This Clumsy Living by Bob Hicok
(Pitt Press, 2007)
On the Rollercoaster
Open any of Bob Hicok’s collections, and I suspect you’ll be dazzled by poems plumbing the depths of the self as they skim the fascinating, frustrating surface of contemporary American life. Using a neo-surrealist net to capture heart, humor, and the sublime in one cast, Hicok’s best poems do not merely entertain—they teach my mind to function in patterns I can only call Hicok-esque for at least an hour or so after I’ve put them down. In an intimate, chatty tone, I find myself prone to narrating my thoughts to myself, often surprised by whip-smart connections between the observed world and my mind’s internal workings that I suspect Hicok’s poems have trained me to make. Pun, sarcasm, retort, leaps of logic that at times assume mystical proportions meet the absurdities of a morning’s passage through a subway station or a trip to the market. As the effect fades, I know I’ve experienced the full power of what Elizabeth Bishop termed the “mind in motion.” I know it’s what I expect out of poetry.
Winner of the 2008 Bobbitt Prize, This Clumsy Living (2007) stands out among Hicok’s books. Balancing craft at the level of both the individual poem and the book is a hard-won achievement for any poet, but it is particularly gratifying to see a poet of prodigious strength one-up himself. Where Hicok’s earlier books were less adept at organizing his bountiful energies into a coherent emotional arc, This Clumsy Living succeeds beautifully—perhaps, in part, by beginning with an admission of clumsiness.
A quick read down the Table of Contents shows the oscillation of Hicok’s energies: “The busy days of my nights” abuts “A poem with a poem in its belly” and “Waiting for my foot to ring” with “War story,” all in the mysteriously-titled first section “Twenty-three windows.” Real-world narrative flashes chronicle the speaker’s wrestling with political and social events in everyday life, a drive that springs from the Whitmanian well of “full report,” even as the speaker soothes himself by engineering temporary escape via surreal leaps in time and space that always manage to lead him back to the indelible fact of “this clumsy living.” “If we could solve that equation, we’d be happy,” Hicok poignantly suggests.
Yet, what are the chances of solving such an equation, Hicok’s book seems to ask. In “The New Math,” math is a rhetorical structure Hicok recognizes not only as “strange,” but imperfect. We cannot rest easy with a single solution any more than we can disown our drive to try to reduce our problems. Poetry’s algebra may be a fraught construct, the poem whispers to us, but its process just may deliver a bit of happiness along the tortuous path.
Hicok would probably be the last to say we shouldn’t have fun with either the world, our psychological attempts to diminish loss, or poetry. This Clumsy Living keeps an emotional balance by swinging between extremes of existential terror and a lively absurdist humor. “Her my body,” about the inability of poetic thought to soothe a speaker imagining cancer striking his beloved (“If you are comforted / by this thought you are welcome / to keep it”), is followed by the zany, zippy “The busy days of my nights,” where our speaker meditates on zombie films (“writers struggling with the inbred / mutant Appalachian cannibal dialogue”), and the aforementioned Elizabeth Bishop (“remembered the ladybug / walking across ‘At the Fishhouses’ open on my desk”).
The shifts in tone that occur from poem to poem are well-matched in a greater variety of forms than appear in previous books. Hicok experiments with the lengthy stanza shape typical of his earlier work, a narrative flow eschewing visual pacing (stanza breaks, etc.) in favor of compact density. While individually such an effect is excellent, in a book full of such poems I find myself experiencing the pleasant exhaustion that comes from preparing for the same rollercoaster ride over and over again. Not, per Jerry Seinfeld, that there’s anything wrong with that—Hicok’s earlier work conveyed a sense and vision of his American moment, most notably in terms of the dissolution of the working class in his home state of Michigan and American foreign policy. (May we hope for Hicok’s response to the labor protests earlier this year?)
Hicok also avoids the over-writing afflicting his earlier books, whether as a result of an inability to kill his proverbial darlings or an understandable desire to perform for his usually-rapt audience. Most markedly, the word “which” appears much less frequently. (I say this as one also afflicted by the curse my seventh grade English teacher referred to as “whichery and thattery.”) Ultimately, how could I not be filled with admiration for a poet who manages to write a lovely lyric stanza about shit-eating dogs, thanking deer for their scat at the same time as he is able to turn a discussion of his mother’s morbid obesity into a loving paean to mothering in “Documenting a Decision”?
A fat body resembles a pregnant body, resembles hope, start. ( . . . ) This is more the way of the mother than the father. ( . . . ) This is my prayer: Lord, make me round.
Reading poetry is not only about the pleasure we take in the artifact of a finished poem—it is also about the journey of the poet. This Clumsy Living witnesses a gifted poet taking a leap. Hicok’s neo-surrealist impulse pushes his earnest lyric narrative mode just off-balance, keeping conversational tones from feeling either tired or disingenuous. The poems’ speaker is aware he navigates an imperfect world with imperfect tools, but also sees no other way to go about it—the very essence, perhaps, of Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” If reading This Clumsy Living feels at times like being on a rollercoaster—emotionally and visually, tonally and metaphorically—through Hicok’s mental countryside, we do well to remember he warned us, and then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Mandy Malloy is a writer and graphic designer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. A graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program and a 2011 Norman Mailer Colony Fellow, her poems have appeared most recently in The Portland Review.