Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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These poems often end on a flat note, but this tone of flatness serves as a gesture, through these leaden final
lines, sounding as if just dropped, toward the theme of time’s arrow, how everything is simply gone, gone,
and what can we do but shrug and scribble and stand there with a plastic scythe in our hand, disarmed by another
instant that passed faster than we could notice. “Walking out of town for years,” for instance, the
last line of the first page, or “moving away” or “I learned to leave the house, he says”
or “You won’t ever find what you want” or “Easy enough, swallow and wait” or
“Just indifferent facts. I got to Florida. She died.”
Emptiness crackles over a cellular phone, and sadness gets talked about here, explicitly, as sadness, and as other things, and the making of these poems, themselves, gets discussed, of course, in ways we likely already expected. “What’s held back / creates the form, petals / forged in bone-china breath,” for instance, which is like a line already-read, as the French say, or said, back before the current moment, in some now-lost time when we, too, were younger, with different dreams of maps of Florida in our minds.
Melancholy, a migraine, “Things I can’t ask to be repeated,” and people, aging, softening or hardening in various ways, from the heavy near-weightlessness of little children at the breast to adolescence and its uncontained hairs or those fathers who time has rendered harmless and thus, well, nice: these things are Hicks’s concern, along with the major subject of time, though there are references to pleasures peppered throughout as well, loved ones and paintings and oysters (“Milk and sea slide down my throats”), even fruit. But the drone of a dull philosophy seminar, the tale of the poisoned chowder, the fiery rhetoric of an imagined revival meeting, and the long-gone-ness of the head shop (“easy to find brick building opposite the train / main street of a square Republican suburb / records in the basement / you had to walk all the way back to the stairs / past the kitsch not the stuff itself / but the stuff with which to do the stuff”) dominate. Even the loon calls are mournful, and the throbbing physical pain often seems merely a way to frame the emotional, “Surrounded by those who think they want to die.”
At certain moments, the lines are garbled such as to be incomprehensible. Consider, “One a.m., the fox’s rust crouch / panicked heart dive beneath the wheels. // As much claim to the road / the night as me or more.” It’s simply unclear to me what in the world is happening here. A fox? But why then “taillights” and “southbound headlights”? The compactness of words, the mortarless fit, doesn’t pay off, but distracts. There is a school exercise quality here, as to the final, vaguely Buddhist-themed poems, or the already-read echoes, earlier, of trauma and process, memory and its getting written down. On 9/11, for instance, and inevitable: “What I thought the day the towers crumbled,” of a baby, “he’s young enough, / I don’t have to explain.” But what in the world does this phrase convey? If what Hicks means to note is the lack of ability to explain, it’s an awfully awkward way to get there, and if by “explain” she just means something like detail, tell, then why the hell say “explain”?
Kiss is hardly alone these days, among small press books, in reading like rough submissions in need of an editor rather than polished, refined pieces of art. There’s raw material here, to be sure, and exercise around a theme, but something falls flat with this volume. “Cup of foamy chai bitter espresso pastry cheese soup // A fold in the brain size of a quarter thickens with pain,” reads one final couplet, saying some things, and gesturing toward others, but ultimately insufficient, wrinkled, and for a book so consumed with time’s passage, simply not ready, published premature.
Official Alison Hicks Web Site
Official PS Books Web Site