Bob Hicok

Poet physics

I will never see you

Can you hear the ripping
of me in emotion
tending to stay
in emotion

It's not just opera
that tells me this is so
or midnights of drinking
the moon under the table,
even galaxies
in an expanding universe
are lonelier
all the time

the night will lose
its stars and go dark
and a person
is a tumbleweed
at heart

about the beginning
and ending
of everything
says why bother
holding hands
but we do

that we are



Obscure sorrows

It's a mistake to be a poet and try to write
the biography of music or everything
for that matter about the wind
and snow stopping midair
to adjust its hair
is ineffable, yet I keep effing trying
to become what I love, I think
is what's going on here
and why it's tragic
I'm not falling snow
looking like Satie sounds
in Anne Queffélec's hands
from Paris, who is eternal
a little bit this morning
before dawn and god
are awake, douloureux
avec conviction and grave.

Later I'll look up at the stars
and sooner what gnossienne means
while it snows, probably
almost the same as what it means
while it rains. For now I thank
Rob Goad in Farnborough, Hampshire
for filling out "Customs Declaration CN22"
in BLOCK CAPITALS as demanded by the form
and sending me Satie again
after twenty years of my ears
wore out my previous CD.

These fingers teaching this song
to this piano in East Woodhay, Newbury
in March 1988 fall now
like the shadow of a wing
across my heart: I am not
the favorite child of a favorite parent
who held my hand as I fell
over a leaf and never quite
got over being alive
to this day, silly
how much comes down to being
and believing in being
wanted, I would say everything
there is to say
if I had the time
and melancholy tongue
of a certain composer, nostalgia
for what never happened
is art, isn't it
too late to be the sky?



A place for everything

I took a cricket outside. It was either that
or grow grass inside and then trees for the grass
to look up to. It was still a cricket outside,
and a better cricket, just as an elephant
would be a better elephant stolen from a circus
and put in a taxi for a flight back to Africa.
But what about slivers? If I get a sliver in my hand,
isn't that the only place it can be a sliver,
or in your hand, your arch-enemy's? For once removed,
doesn't a sliver die and become just a tiny
piece of wood? And what about a broken heart?
If you love again, where does it go?
It's tougher to know where I belong. I once
stole a violin and tried to join the crickets
as part of the soundtrack of the dark
but they ignored my legato and refused to sing
until I left the band. I'm not exactly at home
at home or in a straight jacket or crooked rocket,
in a canoe on a rock or a canoe in a tree
or on a branch in the tree of life, as I'm always
on top of or falling off a wave or looking for a wave
to carry me to a hill or island, the imagined
better place where I'm a better man than my father
or his father at the exotic skills called "listening"
and "giving a shit about something other than myself."
I'm trying to learn from the wind, which is at home
in its homelessness and has kind hands
most of the time, when it's not a tornado or derecho,
soft and intermittent in their insistence
that it's better to be gentle than a hammer,
better to dry people's clothes
than ask them to solve your problems, better
to carry pollen to flowers and trees
than a switchblade in your pocket and a fist
in your eye when you look at the world
defensively, as an occasion for boxing
and not an excuse to put your cheek
to a cheek and dance. By you I mean you
and me, I mean us, I mean every self's
a sliver stuck in a body
with nowhere else to go. Hence the necessity
of this word in all its forms and disguises,
its capes and cloaks and whispers and screams:
ouch. And this phrase: all hope is lost.
And this confection: every sunrise
deserves a chance to get off the ground.



