Castaway poet Vanessa Lampert chooses poems by Matthew Dickman, Dorianne Laux and Karen Solie. She talks about making amends, learning to be quiet, and how her three poems might teach her how to be a better poet
I’m going to be lonely. Time currently squandered daydreaming and gazing at my phone will probably be spent staring out to sea, eyes glued to the horizon, watching for the rescue boat. While I hope my chosen poems might help assuage my loneliness, perhaps they will also ensure my metamorphosis into the outstanding poet of my generation. Such fantasies will surely bring solace and help me survive. I trust I shall be provided with a Kaweco fountain pen, cartridges, a Leuchtturm spotty notebook or three, and a water-tight storage system for my (currently embryonic) second collection, working title Sunburned and Sick to Death of Fish.
I first read Matthew Dickman’s poems while I was studying for an MA in poetry at the Poetry School in London between 2017 and 2019. If, as Glyn Maxwell taught me, poems are ‘creaturely’, then Matthew Dickman’s poems are the kind of creatures I want to be in the same tribe as. His poems faithfully seduce me into a reassuring companionship, often within their opening lines. In my writing life, and outside it, they console me and make me bold enough to confess my own vulnerabilities. A Matthew Dickman poem never fails to make me hungry for more. I return to these poems, asking them to tell me what they said before, in much the same way as a child engages with a favourite book. Despite knowing the words by heart, I want them again and again, unchanged. Before real humans drop anchor, I’ll need the company of some reliable and comforting creatures to offer me alternative views of the world and the sweet consolation of knowing that collectively, our emotional lives share more similarities than differences.
Matthew Dickman’s brother died by suicide, as did mine. Perhaps I was bound to be interested in the work of a poet who might try to make sense of such interminably baffling tragedies, or at least provide me with an opportunity for catharsis. Dickman does not shun the tough subjects of loss and grief, but doesn’t haul the reader into the gloom with him. His poems don’t alight anywhere for long, instead they embody a shifting perspective that acknowledges and names our sorrows and then gestures outwards into the far distance, as if to say “The world is vast and aren’t we small? Isn’t there so much more than us?”. With no pause for the small respite of the stanza break, the restless prosody of a Matthew Dickman poem escorts its reader into the touching, tender and intimate arena of human connectedness. Since on the island I’ll be sorely missing the proximity of my beloveds, my poem choices must be rich with the salve of hope. Poetry, as the poet Horace said, must “delight and inform”. I hope to become a kinder, more forgiving and more loving person in order to practise the same, once rescued and back in South Oxfordshire.
I trust I shall be provided with a water-tight storage system for my (currently embryonic) second collection, working title ‘Sunburned and Sick to Death of Fish‘
My first poem is Matthew Dickman’s ‘Slow Dance’. It’s my favourite poem in the world (so far). I never tire of hearing this poem’s speaker tell me that what the heart longs for is a clumsy drunken dance with another clumsy drunken human, and that this absolutely trumps “putting another man on the moon”. Without stanza breaks, the poem offers little opportunity to pause and reflect. Long lines lull and carry the reader along on an unpredictable shifting tide. The language flies and dips. Its opening lines are light-hearted and captivating. This poem’s speaker takes my hand, its touch light and warm. I could let go if I wanted to, but I don’t. By seeming to reach for the page’s opposite margin, its lines assume a position of certainty that they have achieved rapport with me and wherever they lead I will surely follow.
There is a sudden and brilliant shift from “The Unchained Melody, Stairway to Heaven, power-chord slow dance” to the sentence that begins “All my life I’ve made mistakes. Small and Cruel”. Suddenly the speaker abandons his mask. No longer playful, his confession reveals a bare and flawed human. He trusts that his reader will recognise and forgive him. This air of self-assuredness allows him to segue into the fantastical, carrying his reader to “the Haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.” I have no idea what that means of course, but this creature is confident and great fun. He lets me into his heart and confides in me. He tells me to relax and lighten up. He is good company. I like to think he wants me as his friend.
On my desert island I am sure to be awake at night under a star-packed sky that is eternally oblivious to any perturbations of light pollution. With silver sand and turritella shells glittering in the moonlight around me, I will fidget and fret sleeplessly about every person I may have ever hurt or offended. Overwhelmed by remorse, I expect I will vow to commit all my remaining days to making amends.
