Did you ever watch your childhood friend transform into a neo-Nazi right before your eyes? The speaker in Matthew Dickman's Wonderland has, and he details that transformation in a striking series of poems of the same title. (By the way, in poetry school the "speaker" just means the "narrator.")
The Wonderland poems follow a boy named Caleb, who we first meet in his front yard, hitting a stick against a tree trunk. While he's outside with his imaginary sword, Dad's inside the house, hitting Mom in the face. Caleb walks into the "weird dark" of her bedroom to comfort her, clearly powerless against his father's rage. In the next poem, Caleb's anger takes on its particularly strange and cruel character when he encounters a dog behind a fence. He starts spitting on it, "some of the phlegm / getting into the dog's eyes, / its long ears."
Caleb is not yet in seventh grade when he starts beating up people randomly, but he's old enough to want beer by the time he gets a stick-and-poke tattoo of a swastika on his arm. Dickman records the moment Caleb's anger finds its purest expression in Nazism–and the speaker's own fucked-up, flawed, but completely human reaction to that moment–in this remarkable scene: "When he asked how it looked / I said it looked // good. I couldn't stop / looking at it // but when I looked up at him / it was like his face wasn't there."
The poem abruptly ends on the image of Caleb's self-deleted face. But in the gong-ring that follows, you can sense the speaker imagining his face replacing Caleb's. Why did Caleb become a Nazi and not him? Dickman's speaker grew up with this Nazi, came from the same neighborhood as this Nazi, skateboarded with this Nazi, went to punk shows with him, witnessed men treat his mother violently just like Caleb did. Could he become a Nazi, or even just a generally terrible person, too?
That last worry haunts the book. Dickman's speaker is dumbfounded by how lucky he is to still be alive and walking around and looking at swallows do cool stuff. But as he reflects on a rough childhood in Portland–and an adulthood marked by his older brother's suicide–he recognizes just how much worse things could have gone for him, and how bad things could still get.
Dickman's tense lines and suddenly brutal imagery carry this anxiety. In his other books, there's more verve and whimsy. But in this one, it's as if he's confessing the violences of his childhood and his struggles with drugs and mental health to a cop, or to some cool priest, and he's just trying to articulate everything as clearly as possible in the hopes that this book–this act of witness crafted into clean couplets–will somehow help stave off the angry wraiths threatening to overtake him and delete his face, and ours if we're not careful.