Call and response

For a year I've been emailing with a kid from Egypt.
His brother was beaten to death for asking for democracy.
He sends me sad poems that I show Eve and the sky
in Virginia and I send him my lineated wishes
to be as useful as moonlight on a leaf on a lake.
I think life's the same everywhere
in how often it deceives us
that life's the same everywhere
when not even death's the same anywhere.
The brother was given back to the family
"with roses for eyes my mother tried to kiss into bloom."
It's strange the things we'll tell strangers
in poems but won't tell loved ones
because their hearts are far away
like the bottom of the ocean.
When I asked if he shows his mother his poems,
he said that he draws for her instead,
usually a lion in the arms of his brother, sketches
he leaves around the house and sets adrift on the Nile.
I like emailing someone who touches such a famous river.
I tell my lesser river what it might become
and wonder how much of the water that flows past my dreams
once flowed through Egypt or the body of a slave who worked
on Khafre. Verse. Inverse. Adverse. Multiverse. Universe:
everything's a turning, of letters into words, screams
into silences, of a man swinging a club against a spine
into a woman straightening her son's hair a last time
into a poem about her shadow climbing up her body
and pouring itself into her mouth.
I've always wanted to be something I'm not, a dog
or poet or hope, and in response to the call
of his shadow poem, a metal bucket
that clangs against stones with high notes
going into a well and a deeper music coming out,
after I've swallowed as much life as I can give
to his mother and others upon receipt of their thirst.



The island

There's a bit of woods between two malls here.
Not much more than a big living room,
kitchen, and den, square foot wise.
Fifteen or twenty trees. A scrap.
A memory.
When I go from one mall to the other,
I'm reminded that this land
used to be covered in trees,
that toads and wasps and cardinals and snails
and moss and a stream and coyotes
lived here, and some of those
still do, just fewer, and sadder,
with no green horizon
to contend with. Mostly
the spot's home to trash
and cats. Someone feeds them,
leaves cans of food, or someones.
The copse should be beautiful
but isn't, shouldn't be there
but is, is ironic
but I'm not sure how. It's as if
among the stun guns
and blood sluices
in a slaughter house,
one of Chagall's angels
sits unfinished and incapable
of flight on an easel,
creating the impression
that he'll be back any minute
to go on with the dream.
I would like to go on with the dream.
Where is sleep when you need it?
Or sense? Black cats, all of them
black cats for some reason,
as if there's not enough night in the world.




I rake leaves as fast as I can. Not into piles
but in waves from the sycamore to the woods,
from the oak, from the maple to the woods.
Rake facing forward and backward, rake away from
and into my body, rake standing beside
and within the waves, rake facing the woods
and facing the mountain, as if rowing a canoe
or pulling moonlight into my chest.
I kick and push as I rake, rake with the rake
and rake with my legs, add the tool
of my body to the tool in my hands. Once I start
I don't stop. Like the Pacific. Like starlight.
Like the universe sprinting toward and away
from itself. My arms burn, my throat. I sweat.
I become the sum of the actions I am taking,
the churn of the different accents of leaves
that don't all sound the same, as no two clouds
look upon us with equal shade. I do this
to protect the grass over winter. To live as fire
among the dead. Because I have a nature
within nature that has no nature
other than itself. And when I'm done.
When I'm buried and someone rakes leaves
over my head and no one's left to think of me
pouring a glass of water and holding it up
to the light, I'll have tried to ask
the right questions in the right way.
Some with my mouth and others
by throwing my body down a hill
and rolling in whatever manner
motion has in store for me, to end up here,
a man and not wisteria, a poet and not
a ukulele, a brevity
of desperate and dangerous sentience
and not the longer brevity
of a thoughtlessly nurturing sun.




For two weeks, a cardinal has pecked
at the rival of its own reflection
in my favorite of all the windows
that help me love mountains.
I'd like to save it but don't speak
stupid bird, only stupid man,
and the worms I've offered it
that have drunk from the river
are not wine, and life does not have enough
yellow leaves, and I only have two arms,
am shamed in my accoutrements
by spiders and octopi, do not speak longing
or the Big Bang or ocean, just English,
which has twenty seven words for doodad
but no word for a bird whose enemy
is itself. This is not the first
obsessive-compulsive cardinal
to do this, and I'm not the last
possessive-impulsive poet
in the next fifteen minutes
who'll hypothesize that the self
is the interloper no one can escape.
At least this tick-tick-ticking is something
of a metronome, a heart
that has the work ethic of starlight
and the personality of a last chance.
But a metronome deserves a piano
and I don't have one, so now
the grocery list is bread, eggs,
something to live for, strawberry jam,
cherry jam, tornado jam, baby grand,
and a hawk
to cure the cardinal of what ails it
and make the sky jealous of wings.



