The What is That
Sex & Love &
(Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
Objectively I think I’d pretty quickly say “none at all” were someone to ask about my interest in reading about the sex a middle-aged white guy was having. His intimate life. I’ve read all of two Updike stories and never in my life any Roth or the rest of the Great Male Narcissists Wallace wrote of; and while I know that makes me a bad guy, I can’t bring myself to give a shit about dudes getting laid, or thinking about it, the politics involved, fixation on dicks and/or desire as balm against mortality, etc. Yet here we are now with Bob Hicok’s latest collection, Sex & Love &, and it’s a book resolutely concerned, as ever, with the tiny infinite aspects of life, those smallest irreducible bits of existence that constitute what buzzing hum we sometimes believe we hear, but this one’s using sex and love as its entrance point to those tiny bits. That’s a globular mess of imprecision. Here’s the book’s third poem:
L’eau de vie
The most liquid moments — waking
at one or two — rolling into her — mouth
first — cock second — neither of us
fully conscious or encumbered — liquid
in effect and feeling — with
the intelligence of rain — the
persistence of ocean — water —
borrowing the shape of tongues, hands — the shadow
water of night — another dream
the body has — not one
speck of thought — & hesitation — what
I first read that poem in January of 2014, in one of the early drafts of this book, a fact I note here to fully show my cards: I’m deeply partisan, and I know Bob, and I think his work is tremendous and revelatory. If you believe only truly objective reviews have merit, the next page beckons. But I bring up the date I first read that poem to say that, in the email I sent Bob on reading that draft of this book, I wrote how uncomfortable the poem made me, and how I turned from it, as I read it, pulled back and away. I find myself not quite turning from it but still made uncomfortable, now, more than two years and at least a dozen reads later. The poem is raw and nervy and sort of gross, or at least borderline: I don’t think I’d want to read about my own sexual experiences with my own wife rendered in such starkness (it’s the cock, isn’t it, that gets to you? The cock gets to me).
“L’eau de vie,” by the by, means “water of life.”
Yet I find myself drawn to the poem, and the reason I return is how deeply and starkly it establishes the central concern or question driving Hicok’s eighth book. His last, Elegy Owed (2013), set its shovel mostly in a path having do with offering gratitude for the disappearing life we’re all leading, the way we’re dying, little by little, as is everyone we love, but of course, because it’s Hicok writing the poems, the work imparts zero bleakness, and instead a whole warm wash of gratitude that we’re even able to experience the impossible sweetness of life. It was a book that felt very much about gratitude for being alive, which leads, if you trace a certain logic, to this book, in which the fixation’s upon how it is that life begins, and how most of us feel most deeply alive. In Sex & Love &, the books reads and feels like a search, the search dictated by the final phrase in “L’eau de vie”: what is that? Note the way the question plays in the poem: he’s describing this middle of the night intimacy, the way love or affection moves through bodies like music through speakers, and that shocked revelatory experience most of us have on feeling our most electrically connected to those we love, that moment where you find yourself amazed to somehow be able to exist in a body that feels like it’s moving far beyond the realm of being embodied. What is that, he asks: how is it we experience such pure sensation through our bodies? What is that?
This question is why I’ve come to find myself so deeply in thrall to a book that I think would, were it described to me, strike me as a thing I’d very much like to avoid: Would you like to read a book of poetry about a mid-50s white dude writing about his love and sex? And the answer of course would be: anything but. Except—as is often the case with Hicok—what he writes about and what the poems end up doing inside the reader are two welcomingly different things. Here’s another example, this from almost exactly halfway through the book:
I pause for menopause
with a bit of red
in its array
has been haunting
The blood of it
comes and goes
on the clear ocean.
My wife’s period
I didn’t get
to say good-bye.
we didn’t have
are older and never
You can feel it, right? The what is that? We’re again deeply in sex, yet now it’s something else—a nexus not of connection but disconnection, a present absence (the kids the speaker and his beloved didn’t have). There’s also this ache or missing of something that wasn’t really 1) a thing or 2) ours. Think for a second of how little we actually have of witnessing a concert by a band we love; we can’t touch our favorite song, can’t pocket the guitar solo, and sex is of course no different: the essence of it is exclusively in the making. By one read, this is simply a sort of sad poem, complicated a bit by the again uncomfortable aspects under consideration (do you want to read about some guy talking about his beloved’s menopause?). Yet the what is that from earlier—that essential, guiding question that animates this whole book—nearly rings like a bell, in here and most of the book’s other poems.
