Review: Elegy Owed by Bob Hicok

by Katie Hibner

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Never before has an elegy made me feel so giddy inside. Bob Hicok’s Elegy Owed provokes the reader to completely rethink the concept of the elegy, warp it from a leaden dirge into a necessary foil of wit and celebration. No abysmal doldrums weigh this collection down. With childlike playfulness, the shamanistic Hicok yanks the sky down from its perch and crams it into verses we can both absorb and probe. 

Hicok employs unlikely symbols as vessels for his sky-wisdom: his first offering is “Pilgrimage,” which opens with “half / an old Barbie in a field / [I] bathed her torso / in a coffee can of rain…”  The reader can not only touch this homely token but identify with the childishness of both the abandoned and the abandoner, the fickleness of a toddler’s boredom and attachment to his or her playthings. The scruffiness of the doll perfectly encapsulates how Hicok picks from the highest branch of concept and extends the fruit to the reader, presenting accessibility without stifling fantasy. In the final stanza he tickles the reader by musing that he can simultaneously “put birds / in most poems and rivers, put rivers in most birds and thinking…” The mental playground Hicok unveils is apt relief for the true doleful intent of his collection—the experienced man familiar with mortality is only glimpsed in the final admission that even his writing is ephemeral: “each poem a breath / nailed to nothing.”

Elegy Owed widens its scope beyond individual legacy. In “Obituary for the Middle Class,” he sends off modern American privilege with both a kiss and slap on the wrist, acknowledging the bourgeois as both “gods” posterity will revere as well as greedy, sugared-up beasts with “fat hearts.” Once again, Hicok slips humor into the batter, with the self-deprecation and nearly-vulgar detailing of our “coffee-veins” and “burger-fries.” The banter is nuanced by lonely images, however; asserting that we “pack [our] soul[s] on ice / till sixty-five, when [we] sit down with a lake / and have a long talk with [our] breath.”  Hicok retains what falls through the sieve of the ether; he inspects his characters (and himself) with an appreciation for complexity. He tethers such complexity to relatable vignettes such as that of the lakeside to avoid the gnarls of convolutedness. 

Convolutedness can add to the capers of Hicok’s poetry, however; particularly in the glorious gem “Speaking American,” about two new friends trading witticisms. It reads like a comic-book battle of quips, as when the acquaintance asks the speaker if he knows of another poet and he feigns taking it literally, wryly responding, “We don’t all know each other,” and reiterating the chintz of his humor with a litany of cheese similes. Although the speaker and his partner verbally spar, they eventually unite in their creative quirkiness, laughing about the speaker’s comparison of them to two baby birds waiting for their mother to regurgitate into their mouths with a simple “gross.” Hicok positions this piece toward the end of his collection for Shakespearean comedic relief, levity tempering the sobriety before the solemn finale.

Although it is solemn, the last poem, “Good-bye,” is not entirely a funeral knell. The piece is primarily siphoned into one-line stanzas; each snapshot flickering by like a soldier’s life as he dies on the battlefield. Again, Hicok funnels the ether into his symbols, wrapping landscape and  culture and spirituality in the spare revelation: “Beyond the church I pulled a hammer from the river.” This line knots the contrast between the divine and the earthy, the solid and the malleable, the force of nature and the force of man. It attests to man’s power, however; Hicok humbles his piece and garnishes it with humor when he throws up his hands at philosophical cogitation: he doesn't care if his musings are entirely accurate; he just wants to skip to the part when he and his wife “hold hands.” As Hicok is a maestro of paradox, he counters that summery, saccharine image with the lamentation that sometimes, “our shadows do a better job.” But there is hope in that duality. Hicok writes the hope that we can thrive in the grayness, that our identities have flexibility in the firmament. 

Hicok’s Elegy Owed doesn’t have the heaviness of a funerary debt, but the insight and exuberance of a glimpse of the empyrean. Hicok bottles this wonder in symbols like antique trinkets; we can toy with them, revere them, and almost fear their meanings and histories. 

We’re revisiting our archives today—this post was originally published on our website on April 2nd, 2015.

— Writer Katie Hibner hails from Cincinnati, Ohio.