All Together Now:
A Review of This Clumsy Living by Bob Hicok
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007
Reviewed by Allison Elliott
This Clumsy Living, Bob Hicok’s fifth collection of poetry, shows the poet sympathizing with some unlikely subjects: a cow, a mannequin, clean sheets. But on a more conventional, though no less intriguing level, he continues to take on the endlessly fascinating subject of human relationships and of deciding how much space to leave between himself and other people. He is particularly adept at capturing the moment of possible crisis, or the moment before the moment of crisis, when the individual is waiting for the worst or maybe nothing to happen while remaining in the present moment. In the poem “Her my Body,” the speaker pets a dog and thinks of jets and people in them while the woman he loves investigates a bruise on her breast; a bruise they’re both hoping only means they have bedbugs. His musings lead him to consider the crux of the matter:
ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City. She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal 42opus.
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.
From the title of the poem, it’s clear it will be unthinkable for the speaker to separate the woman’s condition from his own, whatever the outcome. This theme of loyalty comes up often throughout the collection, though it appears as something slightly different from loyalty since the other option often seems impossible. In one poem, the speaker decides that he cannot ask his mother to lose weight, though his father has urged him to, because “she was cut open for my head, my door is a scar.” Even in the more imaginative poems in the collection, this idea creeps up, as it does in “In Michael Robin’s class minus one” when the “the river promises to never surrender the boy’s shape to the ocean.” The river, too, cannot disassociate itself from the boy that has come to live in its depths: “and the river asks, did this boy dream of horses?/ because suddenly I dream of horses, I suddenly dream.”
The act of identification is most effective in the opening poem of the collection, “Twins.” The subjects’ total sympathy with one another comes through in the repetition of words and whole phrases. The two subjects seem literally haunted by one another in the sense that the language has them shadow one another. It’s a peek into the strange experience of being repeated and echoed:
She says I was in the blue dress before you put it on and after you put it on, like a soft paper flower she says and she says yes, like a soft paper flower.
In another poem, “Switching to Deer Time,” the speaker identifies with the deer near his home. He wants to experience their sense of time, “no feeling except peace,” thinking this will somehow help him manage the reality of a devastating earthquake in Iran. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but somehow it does, perhaps because we’ve come to expect that we can enter into another creature’s experience, or at least, that it’s worth trying to.
One must be careful, though, in all this solidarity, to respect the legitimate spaces between people. Hicok does this as well. In one of his strongest poems, “Green on the day,” the poet admits to the subject, who has spent “many months” looking for work, that he has said the wrong thing; has failed to understand what was needed of him:
I’m sorry, you’re hoping to imagine rent, what fold in time five hundred and seventy dollars will appear from, where in the park you’ll sleep, beside the sculpture Of a woman with wings . . .
As an act of contrition, he imaginatively follows the subject throughout the days of unemployment, documenting how the man must be spending his time: interviewing, waiting, circling want ads. He manages to convey the entire mix of emotions that come during this time: fear, futility, embarrassment, humiliation, and even the short-lived bouts of freedom. One can still have a certain independence, even make one’s own schedule and set of tasks, like crushing beer cans and seeing how far one can throw them, or marking the change in seasons, all the while never forgetting the bitterness of the situation, exemplified in the tree that no longer has leaves, but was green on the day of his “pink slip, which was yellow, who knew.” That acknowledgement of irony is perhaps the best sign of one’s autonomy and the poet’s best concession to the fact that though we try to help one another, to forge connections, we are often alone in our pain. It’s to Hicok’s credit that he keeps trying all the same.