I call this one “poem”

Do you think kites worry about falling down?
Or that mirrors are afraid to look themselves
in the eye? Many trees appear angsty, all jointy
and pointy, but I bet they're actually very calm.
I want my guitar to be loved by someone
who'll lean over it and make its body
part of their body twenty nine hours a day
and buy it roses and take it to Istanbul
or the trestle and sit there playing songs
for all the trains that don't come this way anymore.
And I want to be happy like that, and for you to be happy
wearing whatever shoes or expression you adore.
Do you remember the old advice to climb every fountain?
I get stuck like silence in the pocket of a dead man
buried in his favorite socks and forget to live
as Paul Klee painted. When I look at his Twittering Machine,
I want a life of greater simplicity on a little hill
with sheep not far from water in one of its forms, a lake
or stream or crying. Asked as a kid what I wanted to be
when I grew up, I always said, "An arrangement of a vase,
a sextant, and a plastic t-rex on a window sill
as the sun looks at your coffee and you wait for an ant
to get to the top of the t-rex and look around,
when you have no pestering or festering thoughts,
just a sense that everything is as it should be."
And also, of course, like every other kid, lightning.



Truth is the art of lying

In a paint-pealing town
Richard Hugo would love,
with fog-colored houses and people
who dream with a limp, I drew a likeness
of the ocean for the ocean in sand
with a stick. That night,
the ocean suggested I try again,
so I tried again as I try
with everything—eating lunch,
working to fail better
at my goodbyes, wondering
which version of heaven
stars believe in, the forever one
or the none of this is real one
(I suppose it depends on the star)—
and drew a lighthouse the next day
with the same stick instead.
It amazes me how versatile
a stick can be,
all the contradictory thoughts
it can hold in its head,
and that the ocean
washed away everything else
but left the lighthouse alone
and shining in my mind. Time
has so much time
to perfect its alibis,
to prove it was elsewhere
when everything went wrong,
as everything that is anything
will. All those Hugo towns
weren't towns but him,
and in my poem towns,
everyone you meet
has drowned at sea
but shows up for work
anyway. Just look at me.



A transcript

She holds her phone to the cancer.
I tell her I hear hornets but only a few.
She dreamt her breasts were mushy apples
she threw into a pie. I hold the phone
to my left foot I can no longer move.
She tells me she hears a stampede of horses.
I tell her I saw a roan early one morning
running down the Champs-Élysées,
even though it was a deer. She says
Paris sounds great right now,
and tries to walk me down a street I don't know
to a sculpture of a little girl holding the moon
on a string. I'm not sure if this is real
or what she's always wanted art
to believe of itself, but if this is part
of her saying goodbye to her breasts,
I support the moon on a string. They ask you
what size new breasts you want, she says,
leaving lots of open air after the statement
for me or a stray owl to fill. I wait,
listen to her breath and winter
grinding its teeth outside. Then she says
boobs and I say boobs back, a funny word
instead of crying. The whole time we're talking,
I think of licking a scalpel, my mouth
full of blood that turns into roses
that want to be words. Where are you,
it finally occurs to me to ask. The only place
anyone ever is, she says: here.



There is no such thing as a still painting or life

I hate ekphrastic poetry.

When I read it, I am a pope in blue
screaming between two sides of beef
hanging behind me from the ceiling, they are wings
of slaughter, I am the angel of power
and the rot it induces
yet I'll never fly, and no one
will ever hear my scream or make burgers
of the cow, and though Lake Michigan
is less than a mile away, I am dry
and untouched in my life by sunlight.

