Bob Hicok’s This Clumsy Living

by Jess

I tell people that I don’t have time in my life for any new book, TV show, or movie that is less than excellent.  I’m not willing to settle for empty descriptors like, “It was pretty good,” or, “It was entertaining.”  I am convinced there is enough excellence in the world that none of us should ever just settle.

Bob Hicok’s poetry collection This Clumsy Living is excellent.  I’ve probably read it more times than I’ve read any other single book of poetry, and I rediscovered it lately at the house of a friend to whom I loaned it a long time ago.  I immediately stole it back, uncorked my head, and poured myself into it.  It’s even better than it was the first few times around.

Why is it excellent, you ask?  What’s so fancy about this Hicok character?

Well, he’s brilliant for one thing.  And he’s funny, for another.  (Though that may not entirely please him; as he noted in an interview with Matthew Siegel, “I like that I’m considered a funny poet, so long as that isn’t the end of it. It would be nice to be known as an ambidextrous poet. A totally-indifferent-to-angora poet.”)

The poem “Her my body” is soft and sad.  It’s one of my favorites in the collection.  Opening, the narrator is doing his best to focus on the dog licking his hand rather than on the woman who is in the bathroom inspecting a worrisome pain on her breast.  He says, “The body of the woman / has many ways to cease / being the body of the woman. / I have one way / to be happy / and she is that way.”  It ends: “There is a piece of a second / during which a jet is not flying / nor is it on the ground. / I’m working on a theory / that no one can die / inside that piece of a second. / If you are comforted / by this thought you are welcome / to keep it.”  Of course, by chopping it up this way, I’m cheating you of so much beauty that appears between the beginning and the end, but I’m trying to tempt you into reading the rest for yourself.  (Is it working?)

And then there are poems like “Duh,” which is far more clever than any one poem has a right to be.  It begins, “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.”  Stopping to pull apart Hicok’s words like so many strands of cotton candy is a journey of whimsical discoveries.  Unpack the clever phrase, and wrenches should be distracted.  It’s brilliant, is what it is.  How about these gems: “Divide any number by wolf, you get wolf” (from “The new math”).  “Don’t come to Peoria for the falafel. / Come for the shapely heads of Peorians” (from “Peoria”).  And my personal favorite, “What does the internet know that it sends me / unbidden the offer of a larger penis?” (from “Spam leaves an aftertaste”).

Hicok is not just a funny poet, and he’s not just laugh-out-loud witty, though he’s both of those.  He’s a powerful writer.  He’s a thinker, and he forces his readers to think, to plumb deeper, both into the heady topics he tackles and the rewarding syntax of his sentences.

I’m leaving you with a breath-taking stanza from “My faith-based initiative.”  After that, it’s up to you to find yourself a copy (buy, borrow, or steal) and turn it into a well-worn companion for your pocket.  I’d loan you mine, but I just don’t trust you to give it back (this is one of the books I plan to save according to my Household Fire Emergency Save My Shit Contingency Plan).  Anyhoo:

Is this how you want me to pray, Lord, what if everything
we do is love, every horrible thing we do is love,
and the tiny gestures of notes beside the phone,
and blowing on soup, what if there are no distinctions,
and we, who are nothing but the impulse to distinguish,
to cut one thing from another, are wrong,
the sigh of breath when making love, of one body
pushing into another, forcing air out, I don’t know
if the tongue of that sound is all I can say, Lord,
don’t know why my hands are still moving, are these keys
touching You, Lord, are my fingerprints on Your skin?