‘Elegy Owed’ by Bob Hicok
“We’re all going to die and I love you.”
Almost fifteen years ago, as an MFA student at the University of Michigan, I shuffled into a now defunct Ann Arbor bookstore to see Bob Hicok read for the first time. I can still recall a few details of that experience: there were about a dozen in attendance, none of whom were from the MFA program; I was seated behind two girls in Big Johnson t-shirts, which seemed dated even at the time; and Hicok totally killed it, but the audience didn’t appear to get it, otherwise he would have been inundated with screaming fans wanting a piece of him to take home afterwards, rather than quietly sitting alone as if waiting for someone to tell him it was okay to go home now.
Four books and a Guggenheim later, Hicok has become one of the pre-eminent poets writing today, published everywhere a writer would want to be published, and widely praised for his imagination, sincerity, and meditative inquiry upon the seemingly quotidian. Typically categorized as funny, he’s carved out a niche for himself as a master explorer the human condition, as well, through the examination of his own thoughts—becoming one of the few poets out there addressing what it actually means to be alive right now in whatever year this is. Elegy Owed, his eighth book, may be his best yet: We are alone, there’s an inherent futility behind everything that happens, and we’re all going to die.
As the LA Times reminds us, it’s this “sense of the world as both utterly real and utterly elusive and heartbreaking because we have to die” that drives the poems in the collection to their points of revelation. Using the ode and the elegy as his centerpiece, Hicok comes off as an astronaut who’s launched himself into his own head. The poems serve as random dispatches home—declarative, triumphant and celebratory, but also cautious, hesitant, and lamenting—to a nation of Hicoks eager to find meaning behind the things that happen in life, but disappointed when meaning proves difficult to grasp: “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 alone,” he states at the end of “Ode to ongoing.” The only certainty in the book is that nothing is certain, and that absences perpetually dot our lives. “I thought a good, steady rain/ would bring us to our senses./ But five thousand years/ into the flood, I just don’t know,” Hicok writes in “You can never step into the same not going home again twice.” “Within my heart// is another heart, within that heart,/ a man at war writes home:/ this is like digging a hole in rain,” he states in “Absence makes the heart. That’s it: Absence makes the heart.” And in “Another holiday has come and gone,” he writes:
I tell my lover later
on the phone. Do you mean us, she asks, I lie
and tell her No, I mean every other person
but us, we are free, we
are entirely wings and little bits
of fog and the open windows
of speeding cars and Carmen
at the end, when the performers
take their bows to the rush of air
from between our palms, forgetting
she is deaf, that she’s heard nothing
I’ve said, that this is a poem,
that I am out of arrows and more
importantly out of bows.
Yet despite the absences and elusiveness, Hicok’s mastery of voice and expertise with language, sound and rhythm provide substantial foundation for its thematic uncertainty. Nowhere is this on better display than in “Notes for a time capsule,” a meditation on America’s current state of affairs:
It’s the morning of September 11th
I’ll be told all day how to feel about the morning
of September 11th. 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. I feel it was clever
to fly planes into buildings, that evil
is clever in the way rust is clever, eating itself
as it goes, that peace is clever in the way a stone
is clever, and I’ll tuck a stone
from my garden inside a bell…
are our complicated times
so far, my complicated time capsule
so far. My lament so far, my praise
so far as it takes me: to a hole
it takes me, to a shovel, to putting wind
in, the keen, the mean, but also
the hush, the blush, the dream
of getting along free of froth
and din. Clearly I need, I need, I need
a bigger box.
I can’t think of many other poets willing to take such risks, both thematically and linguistically, in every poem. There are even fewer who take such risks and succeed. Hicok, however, manages to take all the crazy things swirling about in the world and attempt to understand them in the context of a larger picture. Many times the result can feel depressing, yet careful readers should feel ecstatic that someone is even attempting such a grandiose undertaking. In “Waiting for my foot to ring” from This Clumsy Living, he writes, “Every time I write/ I try to hold the world still by noticing how the world moves. Butterflies/ fear the pins of this method, I fear what happens/ after the pinhole at the end of this sentence.” Elegy Owed is what happens after the pinhole of that sentence: try as he may to freeze the world, it’s constantly moving, and nothing is permanent aside from the reality of our own death, which follows us, like a lit fuse follows a bomb. The bomb is about to explode, and in a world where God may not exist, this book serves as hope that one can find meaning in the complicated ephemera of life. “O science,” Hicok writes, “give me such instruments/ of knowledge, they are as passionately useless as poems.” Elegy Owed is an essential, useless book.