When it’s time, the hotels of Ardmore no longer interesting
in their facades, the small bags of peanuts you used to buy
suddenly twice as big, as if someone far away, looking
out a window at a barge, had thought your appetite
was asking to be doubled, and the little girl you showed
how to affix playing cards to her spokes has gone off
to college, that school where anthrax arrived in a letter
and killed the chemistry professor whose face on TV
looked so small, like he’d been the head of a doll,
when you cried, fully and stupidly alone in your room,
literally into your hands, wiping the snot on your cat,
knowing this would set her about licking for hours, this spite
after emotion, you recognized it first when you were seventeen,
when you bit Sharon, not hard enough to break skin
but trust certainly was lost, and why, because she said
That must have been hard about military school, no longer
interesting because you’ve cataloged their moods, the different
shadows of the different cornices, the wrought-iron gate
so recently improved no longer sings when it opens, and you
should go, a whole new city, boxes of your life
staying closed, most of them, in stacks of who were you
after all, really, when it comes down to it, this collection
of how you said “shows to go you” to the magazine guy, of wearing
the apricot slippers, so have no set phrases, give your feet
a choice, I know, it’s tiring, to be new, to even try, who am I
to judge, look at me, my head shaped just like yesterday,
and this appointment with language I keep, as if eventually
a handle will appear, and the sound of me saying I’ll turn it
will be me turning it, to what, some sense of an other side,
which if you touch it first in your new home, in the away,
call me, the description, even with its holes, the torn edges
where to say a thing is to rip it, will be everything to me,
the beautiful frays.
When Bob Hicok’s poems resonate especially well with me, usually he is writing about the economy (not here; try “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”), and/or he is descriptive and imaginative (here), not just telling you there’s neighborhood girl who should make you feel old because she’s grown now, but describing, instead, “the little girl you showed/how to affix playing cards to her spokes” and how she is no longer so little, and she “has gone off/to college, that school where anthrax arrived in a letter/and killed the chemistry professor whose face on TV/looked so small, like he’d been the head of a doll.” Talk about imagery! No ideas but in things. But Bob Hicok keeps going, describing how you didn’t just cry but you wiped your snot on the cat and she’ll have to lick it off for hours. He calls it “this spite/after emotion.” Then there are a collection of habits you’ve been holding onto, people you’ve been, such as the one wearing “apricot slippers.” And I wonder where he comes up with these images, whether they are in his life or purely his mind, and whether he could spare some poetic imagery for me, give me a transfusion of it.
But this poem resonates on another level, too, tells me about time passing and the value of change. The title is “Moving day.” Bob Hicok says that “you/should go, a whole new city, boxes of your life/staying closed.” And “so have no set phrases, give your feet/a choice, I know, it’s tiring, to be new, to even try.” And who is he to say? He’s got a “head shaped just like yesterday,” and he keeps his appointments with language, which I suppose means he puts a premium on language over change. But really, Bob Hicok thinks you can both try to reach the same transformation, whether by moving or by writing, and if you get there first, call him, “the description, even with its holes, the torn edges/where to say a thing is to rip it, will be everything to me,/the beautiful frays.” The end goal is the same: enlightenment.
So this poem has me thinking about change, about how many people are afraid to just go, to just move or try until you are pushed, because how can you make a decision if you don’t know what will happen? How can you change? And I am here to tell you that I have been on both sides: the one who leaps before looking and the one who just can’t decide. Last summer, I was riddled by indecisiveness: Should I move to New York or Chicago? Did I have enough money? Could I get a job? I didn’t believe in myself and I didn’t believe I’d make the right choice.
Sometimes you just have to choose something.
And I am here to tell you that the experiences you expect to be the easiest, the best, the happiest—I moved to Chicago last summer, I went on a study abroad to Greece two years ago—can and will be the hardest you will ever do. I was miserable in Greece, out of shape while climbing to the top of the Parthenon, sweating and heart pounding, surrounded by fit nineteen- and twenty-year-olds I didn’t understand or maybe I didn’t try to understand because I was 29, and I wondered every day why I decided to go. And as for Chicago: I lasted six months in Chicago, much of it miserable though I couldn’t cry, broke, and numb. And you could look at my bank account and the balance of my student loans and say both were a mistake, you shouldn’t have done that, you had no business going on another study abroad in Greece or moving to Chicago without a job, it wasn’t worth it. But it was.
After I came back from Greece, I went back to therapy. I started exercising. After I moved to Chicago, I realized how much I longed for trees, how moving home to Kentucky wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to me, how much I still valued reading and writing and academia above the corporate world.
It’s better not to wonder what if. It’s better to turn that handle and see what’s waiting, and if that means embarrassment and frustration and feeling like you might die, or going back to where you started, you are only proving how human you are and what the limits of your human experience are. You should wander to the edge of the borders, to see how far you can go, to test yourself. Because when you survive, when you cool down from the sweat and recover your finances and find something that makes you want to live again, you start to respect where you’ve been and how hard you’ve tried and the fact that you survived.
So this poem is telling you to turn the handle. This is your push.