The Best American Poetry: Michael Dickman’s “From the Lives of My Friends”

The poem, From the “Lives of My Friends,” by Michael Dickman, was first published in the New Yorker in 2009 and is a coming of age story that explores the impact of childhood friends on our lives as we grow old with them. Michael Dickman grew up in Portland, Oregon and is the author of three books, The End of the West, Flies, and Mayakovsky’s Revolver. He is the recipient of The Honickman First Book Prize, The May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tufts Award from Claremont College, and the 2009 Oregon Book .Award from Literary Arts of Oregon. Interestingly, he has a twin, Matthew Dickman, who also writes poetry for the New Yorker among other publications. He currently teaches poetry at Princeton University and is often seen walking the campus with a book in hand.

Dickman’s poem, “From the Lives of My Friends” evokes childhood memories with relatable teenage summer activities that bring us all back to simpler times sitting around, mowing lawns and falling in love. In an interview, Dickman reveals that he never feels safe with the material he writes and it is always a little off balance and it is the same in this poem. Through tone and diction, he weaves in nonsensical references to lemons, dogs, crows, and oysters to bring in colors and images of animals and things that help to bring their friendships and dreams to life. The poem is divided into three sections the first of which sets up the beginning of their friendships; following one another “from branch to branch” and “sit[ting] on the power lines dressed like crows.” This shows their solidarity and desire to be together and Dickman references them as dogs and crows possibly because of their pack mentality and desire to travel in groups. He emphasizes how growing up together, their friendship bonds are strong with hope for the future. Referencing them as the crows who “grew black feathers, not frightening at all, but beautiful, shiny and full of promise,” the have power in solidarity, even though they are covered in the ominous color black. It does not predict for a bleak future but rather is shiny in the sun, like armor, to give them strength against others.

In the second section, Dickman’s friends are adolescents and talks about how friends come and go in our lives, leaving for the winter and coming back in summer, but they still remain our best friends no matter how long apart. He makes it more dramatic by saying “they spend all their time dying and coming back” because they lose touch over the winter and are effectively dead as a friend but come back or resurrect themselves in the summer. This cycle continues every year and the author is so “glad, I am so glad” that he is able to reconnect with his childhood buddies. Two typical summer events he describes in this section are ones that most of us have experienced: falling in love and mowing lawns. Dickman brings up the images of both with “to mow the piss yellow lawns” and “fall in love with the sisters of my friends, all that yellow hair.” He again uses colors, in this case the color yellow, to bring in the imagery of how hot and dry the summer is on the grass and the yellow hair of the sisters referencing their blond locks and youth.
In the last section, Dickman refers to the end of their lives and how they have grown old together quickly and will be placed in a box once dead. He references death by saying “we will all be shipped away in an icebox” and then throws in that it will be labeled “oysters.” Dickman explains the reason for this reference in the notes of The Best American Poetry 2011, when he says “another thing about Dr. Chekhov that I read was that when he died and his body was shipped to Moscow, he was packed in ice in a refrigerated car marked ‘oysters’ on the outside.” I believe the oysters reference also signals how he and his friends will die anonymously and will not have any recognizable markings on their grave or casket. Even though his friends weren’t famous, “none of my friends wrote novels or plays,” they didn’t need to because their lives were fulfilled by having each other. They had fun, “played in the yard” and then were shipped away- everything ending very quickly and in humor says they were “stuffed with lemons.”

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