Matthew Dickman and Michael Dickman. 50 American Plays.
Review by Shelley Wong
In this age of the mash-up, Matthew and Michael Dickman’s collection of poems 50 American Plays is a timely foray into hybrid poetry. While integrating poetry into plays has been done since Shakespeare and many contemporary playwrights continue to do so, a collection of play-poems written by a poet—or in this case, poets—feels particularly de rigueur. Authors are breaking down genre categories as so-called literary authors like Jennifer Egan borrow from popular fiction and use tropes of sci-fi, crime, and romance as integral parts of their narratives.
The Dickmans’ collection is not only a hybrid of genres, but also a fusion of two distinct voices. In both poetry and plays, the construction of voice is crucial. The Dickmans combine Matthew’s exuberance with Michael’s somberness to create a chorus of America, state-by-state, using vivid characters who are famous, ordinary, oppressed, and, frequently, personifications. Fred and Ginger play tug-o’-war and alternately speak lines:
Only in Ohio
Could the covered bridges
Be so covered
And the working poor
Run out to the movies
Like a movie themselves!
This poem demonstrates the satirical approach to the content and references the hybridity of the form in relation to content; the Dickmans’ conscious use of staged performance gives voice to social commentary. Throughout the collection, poems celebrate and critique what it means to be American by pointing out what is represented and what is oppressed. The register changes from stage settings to regionally particular landscapes to suggest the collapse of boundaries between what is real and artificial. The young man and woman in California are satirized to show the absurdity of their values. The poems move from the ecstatic to the poignant, sometimes in the same poem, sometimes from poem to poem, to keep the reader entertained (there’s definite play in these poems), but the work is saved from being merely charming by its accumulating sense of political charge, which is amplified with the addition of two poems for the U.S. territories Guam and Puerto Rico.
The variation keeps the work surprising; poems vary in line length, but tend to be highly enjambed. This forces the reader to slow down and hear these poems as such; it also constructs the images and scenes in a more deliberate fashion so that these short play-poems have lingering narrative power. The poems are arranged alphabetically by state, formatted like a play, and tend to be no longer than a page. This fragmentary approach seems necessary to sustain such an ambitious project. The play form is efficient; content is restricted to scene description, character names, and dialogue. The reader enters a state and is quickly dispatched to the next page. The poetry form provides a succinct state “stage” through contextualized titles (“The Swimming Pools of California,” “The Past inMassachusetts”) and the ample white space allows these brief play-poems to linger in the reader’s mind and provide a visual “reset” before moving on to the next poem.
The most exciting result of the hybridization is the play-poem’s ability to envision the look of the play through language that doesn’t directly correlate with a visual experience. Scenes are set in poetic language so the reader’s imagination becomes integral to the experience of the play-poem. Plays are a collaborative art; the playwright provides scene description, action, and dialogue and hands off the work to a director to interpret and stage the play. In the play-poem, the reader is the intercepting force. As with poetry, the reader is able to interpret and experience a play-poem through what is being said, but, more importantly, how it is being said. “Love in Alaska” is described as “It’s light out all night long” in the opening and “It’s still light out” at the close. Scene description is as integral to the play-poem as a line of dialogue and resonates with the collection’s opening epigraph from John Ashbery: “In all plays, even Hamlet, the scenery is the best part.” Personified characters pack added surprise and charm: the Cows speak to the Fence in Utah; Snow delivers a monologue in Indiana; and Georgia Peach, Georgia On My Mind, and Southern Hospitality come together. These play-poems can only be staged in the reader’s mind.
The Dickmans create a surreal America of familiar symbols, characters, and places who have voice. In plays, text is stripped to voice and environment. In this slim, pocket-sized volume, there is no space for character development or backstory. The poems are about the surface of America: its consumerism, its regional attitudes, its diversity in every sense of the word, and how history is imbued in its landscape. It is a haunted and dangerous world, where figures are lonely, regretful, under threat, and desperate to connect. In this book, Judy Garland misses Oz from Kansas, longing for “the beautiful flying monkeys above the endless/emeralds the unbelievably green world.” America is envisioned as a stunningly realized nation of escapism, but this book is also a love letter to America’s greatest national treasures. This America shows its scars (Native American oppression, Japanese internment, the homeless) as well as its glorious contributions (jazz, Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen) in a dazzling poem road trip. What could have been merely reductive to a leisurely ride is complicated by the attention to Americans who struggled and suffered. Those Americans are just as American as the famous and exalted, and the Dickmans create a chorus that questions what is genuine versus what is human.