“Dickinson” is truly a name to conjure with, a name signifying the most essential details of masculine inheritance. Each new son inherits a dick, world without end — and this is no mere macho fantasy. This is fact! And what do dicks do? Well, opinions on this do differ, and, as Vanessa Place says, “If men enjoy blowjobs so much, they should give them to each other” — and who could argue with that? And yet, masculinity is not a closed system, and sometimes a woman erupts into that succession of brand-new sons with brand-new dicks — one such eruption is Emily Dickinson, the second-or-third truly great American poet, who is no one’s son, and has no dick — or does she? If Plato can have a uterus, can’t Emily have a dick? Aren’t we all one people here? Aren’t we just talking about an outsized clitoris, a peanut with aspirations to towerhood?
The male clitoris, eager to inscribe itself as imminent with engorgement, aspires to be a skyscraper or pen. And Emily has a pen, so. . .… Who are we to get in the way of those metaphors that let us make sense of our biology? If the true penis is the phallus, an-object-in-the-shape-of-an-aspirational-penis, and the biological penis is the fake penis due to its inconsistency and common wiltedness — if the pen tells the truth by embodying the aspiration of permanent erection and empowerment — well then, Angie Dickinson is another eruption, a hot actress know for playing a policewoman, with her nightstick in her belt. . .
In his newest book My Angie Dickinson, Mike Magee retells the story of culture from the perspective of a clitoral “soft man” who looks up to the great poet Emily and her hot enforcer Angie as twin master-muses who make him say “Awwwww Yeahhhhh!!!!!!!” and gargle his Flarf. Flarf is absolutely the most vagina-ruled poetry movement in history, and Mike is the obedient warm opening, gobbling up warm lengths of text from off the internet, reshaping them into Dickinsonian quatrains in order to show them off as phantasmagoric “faux erections” that wilt upon readerly inspection. Puffed up with dashes, these poems make a blowhard show of associational unity — but in fact, they depend utterly upon the reader, without whom they make no sense. The reader must lend the poems an aroused and polymorphous ear, in order to create their charm for hirself. Otherwise, these poems are just something Mike ate and couldn’t digest, the detritus of a hot date with the internet. As Emily/Mike might put it, “a subjective hotness — / that could — not coalesce.”
It would be a bad cruel reader who would not lend hirself to the joyous task of helping these poems make sense to hir. I would have no sympathy for that reader at all. Because I love these poems. Even the shortest of them become blossoming morning glories of association as I run my mind through them. For instance, consider #29, in its entirety:
I dressed, ran toward some nearby woods
with booklet and nice
something — “About” — the mourning dove’s —
low note’s Excuse —
This is one of the book’s shortest, most minimal pieces, beginning with a narrative that begs a lot of questions (Why would a boy run to the woods with a booklet? What sort of booklet? Is it a pornographic booklet? How romantic, to race into nature, clutching coveted pornography! Or is it something else?) The quotes around the word “About” seem to cast doubt on the idea that this poem has any specific meaning, suggesting instead that it might be a set of gestures imitating meaning. And yet, what is it that the mourning dove’s note “Excuse[s]”? When my students hand in a note, they usually want me to excuse their absence. And indeed, there is an absence at the center of this poem, the contents of the booklet, and indeed, the mourning dove’s note is asking me to excuse that absence and focus instead on the atmosphere evoked by the narrative of the boy running into the woods.
This is a poem rich in atmosphere, and the questions it evokes are not homework or anything educational — they are entertainment. Magee’s poetry evokes in the reader an impulsive need to jump from phrase to phrase, from word to word, across the dashes inserted everywhere like little hurdles. The impetus to make these leaps is a sort of suspense — what associations can we get to next? — and the reward is the pleasure of rapid association, as the reader travels along and across short-cuts of metaphor. Through the poem, the reader experiences an unexpected imaginative hustle — a textual equivalent of the jumpcuts of modern Hollywood film, that hurry the reader along in unanticipated motion.
Magee writes, in #102:
Her wound apologizes —
In public — Like a Sailor —
Permeating the postwar years
“Like a” throbbing — Hangover —
Excuse — to show His ass — in Public —
Like a “Good Idea” —
And this goes ON and ON and ON
Like a courtier —
The hurry here is between different senses of identity, the wound, with its vaginal implications, becoming a spectacle as it is apologized for (rather than kept quiet). But the wound loses its vaginal character to become “His ass” instead, which is equally (and relentlessly) publicized. The poem weighs the comparative shamelessness of the “Sailor” (with the implication of drunken innocent outrageousness) and the “courtier” (with implications of calculated careful self-promotion for advantage).
The poem ultimately evokes the atmosphere of tabloid television talk shows of the Jerry Springer variety, where the first stanza describes the program’s public face of overwrought confession and apology, whereas the second stanza evokes the behind-the-scenes calculations that lead a poet (or a talk show guest) to expose “His ass.” All of these associations are also yoked to a sense of national shame — these exposures “Permeat[e] the postwar years,” suggesting that a culture of shameless self-promotion serves an unavoidably political function as it interacts with the “throbbing — Hangover” that is national consciousness.
Ultimately, 102 can evoke many scenarios. For me, it evokes a collective national moment of television watching in which Angie Dickinson appears to the nation to loudly apologize for having been born with a vagina, only to then morph into Mike Magee, who is caught out in the reader’s eye with his eagerly eye-catching ass in view, terribly ashamed and yet eager at once. It is the spectacle of a person seen by hir own eagerness to be seen, trapped within the commodification of the need to be loved, imprisoned in the private TV of a secret book. . . As Mike/Emily might have put it, “The Connoisseurs — are quite — / Reliably voyeurs.”
The poetry of My Angie Dickinson, as well as being beautiful and engrossing in itself, also aims to remind the reader of a neglected side of Emily Dickinson’s work. This is the side of Dickinson that wrote things like:
What Soft — Cherubic Creatures —
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush —
Or violate a Star —
The sexual implications of these lines are usually downplayed, but they are as funny as (and more wicked than) anything in Magee’s volume. Dickinson suggests that society women are protected from sexual assault by their otherworldly surface texture, by how inhuman they are to the touch. Dickinson’s poem is both condemnatory and sexy, and one feels her poem’s subtext is that she herself is attracted to the notion of violating these gentlewomen — the implication is that Dickinson is herself somewhat turned-on by the qualities she is condemning. Thus, the poem undercuts itself, since despite her contempt for how the gentlewomen act and dress, Dickinson also acknowledges the appeal of that behavior and veneer.
Of course, it is a bad sort of appeal — The drama of Dickinson’s poem is that she catches herself in the act of being a bad girl. Similarly, Magee’s poems in My Angie Dickinson catch him in the act of being one of us — TV-watcher, thinker of naughty thoughts, anxious luster, frightened self-inspector — within their associational structures, engorged by the action of the reader’s mind, denied qualities of the self are given complete and genuine play. This produces pleasure, as Magee allows the reader to be hir own bad self, and yet reveals that that self is mostly just a reflection of our own bad culture. Giving up on any effort to achieve a fake perfection or repose, and yet extending the tradition of poetry as cultural analysis and critique, Magee lets his naughty TV-watching soul come to the surface of the poem, with the hot policewoman of his soul waving her mighty stick.