January 29, 2023

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The New York School Diaspora (Part Forty-One): Bob Hicok [by Angela Ball]

civilization as I understand it

To pee or not to pee

Sitting or standing is never a question, sitting

whenever possible on a toilet

one floor up in the Pantheon

Marie Curie’s body is still alive

with the radium she endured

without knowing what spoils their shine

then made her a baguette

and over to Luxembourg to dream

To be at home where I would dream of

To be there, our thoughts are water, you see

touch the sun whenever we want

and the moon and Kahlo’s paintings

regardless of what the do-see-lecturers say,

then on to London or Cairo or Boise

I hear also has toilets, how civilized

The world can be in the spaces

We protect from our cruelty and greed,

like the Pantheon with its oculus

suggesting that Heaven is keeping an eye on us

anytime, inside or outside,

when juggling or writing a constitution,

pray to God or walk the dog

who pees with such finesse

that another dog can come along

and sniff the history of her stream,

distinguish friend from foe, wag from woe,

and as science knows, dogs

are the only animals that are generally happier

when they are with us, including us

– Bob Hicok

Bob Hicok’s eleventh collection of poems, Water Look Away, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in 2023. His poetry, which has won nine Pushcart Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and two NEA Fellowships, has been selected for inclusion in nine volumes of Best American Poetry.

The New York School Diaspora (Part Forty-One): Bob Hicok

“Civilization As I Understand It,” Bob Hicok’s inspired inbound-outbound monologue, takes shape on a stroll in Paris and, like all good poetry, raises more questions than answers. Its opening, a parody of Shakespeare, reminds us that peeing and bathrooms are fundamental to civilization – didn’t the Romans think so? We’re talking about the house of memory, but the smallest, most memorable square footage of any home, restaurant, or public building is its toilet. Our heads are full of it.

This poem depicts how civilization is built out of incongruity, chance and physical needs. Why should we be able to pee “over” Marie Curie? Because her brilliance “still lives,” along with the radium that killed her. Instead of discussing where he stands on this or that, Hicok gives us his position. It is in Paris where “the Pantheon with its oculus” suggests “that the sky is watching us constantly, indoors or out, / while we juggle or write a constitution / pray to God or walk a dog”.

What is humor other than something that suddenly changes, becomes more interesting, scary or overwhelming? Hicok’s Oculus “keeping an eye on us” – might be reassuring, as in Tragedy’s notion that human life matters, but here it’s comically unnerving. Indistinguishably the eye dominates the most diverse activities, “juggling or writing a constitution” and our mind’s fantastic ability to “touch the sun whenever it pleases us / and the moon and Kahlo’s paintings / despite what the do-see- Instructors do say” – as here another fabulous play on words plunges us into the depths and origins of humor.

As the founding figures of the New York School knew, incongruity is inseparable from who we are and were. Hicok’s forays take him from the Pantheon to Luxembourg, from death to baguette to the garden, ‘to dream / of being at home where I would dream / to be there, our thoughts are water, you see. . . .” This may remind us of Thales’ statement that “everything is made of water” from a time when philosophers liked to posit universal origins for nature and civilization. If this poem makes such a statement, which it doesn’t, it might say “All is made of incongruity” – since the poem at its center renders “our cruelty and greed” both almost ubiquitously and decidedly incongruously.

As EM Forster knew with the phrase “just connect”, connections connect things while at the same time emphasizing their differences. This difference comes into play beautifully in “Civilization As I Understand It” when “praying to God” becomes “walking a dog” and canine civilization as peeing “with such finesse /that another dog can come along/and sniff.” “Revealed is the story of their stream, / Tell friend from foe, wag from woe,”

and as science knows, dogs

are the only animals that are generally happier

when they are with us, including us

The poem’s final truth, expressed in the Groucho-Marxian convolution, brings us to rest in bliss – the bliss of a truth both small and large, both originating from and deviating from where we were: the paradoxical pleasure towards realize that life is both simple and ultimately inevitable.