Let's go to Chicago instead of writing
or reading this poem. We can look at the Bacon
and eat bacon and go see da fish
in da Shedd and walk and walk and walk
beside and between all the old buildings
and I'll tell you I've never hunted
unless you include catching frogs
or looking for myself in my mother's eyes.
I suppose fireflies count
slowly, blink by blink,
and I caught a pike when I was ten
and wearing the one shirt I felt
safe in, it was red and had a hole in it
that grew over the summer into my desire
to run away and that I'm always hunting
the moment a river stops
mumbling and clearly says everything
is parable or allegory except drowning
in moonlight or tears.

And you can tell me that when you look at
Figure With Meat, you see a pile of blue tulips
bleeding on a kitchen counter
before they're put in a vase, or a woman bleeding
to death while her son is born, or honesty
severing the artery of a friendship, or a cow
that could use one or a million band-aids,
or a man whose anguish reminds you of how you felt
five minutes or months or years ago
and that you can no more find or imagine
what you want than the air can stop slouching
or god figure out where god came from,
and a dead cow or pheasant or anything
won't answer that question, and a man
with cow wings is at least intent on ascent.

The point is I really want to go to Chicago
with you and say shit that a poem
might like to have in its mouth
because I love ecstatic poetry
and people and lakes and skies, and adore
Bacon and bacon because none of us
seem comfortable with death, and I too
don't know what I want or how to get
to a shore from which that unknowing
is at least a ship I might board
and look back from at everything
I'm leaving behind and bow once
in its direction before I turn
into the wind.



A sound decision

Birds would have scattered at the shot, starlings blasted
out of the startled woods and gyred as a cloud
before settling into other trees.

Deer would have scattered as well, or looked up
from their eating toward the sound, same as a man
at his table in the near dark or with the first light
of the evening switched on, the sound surprisingly soft, like a book
that tried to fly away but fell from the shelf instead,
in a room at the far end of the house behind a closed door,
a book he's always meant to read but who has the time.

A week before, she tried to recall when she last felt publicly sexy,
noticed for symmetry, grace of movement.
I think it was the confirmation of her existence that she missed,
the proof that we crave from god that we're not a dream
but will accept from people.

She left no suicide note, or short story, or novel, though filmed herself
skating on a pond, long glides and axels in resistance
to chemo, an insistence through precision that her body was hers.

Women don't generally prefer the calibered withdrawal, or so they say
who say such things.

Visiting the tree that held her last, I sat and leaned
where she leaned and thought for the first time
of the roar of the sun and that all our screams
would be less than a whisper against the mouth of a star.

It was snowing enough to cover my tracks, so by the time I left,
it appeared I had always been there. I could hear the snow fall,
hear it hush my ears and the air and my blood
and the dead leaves of the oak that won't drop until spring,
when new leaves will cast old shade.



A book, a mirror

We were away for the first time since COVID,
Sullivan's Island with its long flat beach,
and over two days I saw several hundred pelicans,
four dolphins, and one person reading a book.
Everyone else on the beach who was reading
was looking at their phone or tablet.
Even while the ocean was raging,
writing its autobiography, screaming for attention,
many kept their heads down and swiped or typed.
We walked as far as we could, until the beach
ran out of people and then itself, Sumter
to our left, just a stone's throw
were I a giant. That's when I saw the dolphins.
When I looked up the beach, no one was noticing them
arcing up and down as if sewing the ocean together
where it had ripped. They were ours, and for a moment
I forgot that I've never used social media
and don't even own a smart phone, and posted
to my followers, You're missing dolphins,
and endorphins, and the world.
I did not.
Nor did I cry. I did want to travel back in time
and kill Steve Jobs, and would have had Steve Jobs
invented time travel before he died.
I also remembered that I want to connect with people
but have never been good at it, and that my generation
has provided no great example of intimacy
to compete with the near sexual envelopment
of the internet's self-selectable reality.
At the heart of technology is an apology owed.
For the car, the phone, the jet, the hell
of html, for solitude in all its hidden forms.
The ease with which we can escape each other
is a measure of our distance from ourselves.
What kind of life have we built that taking a picture
of a sunset beats staring at the sun
while you safely can? We don't flock to sunsets
because they're pretty but to look a star,
our maker, in the eye. Four dolphins.
I followed their breaths with my breath and gaze
as long as I could, to this day.
And we read to be alone with everyone
who has ever had a thought and written it down,
ever not wanted to die and put a note in a bottle
begging for salvation, ever thought a bird
and a word shared a love of song
with Double Dutch and our mothers
calling us home, with the sky
and wanting to fly. All roads and suns
lead to Icarus, to myth and missing
so much what we've never known
that we cover white pages with the shadows
of our absences and pray they fill strangers up.
And when we're not reading them, books
are alone too, are undreamed dreams
until they're held and opened, same as we are.




