Matthew Dickman’s Wonderland is an intense display of what a writer can see in our world and how they can deliver that insight to others. The poems in this book revolve around themes of childhood, race, and violence. Many of them feel like little stories or scenes from peoples’ lives. One thing that’s truly intriguing is Dickman’s use of language and tone. Many of the lines and sentences don’t connect clearly, and sometimes they don’t seem to at all. Often, each sentence stands on its own, tells its own story, which might make the reader want to stop and think multiple times with every poem. It’s a work of art that is so different from any other.
Wonderland was not an easy book for me to fully grasp. The language is scattered in meaning, but the words are knit closely on the page to form a simple visual connection. Every couple sentences or so, I would ask, What? Why is that there? What is he talking about? Does that part even relate? I soon realized that almost the entire book is written like that: a jumbled up collection of everything, a world full of nonsense (which makes “Wonderland” a perfect title). And somehow, it works. It gives something to the tone and voice, like the poems themselves are confused with their own words. The words tell strange and dark stories that give us small glimpses of the harsher side of humanity. Reading Wonderland, I felt like I was confused by a book that was confused by the things our world does. When I got about half of the way through it, the scattered pieces started coming together, forming a kind of collage in my brain. It felt like observing a small group of people that might not have many commonalities. But the bigger that group gets, the more likely each person will find others they can relate to. That’s how this book felt to me. As I read it, I started picking up on themes of childhood and violence, which are clearly shown in the pieces. Then I also picked up on a theme of race, but I’m not sure how. Even if things weren’t always clearly stated in the poems, I could sense what they were trying to get out through those nonsensical words. I don’t know how Dickman managed to do that, but it is pure magic that he did.
The book carries these heartbreaking images of childhood, and hints at ageing and death. In one of five poems titled “Wonderland”, on page 69, he writes, “Every time he takes a step / his childhood evaporates, / branches begin to crawl / out of his head, rise up like antlers.” This series of poems follows a character, Caleb, through his childhood. This poem is the final of the series and shows us, especially in this line, how the past eventually falls behind us.
For more ideas of his writing style in this book, I’ve collected a few of my favorite lines: “I don’t elevator between the floors of my brain.” (“Nine a.m.”, pg. 33), “I heard the moon knocking its teeth out.” (“Five p.m.”, pg. 54), “This grave I made out of dinner and a bottle of wine.” (“Six p.m.”, pg. 58). There are lines phrased so well, they can be felt, such as in “Grass Moon” on page 64, “the first time I shaved my head / and walked out into the rain / and how the rain walked / all over my head”. Then Dickman writes short lines that pack a lot and often hit me hard. On page 65 (also in “Grass Moon”), he writes, “I want the world to be my laundry– / quiet and good and neatly folded away.”
After looking at multiple poetry books for something that would catch my attention, this one made me actually want to buy it. It was worth it, and I plan on reading it again to look further into it. For anyone interested, online prices at Barnes and Noble are currently $18.56 for hardcopy and $12.99 for NOOK (was $26.95 in store when I checked). Amazon sells it at $17.67 for hardcopy and $12.99 for Kindle. (Please note that my references to the book are from the Kindle edition and page numbers may be different.)