reviewed on September 7, 2022
Billed as a “love song from a father to his children,” Matthew Dickman’s fourth full-length collection, Husbandry, achieves in its finest moments an unabashed ambivalence regarding the griefs and gratifications of fatherhood, challenging, as it does, a culture-wide idolization of the nuclear family.
In the poem “After All,” about the possibility that his two sons would not exist had he never met his ex-partner, Dickman confesses that “I am supposed to / say yes, yes, // I would never / take it back.” In the ars poetica “Carousel,” he describes “milk making // a kind of bloom / when I pour it // into my coffee. / It is a reminder // that everything / I give them // is manufactured. / A form that only // echoes the sacred / original.”
In these poems and others, Husbandry displays a raw, discomfiting frankness, an honesty which in its nuanced demystification of parenthood calls back both to Dickman’s teacher, Sharon Olds, and to his confrère in the ultra-talk movement, Mark Halliday.
Such moments of ambivalence, though, of fine-grained introspection into the hesitancies of family life, feature too infrequently in Husbandry, a collection which descends somewhat too often into treacly sentimentality and into a cloying “cute” mode on which Dickman has built his career.
“He was sad is what I tell / my son,” Dickman writes of his own deceased brother, “and he got dead on purpose. / Poppa, you get sad // and I get sad but we have / popsicles too. // Yes, I say, we have / popsicles too.”
Possessed here and throughout of an avuncular, aw-shucks mawkishness, Husbandry eschews real intellectual and emotional reckoning, real thought, for the cringe-inducing bathos of baby talk. I do not want to pathologize, but the speaker here seems to lack distance from the events around which Husbandry turns, namely the separation from his partner and the resultant experience of single fatherhood.
To be sure, Dickman sometimes finds inside of his cuteness a kind of awesome strangeness, as when he says in the poem “Father” that “Outside // some coyotes are lighting / up the air like teenagers.” More often, though, the poems here model a sort of “stoner school” of American poetry, their twee stabs at profundity chalking up in the end to little more than the pothead’s post-toke “wow.”
And the lack of seriousness in Husbandry, its severely curtailed intellectual ambit, is hardly aided by its paired couplets, a form which the book’s jacket copy describes as “animat[ing] the various domestic pairs of broken-up parents, two songs, love and grief.” This is an approach to form one finds in the undergraduate workshop.
Dickman’s first collection, All-American Poem (Copper Canyon, 2008), appeared to significant acclaim when it won the APR/Honickman Award in 2007. That book announced a fresh new voice in American poetry, intimate and ambitious at once, nimble in its associative thinking but resonant throughout with the verve of youth. The edge on that voice—its verve, its energy—has soured into sentiment, its thoughtfulness turned to gesture; indeed, one is forced to say of Husbandry, or to a poet of Dickman’s renown: grow up already, leave childish things behind.