Had I known she was making her cornbread
with the eighth-inch layer of something soft
and sweet on top, I'd have worn my good shirt,
pulled up a chair for the sun, set a violin
on the chair, and thought of my hands
as having talent, the kind of skill
to make a violin or make a violin
whisper her name. But in my common shirt,

my shirt good enough for any Sunday
or cloudy day or busted guitar
by the side of the road, I ate the cornbread anyway,
more than I should have, like enough
to feed all of the ants at an ant wedding.

I'm going to get fat, and old,
and even less responsive to telemarketers,
I'm going to forget where I parked
my love of moonlight falling down a mountain,
but I'll never forget my scars, the one
on my left foot and the one
on my right hand and the one on my left forearm,
not until I'm dead awhile and no one knows
how much cornbread I ate today
or that I put my mouth over her heart
and thanked it for pumping its bouquet
of liquid roses around and around. To be honest,

I've never known where to direct respect
or admiration, and joy, for that matter,
could be a tuba tied to my ankle
as the ship goes down and I'd still grin
over the god-damned oom-pahs, that they existed,
that I got to hear them, that I got to wonder
if sound has a body and a name
just like me, or not just like me
but a lot like me, or nothing like me
except the brevity, and I don't own
a good shirt, per se, or bad shirts,
for that matter, just shirts, most of them blue
if they're not storm-colored or green,
different versions of different forests
and skies that I wear to blend in
with the other trees and thunder
trying to find a place to stand
or make a sound that means something
to a bird or lightning or heaven.



No actual prostate was wounded
           in the writing of this poem

I'm abra, she's cadabra. I'm a prostate exam,
she's the thumbs up after. A thumbs up during
wouldn't get to the root of the question.
I'm falling down the stairs drunk,
she's falling down the stairs often,
we're both closed-head injuries
with a soupcon of traction. I'm a car fire
on the highway, she's s'mores
wherever they're needed. I'm a piano
under water under ice, she's sheet music
lowered on a fishing line. Dear Eric Satie,
How many pushups can the sun do? I'm in love
with her wrinkles, which there are more of
by the hour, each wrinkle has a baby wrinkle
and so on, it's as if she's a fan or flower
unfolding, a rose with questions
about wrinkle creams. I'm not sure
what to have for breakfast, she's not sure
how to talk to her mother, we're not sure
where we'll live when we're dead. The ground,
yes, but that's a big neighborhood,
could we be a little more specific,
asks the shovel. If I dug up
all our dead animals, know what I'd have?
Bones. It wasn't a trick question,
though it has been a trick life.
She's the pause at a concert
when everyone's happy with the last song
and waiting to be happy with the next song,
the band tuning their guitars and hair
and the light of stars
tuning their long distance running,
and I'm the smell of pot in your shirt
twenty years later making you cry
because you weren't there
but your shirt was. And there's so much to do
but why is there no such thing
as a "to don't" list?
To don't take her for granted, I live with her.
To don't take her for granite,
I keep the word igneous and her face
close to my heart and my heart
close to my chest and my chest
bathed in moonlight at all times.



Bob Hicok’s ninth collection, Hold, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2018. A two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, he’s also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and eight Pushcart Prizes, and his poems have been selected for inclusion in nine volumes of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at Virginia Tech.