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Bob Hicok

If you’d told me that the ultimate line of a wonderful poem could be, simply, “Doctor Wong,” I would’ve looked at you skeptically.  But that’s exactly the case in Matthew Rohrer’s latest collection, Destroyer and Preserver (Wave 2011).  I both laughed and felt outfoxed by Rohrer’s nasty knuckleball wit when I read the last line of, “Marque Nùmero Dos.”  My laughter elicited an is-there-something-wrong-with-you look from the woman next to me on the plane, but I cared about as much as the clouds outside.

And Destroyer and Preserver is more than witty and strange.  These unpretentious lyrics are deft expressions of where the personal meets the political, where the mundane meets the profound—documenting a multivalent poet’s quotidian as his nation wars abroad.

Destroyer and Preserver shares many of the concerns of Rohrer’s earlier works.  I was introduced to his poems some years back, when a mentor suggested I read his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas—which was Mary Oliver’s selection for the National Poetry Series in 1994.  I checked the slim volume out from the library and found myself rereading it weekly for the next six months, only returning the book the way that one who’s been drinking coffee every day for years gives up caffeine—with reluctance and anxiety over his rather pointless act of sacrifice.  So I bought my own copy.  To me, Rohrer’s poetry has been easy to live with, incisive, and sustaining ever since.

In the manners of the sometimes jokey, New York School-y, sometimes cryptic, sometimes surreal poems of prior collections, Destroyer and Preserver offers an assortment of breezily deployed formal variations with thematic interests.  In the first piece, “From Mars,” quick enjambments and an absence of punctuation muss up syntax:

We have some sad news
this morning
from Mars
the imagination thinks
in phrases but the universe
is a long sentence
according to our instruments
the oldest songs
are breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement…

What strikes one immediately as a spoken quality in this diction, familiar in Rohrer’s work, is disrupted in two manners.  First, by the poet’s lineation—invoking his agency to ‘break apart’ the ‘long sentence of the universe,’ thus reshuffling how we see the cosmic order and assign meaning to its individuated components—and second by his refusal to obey prose-y conventions of punctuation, et cetera, which allows for a lot of bait-and-switch play from line to line, from idea to idea.  These strategies are fairly consistently applied in this collection.  Coupled with the statement on the surface of this first poem, we’re at least superficially given a glimpse of Rohrer’s personal cosmos.

Rohrer’s is a cosmos of the mind, of course, in a Stevensian “I am my world” sense.  The surprise synaptic leaps in “From Mars” seem to mirror those of the speaker in the poem.  This happens again and again in Rohrer’s work—rather like surprise hands pushing us forward or spinning us sideways, he subjects us to his own leaping fixations and associations.  The ride is exhilarating, confusing, and thought-provoking at different turns.

In fact, these poems are not so breezily presented, and pay off with a kind of full immersion.  “Marque Nùmero Dos” is a great example.  Employing similar enjambment to “From Mars,” “Marque Nùmero Dos” is less grand in terms of scope.  In this piece, Rohrer documents his own cognitive experience while on the phone with an automated system.  Infusing the banal with the reflection of an interesting poet’s consciousness, we readily accept such statements as:  “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral.”  These poems do this again and again—dilating on tedium and infusing it with grander meaning, sharing an experience of our shared world from the point of view of a unique wordsmith’s mental jumble, seemingly effortlessly organized on the page.

The pieces that leap less are no less charming.  “Casualties,” for example, is a meditation in the bathroom that demonstrates how the characters of Rohrer’s domestic life inhabit the perspective of these poems:

My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it’s very complicated.

He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

Some readers of contemporary poetry might bridle at Rohrer’s spartan, utilitarian diction, and the lack of political restraint in reference to U.S. bombing of civilians.  But just as the wonderful poet Bob Hicok writes in a recent piece of his own, “As I was masturbating, more rainforest disappeared” (from “Life,” in Words for Empty and Words for Full, University of Pittsburg, 2010), Rohrer’s poems document how we as individuals move fluidly between domestic and private concerns, with a sometimes-helpless bemusement about the world around us.  Without judgment, and with a seriousness that is either a rendering of reality or an excellent facsimile of Reality, Rohrer’s poems are great examples of such human instants.  Thus Destroyer and Preserver is a subtle and entertaining lens through which to view our moment, and well worth your perusal—especially if you enjoyed Rohrer’s previous, fine collections of poems.

Writers in the scattered nation of good poetry are, in general, perfectionists. Many greats have been known to be tight-lipped about their process and to publish only what they deem categorically best. Bob Hicok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem worried about perfection. He publishes so prodigiously that it’s hard to imagine he spends any time revising his work. I remember standing in a bookstore a couple years ago grazing among the poetry publications and discovering that he had poems in approximately half of the literary journals—good ones, too. I remember feeling a mixture of jealously, skepticism of various stripes, and stunned admiration for Hicok’s unique voice.

