Buzzed Books #55 by Amy Watkins
Bob Hicok’s Sex & Love &
In the first episode of the FX comedy series Louie, the main character (single dad Louie CK, playing a fictionalized version of himself) goes on a date with a woman he does not know. When she asks about his children, he answers candidly with a gross story about his 10-year-old daughter’s recent vaginal infection. His date is appalled, and, when he tries to answer her question again, his response swings so far in the other direction that he tears up as he struggles to express what his daughters mean to him: “I don’t know,” he weeps, “they’re my girls.”
When I watched this scene, I laughed so hard I snorted beer out my nose. As a writer who mines her real life for material, I identify strongly with the two-sided problem of speaking honestly about close relationships. Both Louie’s answers are honest, and his date considers both answers rude, or at least TMI. The truth is that the whole truth of any deep love is a bit much. Every one of my close, long-term relationships is both sweet and gross, sentimental and practical, romantic and profoundly unromantic. This is true of my relationships with my child, my parents, my siblings, my best friends, and, perhaps most especially, my spouse.
Bob Hicok’s Sex & Love & (Copper Canyon, 2016) reminds me of that scene in Louie. The book is about a mature marriage, and the poems run full speed at the contradictions inherent in married life. There’s no doubt that the speaker of these poems is deeply in love with his wife, but he’s long past any delusions about never-ending butterflies in the stomach or a lifetime of perfect sex. He’s confident and mature enough to both celebrate and wryly admit what it’s like to love one person for a long time.
The book is full of poems about sex, poems about love, and, as the second ampersand in the title implies, poems about a third, unspoken thing. At first glance, the implied third thing could be all the mundane details of living with someone day-to-day–paying the bills, planning for the future, arguing about who mows the lawn and who does the dishes–but I think Hicok sees the mundane as a necessary part of married sex and love, not something separate from it. He writes:
time is a shape
my wife and I share, our time, our shape
our sexy memories of Paris and putting
our dog to sleep
In a marriage, the erotic or romantic and the mundane exist side by side, are part of each other. The third part of the equation is death. Hicok’s speaker is middle aged and facing his mortality and the mortality of his beloved in the form of occasional impotence and the failing health of pets and loved ones. Death is present in even the sexiest and most romantic poems.
The book’s second “Love poem” starts out as a celebration of the freedom of sex with a long-term partner: “For a time we licked toes & liked it / & neither of us asked the other to wash.” If you’ve been with someone for a long time, very little is embarrassing or taboo anymore, and maybe that wears down some of the giddy excitement of sex with a new person, but the trade off is, as Hicok writes, “more / to lick & not lick as we like.” The poem is sexy and a little funny, until it shifts suddenly in the last lines: “it’s as if there’s a menu & she / is the menu & everything is allowed, minus / forever.” Death is inextricably entangled with sex and love.
My favorite poem in the collection reinforces the theme. It begins:
I’ll die before she does
probably. We fuck
and kiss extra so she can bank
affection and I’ve caulked
around both tubs and typed
an explanation for how to use
the generator when storms
knock the power out.
Again, sex and love are caught up with the mundane details of daily life and the inevitability of death. He says that he’s left notes for his wife to find after he dies:
a few thousand in shoes and inside
her ears and on every leaf
for ten miles that I love her
and don’t forget to turn
the heat down at night.
The collection’s most unapologetically romantic lines are followed immediately by the most unapologetically ordinary, not to undercut the romance but to make it real.
Recently on social media I witnessed a young poet complaining that all he’s written lately are love poems. He seemed to find this embarrassing and pointless, since–according to him–no one serious writes or publishes love poems anymore. If that’s true, it’s a damned shame. At their best, love poems can be erotic, romantic, heart-wrenching, and hilarious. Hicok proves that.
Pair with the everyday version of something luxurious: your favorite $12 pinot noir, say, or a leftover bottle of champagne you open with your loved one on a Tuesday, just because.
Amy Watkins (Episodes 124, 161, 164, 192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.