Exquisite strangers

When money will have nothing to do with me,

when the only voice I hear is my own

and all my books are having a great laugh at my expense --

especially Lowell

who doesn't think I'm a man at all --

I go to the café and sit among my amigos.

The woman whose left arm has blossomed into skulls and roses is my sister.

The man in the business suit, wrapped like a muzzle around his body,

is talking on the phone with a client. The client is my brother.

The man is my confidant . . .

So begins "Amigos," a standout work from Matthew Dickman's first collection, "All American Poem" (American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press: 85 pp., $14). The voice is casual and intimate, startling us with metaphors -- "blossomed into skulls," "wrapped like a muzzle" -- whose brilliance seems natural and unforced. Then, the tone suddenly shifts:

At any moment California will fall into the Pacific

and this congregation of ours will rise up

and walk across the Barnes & Noble parking lot

toward those breaking waves.

We will be together

in car accidents, train wrecks,

in a hot bath clouding up with our own blood

while the men and women we love read quietly in the other room,

in emergency landings,

with twelve-year-olds carrying their fathers' pistols to class,

we will look and see each other.

Out of the quest for companionship, apocalypse looms: "There are days I feel as though someone has written my name on a stone / and thrown it over the cliff."

As "Amigos" goes on, we see that the subject of this chatty, gregarious poem is the American empire and its demise. Dickman wonders how he would react if the cruelties enacted elsewhere came back to visit us in some punitive way:

I want to be with everyone here,

with their lattes and mochas,

while the water rises

and the top of the Golden Gate bridge is blinking in the surf,

when the aliens land and eat us,

as soldiers from another country drag us by the hair

from our yards

while the valley is flooded and all its talk about vastness and god has drowned,

I want to know their names, mis amigos,

their hands reaching out toward mine,

when the flights are rerouted

away from our loved ones, let's all lift a glass or child in the air,


as we watch the final cruelty performed simultaneously

with the last kindness.

Anticipating disaster, Dickman crystallizes and celebrates human contact, reminding us -- as the English poet Philip Larkin did -- that our best memories, those most worth holding on to, those that might save us, will be memories of love. In other poems Dickman celebrates skinheads, parties, pot being smoked out of soda cans, campus vending machines, a toilet bowl, biker gangs, girls with tattoos and another girl who keeps her boots on during sex. One poem is called "The Black Album," after Metallica. The background, then, is a downbeat America resolutely of the moment; the style, though, looks back to the singing free verse of Walt Whitman and Frank O'Hara.

"Grief," a poem that Dickman first published in the New Yorker, begins:

Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills

to bed when she was thirty-six and Marlon Brando's daughter

hung in the Tahitian living room of her mother's house

while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head.

There follows a litany of suicide, including that of "Louis Lingg, the German anarchist" who "lit a stick of dynamite in his own mouth / though it took him six hours to die"; Polish writer Jan Potocki who "shot himself with a silver bullet" and Sara Teasdale "who swallowed a bottle of blues / after drawing a hot bath in which dozens of Roman Emperors opened their veins beneath the water." Interspersed with the list of self-inflicted dooms are more of Dickman's random acts of radiance. "I like the way geese sound above the river," he writes. "If you are traveling, you should always bring a book to read, especially / on a train."

Dickman, barely out of his 20s, was born in Oregon, and his work swings with all the crazy verve of the West. Another young poet, Valzhyna Mort, sounds a more intense and incantatory tone in her first major collection, "The Factory of Tears" (Copper Canyon Press: 116 pp., $15). "And once again according to the annual report / the highest productivity results were achieved / by the Factory of Tears," Mort writes. "While the Department of Transportation was breaking heels / while the Department of Heart Affairs / was beating hysterically / the Factory of Tears was working night shifts / setting new records / even on holidays."

That last, funny phrase -- "even on holidays" -- gives us a clue to Mort's sensibility. Politics are invoked, but tough-mindedly and with a sly wryness born of weary experience. This poem, the indelible title poem of the collection, ends:

I'm a recipient of workers' comp from the heroic Factory of Tears.

I have calluses on my eyes.

I have compound fractures on my cheeks.

I receive my wages with the product I manufacture.

And I'm happy with what I have.

Mort spent her formative years in Belarus, when that country was still part of the Soviet Union -- which may explain how she got so stoic. She lives in New York now, though part of her project is to reclaim the Belarusian tongue. In this book, therefore, her poems appear in the original Belarusian with English translations on facing pages, and Mort herself has wittily said: "Poetry translations are like men. If they are beautiful, they are unfaithful. The translations here are done by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright, and they're very beautiful indeed:

the memory of you

is like a needle in hay

that cannot be found

but every time tumbling with another man

in that hayloft

I'm scared that it will sting me.

This comes from "Cry Me a River," a poem that stuns us with images of a poet in performance -- "brooches and rings / glitter like shoals of fish / she has no choice but to sing / in the cage of a voice / while the tongue / is whipping her gibbous mouth."

Mort's style -- tough and terse almost to the point of aphorism - recalls the great Polish poets Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. On YouTube, Mort looks like a gorgeous pixie; on the page she can be ferocious:

when our eyes were poked out we talked with our hands

when our hands were cut off we conversed with our toes

when we were shot in the legs we nodded our heads for yes

and shook our heads for no and when they ate our heads alive

we crawled back into the bellies of our sleeping mothers

as if into bomb shelters

to be born again

and there on the horizon the gymnast of our future

was leaping through the fiery hoop

of the sun.

Poets are reporters and secretaries of the invisible, as Milosz himself said. They tell us what we didn't know we knew and thus reinvent and refresh life. That's the big and necessary goal. Matthew Dickman puts it more modestly in his poem "Slow Dance": "More than putting another man on the moon, / more than a New Year's resolution of yogurt and yoga, / we need the opportunity to dance / with really exquisite strangers."

Dickman & Mort: They sound like a law firm out of Charles Dickens; in fact, they're exquisite strangers it's a thrill and an enlightenment to dance with.

Rayner's "Paperback Writers" column appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now