I’ve read a fair amount of Hicok’s poetry since then—and had many opportunities, as he remains a prolific poet. The unfair comparison that occurs to me is James Patterson. But Hicok is anything but the James Patterson of contemporary poetry (if you feel like posting your “James Patterson of Contemporary Poetry Nominee” below, however, please do). In fact, Hicok’s method is quite fluid and authentic. In each of his poems I feel I’m reading a self-documented Gestalt therapy session, lineated and titled as if it were, well, a poem. And because he’s witty, loves language and play with language, and he’s fearless about publishing any mode of speech or linguistic item that in isolation would seem incredibly stupid or embarrassing, these poems are riveting and thought-provoking. Take, for example, “Call me a lyre, I dare you” which appeared originally, roughly lyre-shaped, in the Believer’s November, 2009 issue, and appears in Hicok’s latest collection Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburg, 2010):

Call me a lyre, I dare you

Last or some night
light, who cares the when of this,
glittered the tree up at the end
as the wash from a car as moved the planet, I’m not
in touch with personally Saturn, in branched fingers
of eerily, I’d say off-the-shelf language, isn’t it
necessary still how life lit into the moment
to say other than the facts of it, see,
whatever the bits are inside that oscillate
or pinwheel, I was moved to internal whirring
cicadish, even though my epiphanic dog-walkings
mean shit to you in the throes of your
epiphanic askings of the moon, for what, afterall
are we in this, some random sense of, fuck
if I know, belonging

Although I once heard a line in a movie, “Puns are the death of wit,” and I generally agree, the above allusive pun really works. Embedded in its snarky standoffishness, its grimace- or smirk-worthy reference to Apollo, lies an engaging and efficiently stated constellation of ideas. And beyond this title, Hicok renders his images and utterances in a syntactically awkward but consistently surprising language, with barbed apostrophizing and care to record his own (I do not believe this is a persona, exactly) feelings, relying on a kind of uncanny luck (skill?) to have it stick together in a personable and uncontrived way. In a few words, it works. (Sorry for all the parentheses.)

In Words for Empty and Words for Full (one, of course, of Hicok’s many poetry collections), there is no one type of poem one can expect. Subject matter and formal decision-making are, metaphorically speaking, all over the map. Interesting thinking and writing, however, are everywhere to be found. Ruminating on an either real or imaginary high school friendship in a long prosy piece called “Backward,” Hicok writes:

“Because he ate twice as much as I did, you’ll find an entry in my journal about the appetite of silence. Is silence a form of hunger, I wrote, and then answered my own question: yes and no. Reading back on this now, I am disappointed in the wishy-washy quality of my thinking. I would like to go back and erase that answer. Yes, I would write, silence is a hunger for the anatomy of a moment, for the inside of things.”

Who cares if this last statement is actually true. The process of the prose, the leaps in thought, the strangeness, the comic, the humble, human admission of error, is all entertaining. Maybe it’s poetic junk-food, but Hicok’s willingness to write, and to air to us practically anything of his life or thinking, charms this reader. This is not be true of every such writer, of course, but for him, it generally works.

I say generally because these poems aren’t all base hits. Hicok’s commitment to write about any- and everything leads him down the problematic paths of discussing contemporary politics, the war, and the Virginia Tech shooting—he was teaching there at the time of this tragedy and claims (in the poems) to have had the student responsible. While documenting these historical events in poetry may be valuable for posterity’s sake, these poems are far less interesting and cutting edge feeling than the more personal, strange poems of most of the collection. Perhaps one poem about the shooting. Perhaps one poem about the war—if you must, if you must. But in general these subjects trump considerations of form and deployment of language—in short, they overdetermine the way one reads them, which for the most part ruins the magic of what Hicok does in his poetry.

Consider, for example, the beginning bit of a poem called “Whimper,” in the second section of the four:

Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me,
I nearly failed him, fail means differently now,
or some other English prof, also dead
is not in our mouths as it was in the past,
we’d have said dead about the place,
now that the semester’s over and smiled
that we have a few months of grass and air
to ourselves, do know why we tried…

And the final bumper sticker-esque lines:

…lost if you need to find us
is where we are.

It is important for poets to function as witnesses, but the poems to which I’ll return in this collection are not the poems that mention Air Force pilots or mentally ill students responsible for on-campus atrocities. I’ll return to the poems that surprise, that don’t give a fuck about my own aesthetic sensibilities because the next poem will be different. I’ll return to poems of moments that document the need to change form, syntax, voice, tone, and everything in order to exist in their present. And fortunately, if recent history can tell us anything, there will be many such great Bob Hicok poems to admire in the future.

In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).

Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.