On the Acknowledgment page of his collection This Clumsy Living, poet Bob Hicok writes, “I’d also like to thank Gregory Fraser, Thomas Gardner, Austin Hummell, and Matthew Zapruder for reading different incarnations of this manuscript. You fools.”
Two thoughts: Humor, first and foremost, and an indication of the wry and insightful stuff Hicok writes. And this: how often do I read of successful manuscripts having not one but multiple readers providing feedback to sharpen the final product? One undeniable advantage, I’d say, to academia (for teachers) and MFA programs (for students).
Here’s an example of Hicok’s associative wordplay:
My father is silent and distant.
The moon is up though sometimes
to the side which is also called
over there. Coffee is better brewed
than eaten straight from the can.
When someone is dying
we should unpack the clever phrase
I am sorry. Wrenches
the wrong size should be distracted
until the right bolt arrives.
Inside your head is a map
of your house and inside that map
is where you actually live.
People doing jumping jacks
look like they’re trying
to start a fire by rubbing
the sticks of their body
together. Vague nomenclature
is not the correct response
to thank you. It’s surprising
that pencils and erasers get along
as well as they do. When dogs meet
it’s the scent gland not anus
they sniff. There’s the conviction
in every head that someone else
is happy. This is why we drool
from jets at green rectangles
of earth, why when we kiss
we push hard to reach the pillow
of the tongue. If we swapped
mistakes they might fit neatly
and with purpose into our lives.
I’ll lend you the day I locked
my keys in my mouth
if you give me the night
you got drunk and bought
a round of flowers for the house.
Whatever my father wants me
to know he tells my mother
who tells me. This reminds me
that if I put my ear to the ground
I’ll hear the stampede
of dirt no cowboy can keep
from rolling over my head one day.
The title gives Hicok license to go wherever he wants (which he does) in this stream of seemingly unrelated consciousness until, of course, he returns to his father at the end of the poem. Meanwhile, the reader is treated to a list poem that shows off his cleverness.
Hicok can do serious, too, as he does in this college-related poem:
A bugle wakes the sky as boys hold hands over their hearts
and aim their eyes at a flag giving wind the only stars
it will ever touch.
trying to take off made of human flesh and crewcuts.
My new envelopes taste of peppermint.
I will write and ask their mothers to send the blankeys
their sons went to bed with and held soft to their faces.
They will find in their attics the photo albums and baby shoes
that are the beginning of pacifism.
On weekends, the cadets wear clothes like the rest of us
wear and drink too much with the rest of us and scream
from the back of moving cars like everyone I know
is screaming and the Museum of Fire is burning down
and when they march on Monday, I think we’re being attacked
by leather shoes and hangovers.
The Museum of Ashes opens next week.
In their fatigues, the practice generals
look like shrubbery moving around campus and I’ve painted
my face over my face so hiding is what I do naturally.
When one of the cadets turns out not to be alive anymore
in Iraq because of how rude bullets are, they lower the flag
half way and speak of avenging blood, a name is chiseled
into stone, which is how the stone is moving
to the other side of town, piece by piece by name.
Little shadows live inside the names.
I’ve been trying to think of something more intimate
than the grave, possibly getting in there with the body
or carrying it around on my shoulders and stinking
of a perfume I like to call “What’s Our Hurry?”
Like the shadows living inside names chiseled in stone, this is a darker brand of commentary on war games on campus that come home to roost in foreign countries stealing otherwise long lives from young men. You can see some of the stream of consciousness bubbling in the narrative, too. Licked envelopes tasting of peppermint. Practice generals resembling shrubbery moving about campus. In retrospect, sad.
This 2007 outing was my first Hicok. Its generosity and unexpected semantics ensures it won’t be my last.