Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“crying most of the way out and laughing most of the way back:” Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed

“crying most of the way out and laughing most of the way back:” Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed
Review by Danny Caine

In his eighth book ElegyOwed, Bob Hicok cracks wise, especially when confronting death: a smartass in the dark.  “Love” contains this symbolic anecdote:

After I told my wife the story of Lev and Svetlana, she went to the ground
and put her hands around a dead plant and screamed at it to try harder,
she looked foolish and I loved her even more and joined her in screaming
at death, it made me feel Russian, and obstinate and eternal, all good things
to feel

That “screaming at death” makes the poem’s narrator “feel Russian, and obstinate and eternal” could itself act as a review of this collection.  It’s a collection, after all, that includes the line, “if this is the end, I have successfully / never worn cargo pants.” Such levity in considering the specter of death is a departure from Hicok’s previous book, 2010’s Words for Empty and Words for Full.  In that book’s section about the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, committed by one of Hicok’s students, Hicok turned a necessarily serious eye towards life’s end. In Words’s “So I know,” Hicok writes “You did not/do enough, I write to myself, about the kid/who turned in writing about killing/a few buildings from where he killed.” 

Such directness is absent in Elegy Owed’s absurd lyrics. The distinction stems from the books’ difference in how they approach death: in Words for Empty, Words for Full Hicok writes of the tragedy of deaths that have occurred and the question of whether anything could have been done to prevent them. In Elegy Owed, Hicok writes much of death not yet happened, either his own or that of those close to him, which he finds funnier because he knows he can do nothing to prevent it. 

A particularly indicative example is the dazzling “To speak somewhat figuratively for S,” which I will quote in full:
We went to the top of a building to jump off.
She could no longer deal with having been raped.
I was tired of falling asleep by looking forward
to never waking again. It was a perfect day
to watch a documentary on famous parachute-
folding mistakes. Then we had a final meal, final smoke,
final shower with the window open and pigeons watching.
Are you sure you wouldn't rather shoot the man
who did this, I asked, adding that guns are easier to buy
than "get well soon or whenever you want cards." Of course
I knew her mother would never forgive her
if she shot her father. She'd have to shoot her mother too,
which would anger her sister, also raped, who'd wonder why
she didn't think of that herself. The only time
they talked about it, they were drunk on the steps
of our brownstone and throwing peanuts at cabs
until one cab backed up and a man got out
who was three feet tall but his arms were eight feet long
and it was the arms that did the talking. They ran.
A three-foot-tall man dragging eight-foot-long arms
is an interesting nightmare to watch run. They ran the whole night
together, all the way to Brooklyn and bloody feet
and crying most of the way out and laughing
most of the way back, I think what's known as a bond
was formed. Still she wanted to die and I wanted
to be with her, so we went up into the winds
people don't realize are in love with tall buildings
and debated a long time the virtues of taking turns
or going as one by holding hands and not shouting
Geronimo. I've often wondered why people shout that
when they jump and not Ulysses or Grover Cleveland,
I'm sure there's a reason like I'm sure her father
could explain himself if she held a knife to his dick.
We didn't jump—this is a poem—but she's still raped
and I still wish I could articulate the point
of breathing and her sister's still fun to have around
because she juggles really well and they lean
against each other in doorways without knowing
they're the only two trees of a very small forest,
in which I think of myself as a wild animal
sheltered deep within their shade.

“To speak somewhat figuratively for S” demonstrates so much of what makes reading Elegy Owed so enjoyable. The plainness of the language paired with the seriousness of the subject matter leads to more-complex-than-they-seem phrases like “She could no longer deal with having been raped” and “I think what’s known as a bond/was formed.”  The dissonance between the straightforward language and the tragic/comic subject finds a parallel in the progression of the poem’s ideas: one of Hicok’s gifts is his ability to spin a string of thoughts that shouldn’t make sense together but somehow do. This poem, after all, includes parachute-folding mistakes, a short man with very long arms, how winds are in love with tall buildings, and suicide, yet it never doesn’t make sense.