They are all shape-shifters, poems attempting to question fundamental aspects of the body—in this case, sure, the white male body of Bob Hicok (and the bodies of the women his body has interacted with). “My penis was born a clitoris,” he writes in “Homeward bound,” and then, fifteen pages later, offers up, in “A family matter,” a great narrative in which his mother asks him to kiss his wife for her, whose own mother asked her to kiss him (Hicok) for her, meaning the mothers “had kissed as lesbians / through heterosexual proxy.” “To be young and feel / like a grenade—that you can walk / into a room and explode it / with your hips, your face—” Hicok writes in “Aphrodite at eighty,” and then, on the very next page, “No, you go first” starts “I’ll die before she does / probably. We fuck / and kiss extra so she can bank / affection.” This raw, transformative, transcendent pleasure we’re afforded through our bodies: what is that? And surely pleasure is too small a word for the sensation not merely or simply of orgasms, but the greater, deeper anchor that feels to set each time we feel ourselves deepest in love with our beloveds, so what word is it that’s more than pleasure? What’s pleasure when it includes a sense of feeling like you’re living in the right place with the right person and connected to the best heart you can be? And is the pleasure of bodily experience rooted in us, or is it something we touch and fall back from? Plus, beyond big heavy questions, the book would be worth it if for no other reason than it includes “A picture’s worth eight hundred and eighty-seven words,” a poem involving a speaker lipsticking I have a penis on an ex-girlfriend’s car windshield, though, again, the oomph at the poem’s end’s got nothing to do with cock and everything to do with the hidden and revealed self—hopeful, singing but probably not quite in perfect tune—that’s locked into the body.
And you’re wise to pause here and wonder how much my enthusiasm re: this book has to do with the fact that I not only know Bob, but that I too am a white man. This is difficult to the point of impossible to convincingly address, but here’s my claim: this book works as it does for me, a white hetero male, not because the speaker in the poems and I have essential aspects in common but almost despite it. Obvious follow up: what the hell are you talking about?
When Hicok writes “My penis was born a clitoris,” my first response has nothing to do with identifying, or saying yeah! finally someone’s speaking my truth! My first impulse is, basically, the same sort of pulling back the first twenty or so poems in this book offer (which sometimes get hard to read: “A cock is a bloodstick,” he writes to begin “Guy talk: and my response was yuck, regardless of the statement’s veracity). I’d argue that Hicok is merely writing about the body—not the political body, not his white body. He is, indeed, largely writing about his male body, but the agenda is a matter of diving or digging into the body to access the boundaryless-ness the body allows. This is a guy holding onto a lock, writing a whole book about locks, in an attempt to talk about a world of completely unlocked and unlockable doors. Of note, too, is that the body-based love Hicok is examining here is not exclusively romantic: in “Closing the Circle,” he writes: “My mother's eighty-two, I’m fifty-three, / I should probably breast-feed one last time.” All of which is simply to say: this is Hicok’s experience, but the poetry is hardly harshly bordered by the fact that it’s been written by a middle-aged white guy.
By the end of Sex & Love & you don’t even know what to call what you’ve just experienced. Brave isn’t it, nor is revealing, though those sensations make themselves clearly known throughout. In one of this season’s episodes of Togetherness, that tremendous cancelled-too-soon HBO show, two guys dig up a time capsule from their youth and discover a bunch of porn images that are entirely devoid of context: the photos are literally of boobs and butts and vaginas. They exclaim at this, and I remember watching it, laughing, remembering. Of course, such an impulse is ridiculous, as anyone who’s experienced adult love knows: not a body but his body, her body. Early on in Sex & Love &—page 20—the reader comes to “Our porno.” It’s early enough in the book to wonder if it’ll be another raw, cock-infested thing, and starts with a head-fake in that direction: “You give me head.” The reader might groan or pull back, picturing, but we’ve already seen, even that early in the book, that Hicok is not interested in thrust or release, and so we’re not really surprised when he continues:
What’s inside it.
You tell me about being five and believing
when you hold your breath
We hold our breaths.
No one can see us but each other.
It ruins nothing of the poem’s gut-kicking power to note that it's third-to-final line is “There’s the cum-shot—” and the tenderly powerful or powerfully tender connectivity being celebrated at poem’s end is the greatest gift: the connection that starts within and through the body but grows greater than the body. It’d be hard to overhype what Hicok’s done here: it’s his most sustained work, his most revealed and humane and, somehow, universal work, despite largely centering on his own “bald, sag-assed / & slouch-gutted” body. It's the work of a middle aged white guy trying to locate and sing about not his own self but the self, about his body only inasmuch as it can lead to considerations of the body. He uses his own experience, his loves and hurts, because he must, as must we all: we’re only allowed access to the universal through the specific. And so regardless of the state of your cock, your clitoris, the body you long to be or hold onto or came from, Hicok’s Sex & Love & offers something like a map, a path, a guide for how one guy’s trying to find his way to that central station where self hitches up to body. What is that he asks throughout—that place where self finds its edge, where the self blurs and slips as we love and therefore become.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).