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The only way I could really talk about his suicide was in a poem’ When their half-brother took a fatal overdose, twins Matthew and Michael Dickman wrote a series of poems in his honour. Now, the collection is breaking taboos about suicide and inviting comparisons with America’s great poets
By Alex Clark
As their half-brother, the twins tell me, Darin exerted an immense influence on them. Describing the first time he wrote about Darin’s death from an overdose, in the poem “Trouble”, Matthew explains: “The only way I could really talk about his suicide was by including him in this poem that is basically a long list of famous people who killed themselves. Because Darin was such a famous person in my mind and my heart.”
‘The subject of suicide, at least in the US, is still one that there’s a lot of shame around… people keep it quiet’
Trouble, which appeared in Matthew’s debut collection, All-American Poem (2008), also appears in Brother, and in the middle of a chronicle of the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Sarah Kane and John Berryman come these lines:
“My brother opened / thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body / until it wasn’t his body any more.”
Elsewhere, in the poem Coffee, part of a sequence entitled Notes Passed to My Brother on the Occasion of His Funeral, Matthew writes:
“Once, I had a brother / who used to sit and drink his coffee black, smoke / his cigarettes and be quiet for a moment / before his brain turned its armadas against him”.
It was Matthew Hollis, poet, award-winning biographer and poetry editor at Faber and Faber, who thought the Dickmans’ poems about their brother would work as a single volume, and, he told me, “connect far more widely than poetry sometimes does”. A long-term fan of their work, he sees in Matthew’s “long, rolling lines” the influences of Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, and in Michael’s shorter, more European-inflected work echoes of Wallace Stevens. But what united them, he was sure, was this deep, personal investment in describing their family’s loss.
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