In fact, “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” is surprising from its opening lines.  The scenario—two people walking to the top of a building to jump off—is shocking, but also shocking in how straightforwardly it’s presented. There’s no implication that this is an extraordinary act. Hicok accomplishes this feat of obvious nonobviousness elsewhere in the collection: “A very small bible” begins

Jesus with amnesia walks
among the dead and wonders
why they don’t rise, at least
one of them, as he seems
to recall someone did 

The reader has no time to get used to the idea of “Jesus with amnesia;” the poem marches on, not indicating how ridiculous or unexpected its own premise is. “Notes for a time capsule” opens, “The twig in. I’ll put the twig that I carry in my pocket / and my pocket and my eye, my left eye.”  “Another holiday has come and gone” begins: “It’s shoot-an-arrow / into-your-ceiling day, I’m out of arrows.”  The way in which Hicok opens his poems by presenting something extraordinary as ordinary creates a constantly surprising reading landscape.

Yet poetry cannot live on surprising openings alone, and as Hicok drives deeper into his poems they spiral into a world that’s clever, wry, rooted in reality and absurd all at the same time: in short, Hicokian.  Lines four through six of “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” demonstrate this: they begin in irony and progress to something that’s half wisecrack, half elegy. Two characters prepare to commit suicide on “a perfect day,” isolated by a line break.  Then we realize they’ve watched “a documentary on famous parachute-/folding mistakes.”  Later, we see levity interrupted by menace again as the poem’s “her” and her sister throw peanuts at cabs only to be chased down the street by the ghoulish short man with 8-foot talking arms.  In Hicok’s world, theirs is the attitude with which we face death: “crying most of the way out and laughing/most of the way back.”  

Indeed, Hicok’s attitude towards death in this collection is its most compelling feature.  He seems to dance around it, at times mournfully engaging with the idea, at others keeping an ironic distance.  The play is present even in its titles: the collection has poems called “Elegy with lies,” “Elegy to hunger,” “l ah g,” “You name this one,” “Elegy to unnamed sources,” “Elegy’s,” and “Absence makes the heart. That’s it: absence makes the heart.,” Two later poems, “Elegy ode” and the titular “Elegy owed” introduce a pun that underlines Hicok’s shifting perspectives: are these elegies or odes?  The presence of both modes allows Hicok to be at once mournful and lyrical, elegiac and clever.  

Again and again in the collection, the way out of the problem of death is writing itself.  The final turn in “To speak somewhat figuratively for S.” is a clear example: “We didn't jump—this is a poem.”  In “l ah g,” Hicok writes of “the dream / of the yellow pencil with which I wrote her name / to keep it lithe in the body of cursive.”  Often in Elegy Owed, writing becomes embodied. In “Excerpts from mourning” Hicok writes of “Wondering if I am inventing you/by remembering you or remembering you by writing of you.” It’s as if he must write these poems to make sense of his eventual death, and the deaths of those he loves. Yet the sense he makes doesn’t make sense in any conventional sense. This is most clearly felt in “Sunny, infinite chance of rain.”  The poem begins with the fear of some unnamed “her” dying: one of many instances in the collection detailing the fear of losing a loved one. Midway through the poem, Hicok presents yet another unobvious obviousness:
            At the funeral, she wore a tricycle being pushed by her father
            when she was five, her legs out to the side

Yet the next lines complicate and root the Hicok-reality to actual-reality:
That’s only true in this poem, like the cloud I’m looking at
                        Is only true in the sky.
                        In all other skies, this cloud is a lie.

                        It’s about to rain, not in the poem but in the thinking
                        that led to the poem,
                        the poem that helped me recall
                        I can still touch her entire body.

Ultimately, this is how Hicok anticipates and attempts to cope with eventual loss: poems. Writing. Words. Fortunately for us, his words are clever and almost always surprising, with a foot on either side of the border between ironic and mournful. Though the truths of these poems may only be true in these poems, there’s still truth in these poems.