“Trouble,” The New Yorker August 11/18 2008
“Trouble” is a poem of quirky dichotomy. On one hand, we have the vast majority of the content: suicide after suicide after suicide—slight narrative moment—more suicide. On the other hand, we have the vast tone: uninspired, calm, taciturn. While the content could dip into the depressive, the tone never quite allows it. In fact, as it makes me pine nostalgic, if not sentimental, for lost actors, actresses, etc.—the litany of suicides—it makes me chuckle a bit at the pointless, foolishness of it all, of taking life/death so seriously. And it ends with a bit of a chuckle, the notion day after day, we (at the least speaker) carry on amidst all this quasi-tragedy with some semblance of self-control.
What I like most about Dickman’s list of suicides is that it is composed primarily of rather extraordinary people, people who have made some claim on fame via a pretty face (Marilyn Monroe), pretty acting skills (Marlon Brando), pretty poems (Sara Teasdale), and a pretty life’s work worthy of a Nobel (Harold Pinter). These are regarded as uncommon folk. Special folk. Yet, when lumped together almost in statistical fashion—as if the poem is a ticker of names more so than the lives the names represent—they seem completely common. They become faces in the crowd no different, really, than you or me, subject to the same pains and triumphs. The fact they committed suicide becomes as arbitrary as their fame, as their claims to fame.
So what’s the trouble? Got me. Dickman closes the poem “In the morning I get out of bed, I brush / my teeth, I wash my face, I get dressed in the clothes I like best. / I want to be good to myself.” Maybe it’s the simple pleasures the speaker enjoys, the whole putting pants on one-leg-at-a-time, that’s the trouble. That that's it. Maybe it’s that there’s so little we can control in our lives…might as well forget about all that really matters because it doesn’t really matter. What matters most is what happens in your little micro-micro-micro world, and even that’s up for grabs. This sentiment is echoed by the little asides throughout the poem, the quick turn-aways from the suicide-listing like “Sometimes / you can look at the clouds or the trees / and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground” and “I like / the way geese sound above the river. I like / the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they're beautiful.” Simple, unadorned, absurd, ineffable pleasures. All that fame and fortune and the struggle to acquire it—to create it in the case of many of the artists in Dickman’s list—just doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. So, clean your teeth.
Some of the little words about this poem I’ve read around the web indicate it's a bit depressing, but a look at craft shows otherwise. The poem is so blasé via tone, really a result of lineation and phrase-making, that it’s impossible to become depressing. Barring minor deviations (such as a one-word introductory clause and a compound sentence), all but two sentences are built subject-verb. One is an If-then sentence (so introductory-clause-followed-by-main-clause complex sentence) aside about reading a book when traveling, “especially by train,” and the other is the penultimate sentence quoted earlier, which begins with a short prepositional phrase (“In the morning)” not separated from the main clause with a comma. Both sentences essentially say the same thing: you can fix neither the world’s problems nor your own, but you can take care of yourself psychologically, physically in the interim (so, clean your teeth and feel good about it). But it’s the consistency of the other sentences that makes the poem's tone so banal. They lull readers into monotony, effectively dulling the usual emotions we associate with death and suicide.
As well, many of the lines are long to longer, which draws out the rhythms of Dickman’s sentences; the smattering of shorter lines keeps the poem from actually growing rhythmic. The poem retains the tone of a rather drab, almost disinterested conversationalist who's tired of telling the same old stories. The lines themselves are comfortably enjambed, a few are endstopped, so contextual tensions are further allayed. Those few lines that are more unnaturally broken don’t feel that way because too much poem asks us to ignore—in terms of pause—line breaks to a degree. Really, I wonder how many advantages other than subtle pacing this prose-poem acquires by using lineation at all. True, many of the lines have a conceptual or imagistic integrity to them, but many of the other lineation-born effects of poetry are dulled here.
But, if polarization of form and content is part of what’s at play, then that dullness seems a well-made choice. What few other Dickman poems I’ve read (from The Fishouse in particular) bear a similar effect. I’ll be curious to see what his new, first book is like.