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. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
The second poem I would like to take is ‘Enough Music’ by Dorianne Laux. This is a poem of only nine lines. I want to be reminded how a small work of art has the power, to quote Heaney, to “catch the heart off guard, and blow it open”. The first six lines create an intimate portrait of a couple on a car journey. Line seven’s “rope over a lake” is resonant with symbolism, suggesting a pendulum that marks the passing of time, the beauty of a lake and the recent departure of whoever was swinging (for joy?) on the rope only moments ago. The poem gains further emotional heft by its concise conclusion:
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.
It is by these closing words that the poet defines what might be injurious to the close bond between the couple, elegantly encapsulated in the poem’s opening lines. The poem’s first word “Sometimes” and the word “Maybe”, which opens its penultimate line, create a feeling of softness; a little room for doubt; narratives other than the speaker’s. By hinting at the existence of other conclusions, the speaker reveals her awareness that her companion may disagree with her. It is as if she is saying “it might just be me who thinks this …”. This acknowledgment of her uncertainty embellishes the poem with a feeling of exquisite gentleness. The poem leaves behind it an image of a swinging rope, no splash, no person or sound, but only the vivid simplicity of a rope and the idea of its return to stillness over the lake. Since the rope’s sole function is play, the image of it without a person swinging creates a sense of pathos: the possibility of loneliness when togetherness existed but has now ended. The final word ‘us’ encompasses the ambivalence of the ‘us’ of a couple and the ‘us’ of individuals, united in agreement.
Some of my time in isolation on the island might be usefully spent in learning to be quiet more often.
My third poem is ‘Dust’ by Karen Solie. I admire Solie for the economy of her writing, its seriousness, sudden changes in register, quiet humour and intellectual complexity. The creatures of Solie’s poetry are slightly reserved. They do not rush at the reader, insisting to be engaged with by utilising the charming trickery of obvious humour. Their more formal air reveals their self-assuredness. These creatures ask for respect by displaying their brilliantly athletic command of language and the precision of their presentation.
Written in couplets, ‘Dust’ is dignified by its spacious landscape. Each couplet arrives as a slice of narrative generously framed by the page. This stark presentation invites the kind of close attention that will confirm Solie’s finely-tuned craft. She makes every word count. Every couplet is weighty with a hinted-at narrative that lies below its surface and reveals possibilities beyond the apparent sum of its parts. The (questionable) problem drinking of the grandfather in the poem is revealed thus:
An empty bottle rolled under the passenger seat
and back out again
The grandfather’s secret is signposted and then hidden again. The rolling bottle keeps moving inside the vehicle driven by the grandfather. Is he an alcoholic? The apparent doubt and confusion of the poem’s young speaker makes us doubt too, with the couplet form steadfastly maintaining control over the pace of what is revealed and when. Five couplets down, the empty bottle becomes a metaphor for the poem’s speaker as a vessel to be filled with religious teaching. Later still, the speaker’s brother arrives, shifting her (and our) attention towards what is on the surface. The line “and isn’t he handsome” brings new light to the poem, offering respite from the darkness and suffering preceding it. Solie’s surgical precision in executing this shifting balance of darkness and light within poems that are marked by constant tonal movement is a mark of her excellence. She also subverts ideas that lines should be roughly equal in length – a premise to which I am often enslaved. By being positioned at the end of the poem’s longest line, the word ‘dust’ both calls to the eye of the reader and re-announces its prestige as the poem’s title.
Returning home from evening mass
in the big car,
they were like canal boats then
sliding through the loose gravel, in the back seat
she pushed my cuticles up
with a silver file not unpainfully
to expose the half-moons, she said
God put them there, he likes to see them.
As a person who has been grounded in the middle of England for pretty much my whole life, I admire the nomadism of Solie’s poetry and her stories of the vast landscapes of her native Canada. Maybe I will hire a pantechnicon and call it a truck and drive across every continent when I get off the island I haven’t yet been deposited on. Let’s get it over with so I can commence living the life of the older, newer me.