title is in the present continuous, and the final declaration of an act not yet realised, meaning that the movement underlying the poem remains uncompleted and lives beyond it, charged with potential energy. Here as elsewhere, (‘Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas’, an astonishingly bold statement of giddy abundance), the poem gently runs its hands along the fine line between the sexy and the ridiculous, before giving up and humping it silly.
You can find the magazine Matthew Dickman edits, Tin House, here. He’s giving a reading at the Poetry Society in London next Thursday, May 23rd.