Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews

Escaping the Ghetto of the Said

Elegy Owed
Bob Hicok.
Copper Canyon Press. 2013. 124 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-436-6.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! In the poem "A country mapped with invisible ink," from Elegy Owed, Bob Hicok speaks of writing as an attempt

... to escape
my brain's slum of words, the ghetto of the said...

The bluntness is refreshing. The poem itself is clearly such an attempt. It seems fair to say that all of his poems are, and, in that particular, all succeed.

We are supplied with more information about "this appointment with language I keep" in an interview in the literary blog dVerse, posted July of this year:

Claudia: How long does the making of a poem take you? average

Bob: Two hours. Because I didn't have much time to write, I learned to finish a poem in one sitting. Editing for me is more a matter of which poems get pitched and which don't.

Again, bluntly refreshing. Given the associative style of his poems, this makes sense. The flow of images either comes together or it does not. Rewriting only removes the spontaneity.

While Hicok is now an MFA graduate and an Associate Professor, at Virginia Tech, his first several books were published while he worked as an automotive die designer and eventually started his own die design business. He wrote when he could find the time and became involved in Ann Arbor, Michigan's, open-mic and slam scene. Eventually, he sent a poem to a well-known Detroit poet, M. L. Liebler, asking for his guidance. Liebler's Ridgeway Press published his first chapbook soon after. His next manuscript was awarded the Felix Pollack Poetry prize and was published by the University of Wisconsin.

Through the years of his earlier success, Hicok began to study poetry and his style became more main stream. He completed a low-residency MFA program. The style seems not to have suited him, however, as he began to experiment. Perhaps his personal history made his return to "spontaneity" inevitable. The best of his work is still better for it.

The better poems of Bob Hicok's Elegy Owed, such as "Obituary for the Middle Class," "Speaking American," and "In lieu of building a crib" (and there are others) are amusing and deeply human. They definitely avoid the "ghetto of the said" while also benefiting from a genuine love of the small details which make up our lives and a puckish sense of humor. He would go to the school his wife attends in a recurrent dream she recounts and "major / in Yes."

Hicok lives to write the "beautiful frays." That beauty often implies a broader perspective, the distance of generalization. Poems such as "Ongoing Ode" have the quality of Auden's "As I Walked Out One Evening" or "Night Mail" without a trace of the earlier poet's sense of the vanity of it all:

People are mixing their genes after wine
in romantic alleys and London hotels...

Both are resoundingly poets of their time. For Auden our humanity is our gift and our close limit. For Hicok it is an unmitigated glory in small.

Occasionally, matters grow more serious than the foibles of daily life, it is true: are imbedded within a struggle to deal with death, failure, violation.

It was the worst decision of my life, to hold
your last breath, to say anything aloud...

Here the only words that do not fail are words about how words can only fail. The only truly sensitive reaction is to realize that such experiences are beyond sharing.

I had no business trying to see you leave, see death
arrive, I owe you an apology, an elegy, I owe you
the drift of memory, the praise of everything,
of saying it was the best decision of my life,
to hold you full, hold you empty, & live
as the only bond between the two

The only proper response is to more fully embrace the glory of the small details of our daily lives, our memories among them.

While Bob Hicok's Elegy Owed escapes the ghetto of the said to a gratifying extent, the determination to do so comes at a price. While the better poems are better for it, the poems that do not achieve escape velocity tend to come across as more or less contrived. The disparity between the two levels of success is definitely part of the reading experience.

Still, the price is a small one and the reader likely happy to pay it. No poem is less than interesting. The better are so uniquely expressed that the reader is guided back from their preoccupations toward all there is to celebrate in life.


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