"Don't you get pleasure out of exaggerating painful things as much as possible?" Kafka wrote in a letter. According to Max Brod,

We friends of his laughed quite immoderately when he first let us hear the first chapter of The Trial. And he himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further. Astonishing enough, when you consider the fearful earnestness of this chapter.

The Kafkaesque history in Michael Dickman's Flies is also undergirded by "fearful earnestness." Dickman's gallows humor is also a survival strategy, palliative (if not redemptive). Jokes work because of constricted focus, exaggeration, and timing, at all of which Kafka was a master. If he wrote poems in the United States in 2011, Flies might be his book—even its title: the Ungeziefer into which Gregor Samsa found he had been transformed upon awakening one morning in his suffocating family home. Dickman turns his vermin into circus performers:

At the end of one of the billion light years of

My father trains the flies to walk from one end
     of his fingers to the other

One fly for every finger
It's going to make him rich
Their brains are the color of his brain
All the nerves in your hands getting stepped on
     at once is very calming

Like being a pine tree
Next he's going to train them to walk across his

How to hide in the holes of his teeth
When he sings and he never sings we will see
     wings and brains

The nineteen poems of Flies are made of vivid snippets, unpunctuated, or rather punctuated by line breaks and stanza breaks that let Dickman switch gears, turn on a dime, change tones instantly, pirouette, and exit, leaving the audience to relive as afterimage the performance they just witnessed before he killed the lights. Like Dickinson's dashes, Dickman's punctuation is alternative, contrapuntal. It promotes singular syntactic possibilities of movement within and between sentences, which couldn't be realized otherwise and without which the poetry would not happen. Dickinson accomplished this through her mastery of grammar and rhetoric; because she knew absolutely how sentences work, she riffed on them as she wished, like Bill Evans playing a jazz standard. Dickman's punctuation is probably Frank Bidart-inspired, which doesn't in any way diminish his deft use of it. His instincts, in any case, are exceptional. He rarely leaves his readers more than a nanostep behind, which, this reader thinks, is where he wants them.

"We dare not be boring," said Marianne Moore. (More poets should have that surgically engraved on their brainstems.) Flies is not boring. It is not opaque or even "difficult," which allows the clear transmission of its Kafkaesque horror, hallucinations, and humor. It's easy to be clear or interesting. It's hard to be both simultaneously and continuously. For all the innerness, idiosyncrasy, and bone-chilling isolation of the speaker of these poems, there is never a confusing or dull moment. This is a testament to Dickman's skill and talent: he can make this amalgamation of splatterpunk, fractured fairy tale, stand-up comedy, childhood trauma, thirty-something cynicism, and outdated South American surrealism fresh, coherent, entertaining, and moving.

Underneath this bravura performance is Dickman's fearful earnestness about poetry, an implicit devotion to its expressive and communicative power to build community, if only between one poet and one reader, to make a surprising shared beauty of ugly private pain. Sentimentality is avoided like a virulent virus, but sentiment is not. Nor is a real sweetness and vulnerability. The traumatic, putatively autobiographical facts referred to throughout the book could hardly be nastier, but they seem to be mentioned reluctantly except for those concerning an older brother's suicide, which are embraced unabashedly, as if the only way out of this particular nightmare is all the way through. Domestic dysfunction has become a familiar territory over the last fifteen years and is by now as much a literary convention as pastoral once was. That didn't stop Milton from writing "Lycidas," and it should not stop any writer now from writing what he or she has to write. All that matters is how it's handled and the rigor of its rendering. The subjects of daytime TV are great subjects preposterously handled—subjects that poetry avoids at the expense of its vitality. Dickman invariably works whatever material he uses. It is shaped and stamped by poesis, his making poetry of it. Readers are reminded repeatedly by the speaker of Flies that he's utterly alone and lives entirely inside his skull:

In my home in my brain
I'm at home

His unhappy family is unhappily dead or missing, and his only friends are remembered childhood friends. A lover who is anything but beloved appears briefly:

Sometimes I want you to fuck my face
Is as close to tenderness as we can manage

(Imagine what they say when they're feeling less romantic.) Isolation and the fervent insistence on it is the closest thing to religious feeling expressed in the book. Yet its writing out, its transfigurations, is both social and religious, as is the mercurial imagination that animates it and keeps it from being merely dreary and solipsistic. Dickman doesn't wallow. Like every other element of the book, the speaker's isolation is presented as a vivid snippet; then the speaker's isolation is presented and something else and something else—something funny or touching or inventive—palpably realized.

from Be More Beautiful

Whatever it is I was made for
I haven't yet

The morning makes its way up the street as a
     loose pack of wild dogs

Their invisible metal teeth

all the birds
in the neighborhood

and me


from Emily Dickinson to the Rescue

Heaven is everywhere
but there's still
the world

The world is made out of cancer, house fires,
     and Brain Death, here in America

But I love the world
Emily Dickinson
to the rescue


from The Sea

It serves us right to be alive

We walk out across the water in our stupid
     bodies and blow out the breakers one
     by one

Delivered from our names
into some secret

out of salt


from Barnett Newman: Black Fire

I like to sit in the corner and watch the light

with both my eyes
it's all

I have

God doesn't have any eyes

Forest fires

The list goes on and on

Shit, gnats and

but no eyes

from Flies

Then it's the flies
that wake me

It's the flies that gently get me out of bed,
     and slip me into some clothes, so I can walk

          around outside

In my body outside
in black and medicine green
in wings

I am tarred and feathered
and walk around
on their legs

all day

It's the flies that sweetly call my name

so I'll know it's time

walking all over my face
whispering and 
eating shit

Those are just five, almost random, examples from different poems that must each be read in its entirety in a book that must itself be read in its entirety to experience its exhilarating dexterity. Every one of the nineteen poems combines grief and gaiety, narrative and lyric, improvisation and presentation, linguistic verve and playground idiom. Together they create an engaging, deracinated, boyish speaker, whom readers (at least this reader) are interested in spending time with. "What interests me most about a work of art is the artist's quality of mind," said Henry James, memorably. Michael Dickman's quality of mind shows itself through the tonal variety of feeling with which he renders being alive with his flies in a desolate "world of shit."

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of American Poetsthe biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2011 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.