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Bob Hicok's relentless vision marks 'Elegy Owed'

April 24, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Bob Hicok's new collection of poetry is "Elegy Owed."
Bob Hicok's new collection of poetry is "Elegy Owed." (Copper Canyon Press )

Bob Hicok is one of my favorite poets. Partly, it’s the movement of his lines, which are both conversational and utterly unexpected, almost as if he (or we) are joining a conversation that extends beyond the framework of the poem. “My heart is cold,” he writes in “Pilgrimage,” the opening effort in his new collection “Elegy Owed” (Copper Canyon: 112 pp., $22), “it should wear a mitten. My heart / is whatever temperature a heart is / in a man who doesn’t believe in heaven.”

And then there’s that: his unrelenting vision, a sense of the world as both utterly real and utterly elusive, and heartbreaking because we have to die. Death is at the center of Hicok’s writing — not in a maudlin, self-pitying way, but rather as a vivid presence, infusing everything, even the deepest moments of connection, with a steely sense of loss.

“He was made to touch a corpse as a child,” Hicok writes in “Coming to life,” before telescoping into the future, to look back on the experience from afar. “She felt like nothing,” the poem concludes, “he would tell a woman in college, their backs to the wall as they sat in bed. She’d asked what he meant by nothing. It was just that as if in the silence of her skin all possibilities had been taken away. But they had just made love and he didn’t want to bruise her warmth. The opposite of this, he said, putting a finger to the mole on her knee.”

Here we see the essential tension of the collection, which exists in the space between nothingness and being. “[I]nanimate’s the one word / I’d execute by guillotine,” Hicok tells us, “to excise the lie / of lifeless, since bite into any bit of dirt / or dust and you’ve got a gob full of electrons / and quarks, the whole menagerie of matter’s / in there, pinging and swooping, steel’s got a pulse / as far as I’m concerned.”

What Hicok’s getting at is both the necessity and the inadequacy of language, the very bluntness of which (talk about a paradox) makes it all the more essential that we engage with it as a precision instrument, a force of clarity, of (at times) awful grace.

“The word terror,” he writes in “Notes for a time capsule.” “I’ll bury the word terror / to be free of the word terror. / … If terror is said / seven times in a row, it loses meaning, becomes / humdrum, a mere timpani of ear. / If terror is said seven hundred / thousand million trillion times, I am being raped / by a word.”

That’s a nifty bit of writing, not least for its playfulness, the deft move from “humdrum” to “timpani,” the way he reads the undertone of words. But even more, it affirms the basic faith of Hicok’s writing: that in a world of loss, of evanescence, we are left alone with our perceptions, so we had better be as rigorous as we can.

He’s right, of course: At this point, what does terror even mean anymore? Or inanimate? Or miraculous (another word he singles out in these poems)?

No, Hicok insists, we need to zero in, to find the space between words, where our consciousness can be rendered as both burden and blessing: brief, inexplicable, and yet the only thing we have.

“I’m driving / along,” he declares in “Ode to ongoing,” “or painting a board or wondering / if we love animals because we can’t talk with them / more intimately that we can’t talk with God / and the whole time there’s this background hum / of sex and devotion and fear, people telling / good-night stories or leaving their babies / in dumpsters but mostly working hard / to feed the future what it needs to grow strong / and prefer sweet over sour, consonance / to dissonance, to be the only creatures who notice / the stars or at least use them metaphorically / to go on and on about the longing we harbor / in such tiny spaces relative to the extent / of our dread that we’re in this all alone.”

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