Pushcart XL: Bob Hicok, “Every Machine Has its Parts” (poem) from Georgia Review, Winter 2013

Art by Andy Marlette

Art by Andy Marlette

My father can talk to him but that’s about it –
a guy you could sit beside in a bar and never know
he’s picturing the knife in his boot
in your throat because you remind him
people exist and make noise – he is what war does
to some, a twitch covered in skin – ….

I’m beginning to see a pattern in some of these poems. They start out with a very intimate focus – a father, a mother, a child – make us feel at home, then introduce subject matter that isn’t home at all – the child is sick, the father is talking to someone desperately ill – before broadening to show how these tragedies are embedded in a larger context, and how we so often take that context for granted without realizing the damage below our line of sight. Then the poems come in again, close enough to break our hearts by the last line.

It’s a very short poem, no mystery, no obscure rhetoric to hide its truth: some people, like the speaker’s uncle, are ruined by war in a way that can’t be fixed. I suspect it’s always been like that; maybe we’re just more aware of it now. People in suits in air-conditioned clean rooms surrounded by security guards advocating send people – some of whom only a few months or years ago were children too young to drink or sign contracts – to a strange country where their lives will be in danger for months or years.

The poem poses a solution:

certainly for presidents and senators a foxhole
should be required – some bleeding – a bit
of brain in their coffee – but I’m a poet,
you can excuse anything I say as antithetical
to reason – ….

I’m not sure that’s so antithetical to reason. Then again, I think the universal draft is the best anti-war mechanism we have, so I’m a bit antithetical to reason myself.

When I saw Hicok’s name, I had the impression of a somewhat lighthearted poet. I looked up those poems of his I’ve read. His Pushcart winner from last year, I described as “whimsical.” From two years ago, “sad but hilarious”. There’s no whimsy here. It’s straight-out indictment, a song of anger and mourning.

Pushcart 2015: Bob Hicok, “Why We Must Support PBS” (Poetry) from Field #89

Art by xildgolee

Art by xildgolee

“I didn’t think of it as killing them,” the executioner
from the late eighteenth century said to Charlie Rose,
still wearing a hood, his axe resting on the wood table
I’ve assumed is oak. “I don’t know how to put this:
it’s as if I loved them in the moment I swung, loved them
and wanted to offer them peace.” Charlie Rose was smiling,
excited. Even more than usual, the joy of an otter
seemed to be swimming through the long river of his body…

I have to admit: I have no idea what’s going on in this surrealist account. I’m pretty sure it’s satire, but that’s about it.

I’m partly hampered by my lack of familiarity with Charlie Rose. My impression, based on his multiple journalism awards for “timely and incisive interviews of leaders from all walks of life,” is that he’s highly respected, as opposed to interviewers who are more or less publicity outlets.

The interview in the poem does, however, sound more like a typical book tour (if an interview with a magically transplanted 18th century executioner can be considered typical anything, but I’d bet it’d come with a book tour), complete with metaphysical-sounding but ultimately nonsensical closing. Is this the sort of interview Charlie Rose would be doing if he were condemned to commercial tv? Or is it highly insightful, the sort of thing Charlie Rose does – is he the only person who would interview an 18th century executioner in this way – and I just don’t see it?

I don’t see the otter, either, but it’s unlikely I would, even if it were there. What does an otteresque person look like, anyway? I’m not sure, but it’s a delicious image. Otters do have this frolicsome quality about them, yet they’re actually quite vicious, which fits perfectly with this poem, with both Charlie Rose as the friendly but incisive (from the Latin, “to cut into”) interviewer, the executioner as the affable and reformed but blood-stained guest.

…I drifted off, half-dreamed I’d arranged a tropical
themed party on a roof without testing how much dancing
and vodka the roof could hold, people were falling
but still laughing, falling but still believing
there was a reason to put umbrellas in their drinks, …

The dream sequence in the middle feels a bit more familiar. I’ve had some pretty surrealistic experiences myself falling asleep watching PBS, most notably when I dozed off during some music program – Peter Paul & Mary, maybe, or an opera, those tend to be the sorts of things I watch – and woke up to a film honoring the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” which, in addition to moving me deeply at 2 a.m., became my favorite piece of post-modernist music. So I can understand people at a party believing in umbrellas in their drinks. It’s one of those things I’ve never thought about – why do they put umbrellas in tropical drinks, to keep the sun from melting the ice, and though they’re served indoors in the middle of Manhattan winters these days, they remain part of the tradition, like the human appendix or the muscles that give goosebumps or other vestigial traits?

All I can say is that it’s a dark-sounding poem (broad, open vowels, long lines), but hilarious at the same time. An executioner who sees the error of his ways and is hawking his book to prove it – and a guy who can’t stay awake to listen to him. And we’re all on the roof, having a party, believing in umbrellas like truth, justice, and the American way, our consciences clear, while our modern-day executioners swing the axe.

Pushcart 2014: Bob Hicok, “Getting By” (Poetry) from Frequencies (Yes Yes Books), Jan 2013

I love the idea of climbing a ladder
carrying another ladder.

As whimsical as this poem starts out, there’s a sadness underneath the whimsy that I find touching. I find the progression similar to that of “Akhmatova”, but with a higher energy throughout; the poetic version of rapid-cycling bipolar mood swings, complete with the cause-and-effect element: light causes dark causes light

Buddhism, as I understand it (which isn’t very well) incorporates something called the Law of Opposites: “Let a man overcome anger by love; let him overcome hatred by kindness; let him overcome the greedy by liberality; the liar by truth.” In a similar way, the speaker of this poem is embracing that which is distressing, be it drought or rejection: he loved his wife for leaving him, and she came back; then he loves the drought: ” I love my thirst / for its willingness to kill me.”

We don’t find out if that quenches his thirst; throughout, desperation comes through:

…the people
in the city who look up
and want moonlight, even a quarter moon,
even the word moon on a string will do.

I’m not sure what happens here; is this a warning? This lowering of standards is what happens when you embrace that which hurts you, when you start settling for less and less? Or simply a recognition that here is where we are, where we have always been, all of us, unable to get enough love, or water, or moonlight?

Another poem that leaves me with more questions than answers. And that’s just the way I like it.