Matt Stangel: The Portland in the poetry

Tin House's new collection and Matthew Dickman collide with life itself

By MATT STANGEL

Sitting outside in the sun at a cafe on Hawthorne, I’m on the final stanzas of a poem by Mary Szybist from Tin House‘s Portland-Brooklyn issue when the upward buzz of an accelerating engine becomes a screech and then a street-silencing slam.

I look up as the rider hangs in the air between his motorcycle and the pavement before disappearing behind the wreckage—the chopper splintering through the front end of a mint-green hybrid, wedging into the wheel well. My heart in my fingers. Searching for my phone. Dialing 9-1-1.

The surrounding blocks take the tenor of disaster. First, a quiet that defies the city experience. Then, as the details settle in, as buildings empty and people begin to understand what they’ve just seen, it’s all panicked voices, oh my Gods and holy shits, hands held in shock over open mouths. For a brief moment, everyone forgets what it is they’re doing, abandons the active tasks of daily life.

“To confirm that you’re calling about an emergency, please say ‘nine one one’ after the tone,” instructs a sterile, pre-recorded voice, and I comply. “Please hold, someone will answer your call as soon as possible.” My pulse in my fingers. A long pause. The message again. The man flying through the air, the epinephrine shockwave behind him, the message again.

I feel like I’m pinned to my seat. Time isn’t working. The cops show up first. Ambulances later. Much later.

When curiosity finally gets the best of me, I approach the scene of the accident with a two-part morbid curiosity: Where did the motorcyclist touch ground and can a human survive such trauma?

A half-block from the crude recombination of vehicles is a busted-up cell phone. This pile of white plastic and computer chips, a cop tells me, is where the man on the motorcycle landed.

“He was going 90,” the cop clarifies, perhaps parroting exaggerated witness testimony. That fast?

A sedan runs over the pile of cell phone, sending bits and pieces up into the air and down again like leaves, moving them ever so slightly away from the crash, abstracting their function as a forensic marker, car by car.

****

I’m sitting at the Side Street Tavern with Matthew Dickman, author of a recently-released book of poems called Mayakovsky’s Revolver and poetry editor at Tin House, the lit mag that I was reading at the time of the crash.

Dickman’s beer is missing a few sips, and we’re flipping through the aforementioned Portland-Brooklyn issue (thematically dedicated to literature coming out of Tin House’s bicoastal hometowns).

Our discussion hovers around the local literary identity—specifically, that of our poetry. I’m wondering if, after having sifted through so many submissions for the regionally-focused issue, it seems like there’s anything that makes a Portland poet unique. What is it that local poets share? What are people writing about?

Illustration by Matthew Seely for Tin House

He flips to page 170 and talks about the distances traversed in local poet Lisa Ciccarello‘s long lines. He reads aloud the opening sentences of Bianca Stone‘s “Sensitivity To Sound,” giving me time to absorb her tight images. My impulse is to strip things of aesthetic trappings and get down to content. What is it these poets want me to know?

Dickman says that, by and large, poetry—written locally or otherwise—expresses love and suffering. Portland poets merely live in a particular urban landscape, and like any landscape, it can act as the framework for the discussion of humanity’s most commanding emotional forces.

He’s got a metaphor for how to view this issue of Tin House: the essays, the fiction, the explication, those are the body. They deal with exterior things. But the poems, those deal with the interior. The wide emotional geometries a person carries within.

I can see how the inside and the outside come and go from one another; how the poems and essays and pieces of fiction allow for a certain degree of intertextual osmosis.

Ciccarello’s “At Night, the Dead, the Perfect Inside Is Outside” starts with images of rain, sky, and mountains before she declares, “This much white is a kind of darkness,” and takes the reader to an amorphous place: a boat stands in for the mountain, the absence of the moon turns everything off: “We light candles but the flame is taken away. We reach the deck but see no way down. What is outside of trust is outside of belief.”

Ciccarello goes to a place of fear, everything just out of reach, mistrusted, pushed into a void of unreliability—though to what end isn’t necessarily clear.

As a reader, I can’t help but pair the dank environmental conditions that hang over Ciccarello’s poem to the rains and muds that define the Occupy camp in Jon Raymond‘s level-headed reportorial piece, “The Broadway Gang.” Raymond’s essay, anxious in its own ways, accounts as much for the political dilemma surrounding last year’s protest movement as it does for the encampment’s social strangeness, with “NPR liberals” joining protests as tourists of activism, while hardy-but-sad street kids live in pits of mud for weeks on end.

The piece builds to Raymond’s decision not to stand against riot cops on eviction day, a day riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. There’s a fear of humanity in this day that I can also see in local poet Crystal Williams‘ piece, “Cancer Rising.” Williams’ poem opens in a cancer treatment center, where she isolates the battleground between life-threatening illness and dignity: “when all the body understands/& uses for sustenance is encased—/iced over or dead—/when it is malnourished & slow,/& all you can depend on/is your own disbelief/in nature’s grace, your sly hoarding/eyes―in the waiting room,/at the window—/your stupid animal,/starved/& hungry for blood.”

The takeaway is pointed: Williams doesn’t buy into notions of a graceful natural world. She sees its ugliness, how cancer wicks the elegance from a person, how entropy takes over, destroys the sense of order that civilization drapes over wilderness.

Like the maze of emotional throughlines found in the Portland-Brooklyn issue, my conversation with Dickman rambles. We trade stories about Gerald Stern. He recites a Mark Strand poem from memory. Peanuts are cracked and shells are deposited into a coffee mug.

Pretty soon we’re finishing drinks and I’m not sure if I’m closer to understanding Portland’s literary identity, but it feels like progress.

****

When I recognize the road-rashed scrap of white plastic—the protective back panel of the motorcyclist’s cell phone collecting dirt on the side of the road—I’m almost home from Side Street and my sharp memories of the crash cut through the whiskey and pissy rain: the motorcycle-shaped peg in a car-shaped hole; my hands trembling as I gave my report to the 9-1-1 dispatcher; the image of the man flying through the air inscribed on every third thought.

I realize now there was poetry in that moment. There was a horrible stanza on the road, communicating its suffering in debris and sirens, and we all read it the same; we on the streets—onlookers, rubberneckers, and witnesses—suddenly unified in our empathy for the suffering of those injured.

Or perhaps there wasn’t poetry in that moment—certainly no artistic intent in a car crash—but rather a lesson about poetry: for readers to empathize with a poem, with an expression of a particular emotional state, they must see, and believe in, the impetus for those emotions. If the streets are to flood with concerned people, there must be a car crash, an earthquake, an event commensurate with a poet’s reactionary emotional substance.

For instance, in Dickman’s own work, the poet’s emotional state circulates around his brother’s suicide and the ways that event has burrowed into the fabric of the city. There’s a clear causal relationship between the real world and how the poet is feeling. In representing full-spectrum experience, readers can see the truth in a work, how the poet’s inner life got the way it is and why they should share in it.

I look down at the white piece of plastic gathering dirt at the side of road—let the memory wash through me one more time, allow the man his flight between one wreck and another—and make my way home.

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