Today in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Shane McCrae features three poems by Mary Hickman. About Hickman’s work McCrae writes: “I’m jealous of anybody who can write prose poems. But that’s the wrong way to begin—because, yes, I’m jealous of Mary Hickman, but I’m not sure, thank God, that she writes prose poems, and I’m not sure, thank God, that it matters. What matters—to me, at least—is that Mary’s ear is so perfect, and what’s more, so perfectly in tune with the content of these pieces, that form ceases to matter. And I honestly hadn’t thought something like that was possible before I read Mary’s work. And I certainly wouldn’t have thought something like that would be desirable. But now I have to adjust what I think about form and content. Mary Hickman’s work has changed the way I read.”

If The Heart Does Not Restart

As I try to wonder about a stroke, an embolism, a rupture, or pancreatic pathologies, sudden invasive virulence, instead I think Go to the store for Roundup. Then the French neighbor gardening in her silk blouse hints chemicals might take care of the grasses on our side, the ones choking the basil. But I say bittersweet or Japanese creeper on the fence, what’s the difference. I’d go to a restaurant or the beach—I’d gone to the post office. She’s saying it again. “Sweet Autumn Clematis should be more vigorous than the large-flowered clematis hybrids.” And on the internet: “I know she fought with every ounce of strength.” Or, “She died peacefully at home.” An appropriate response to this: Bullshit. It’s comforting, but still. She wrote so many books. She is writing so many books, all of these books undulate from her like tides, like the yellow liquid left in the tube after selling platelets. Like honey. I’m not saying vampiric when I think of everything going wrong in the blood. Or the tubes carrying blood. Or blood keeps going where it shouldn’t in quantities the brain can’t handle. When he took a job counseling terminal patients, when he no longer had clients but patients, then he had the stroke. He stroked. Who knows how to respond to this? I don’t like the grasses much either but Roundup and virulent cancer—these seem coupled figures. We imagine the spray of one inciting the undulation of the other, the ripple through the system. During surgeries, I watched the blood spinning through tubes, getting aerated, oxygenated, whipped up and sent back to the limbs. I wished there was less hard blue plastic. Less crisscrossing of tubes and wires. My nightmares in recent years involve violating the sterile field. I touch my neck then I touch the edge of the wound and I am filled with shame but also fear because maybe now there’s nothing to be done since I’ve contaminated the chest cavity and the patient will most likely move on to infection, fever, death, but I won’t know because, one, I’ll wake up or, two, wakes up will stop mattering. Option three involves me trying to cry in the locker room bathroom but instead wanting a sandwich, not knowing the patient’s name anyway. A four a.m. sandwich can only be described as dismal. I’m on the hunt here, following the vine to its root only to find it’s one vine among twelve and we’d better get the shovel or decide this is probably just wisteria that hasn’t bloomed yet. In a nightmare, I once vomited on a patient. Just missed the chest cavity. Awake, I really did drop many valuable things. One of the things given to me to hold was the heart itself. But I never held a warm heart and sometimes I wish I had. I think I would have cried more for a warm heart that refused to restart. The cold ones, nesting in sterile ice, never inspired much hope of life. The real difference between a surgery that ends well and one that doesn’t is the way the body is closed. If it’s successful, then the patient’s heart restarts and the pressure comes up. A regular rhythm is achieved and we close each layer—heart, sternum, any little blood vessels, fat, each layer of dermis. If the heart does not restart, there is no careful sewing. We each take a staple gun and roughly close the skin but not the layers underneath. The sternum is still pulled closed with wires, but fewer and less neatly tied. I grab the incision’s edges, tug them together with one hand, and with the other, the grating plastic click click click of the gun. The table is pulled away, the drapes peeled off the skin. We wipe away the blood and the betadine. We pull the blanket to the chin. I never stuck around to see what happened next. Or I did and now I don’t know.

The Photo Does Not Exhaust Itself

I keep returning to this photograph of a man on a horse silhouetted against a mountain at dusk. The photo is about family. Sally Mann is trying to take a picture of her husband, her mare. Why should someone else’s horse move me? The photo does not exhaust itself in the description. I know these scenes so well—the people and trees, photos of first trips into a mountain range. In the photos, he’s sixteen. His horse stands with loose reins by an alpine lake. The water looks less like water than sky, and even in the heat of August my father rests just below the snow line. Although it’s not polite to say too much about one’s family, I’ve never worried about this. I go ahead and pick up what’s around. There’s a moment just before embarking on a portrait when there’s just enough time to make a quick prayer. I’m desperate to feel the elation of the image. I want to know the moment I’ve begun. The event shown in the image I am making of my father—the event or theme, I don’t know what to call it—is a moment in a cemetery. You might imagine a walk on a rainy day. You stop in front of a flooded hole and gaze in, imagine the bottom of an alpine lake. You see the instant of that fantasy or you see the instant of what might be memory, which, in another instant, will be gone. No one wants me to mention my father’s youngest brother. He was a lonely child. Playing in the barn, he hung himself. I think he was playing out the hanging scenes in old westerns. Before my grandfather died, he showed me a wooden box shaped like a pyramid. It had belonged to my uncle and held toy horses. As I reached for the plastic horses, my grandfather started to cry, whispering, “It was very sad when Scott was young and caught an illness in his throat.” I do not want to make a clear image. I spend enormous amounts of time looking for photos with just the right amount of decrepitude. The phantasm of the rainy cemetery recurs. It gives rise to an image I thought might be good—a memory that must be something more than its subject, that must permit me to see what is there. I have already seen something like it before. The earth doesn’t care where a death occurs. Its job is to efface and renew itself. The land isn’t going to remember by itself but the image will. This photo has the right feeling. There are upright stones and even some old statues. It has the solitary, well-placed trees that we might identify with cemeteries. All the shooting is strictly documentary, very straight photography. It’s the process that Brady used in the civil war and Fenton and Gardner used out west with their mule teams. You have to wait for the right light, and you capture what is there. I don’t know if it is even possible to make an image of this kind of family tragedy. I know it is not possible to allow myself to name those who have died in the photo. Photography wants to prove there is only one world, not many—one visible world. But that is only a suggestion made by photography, not a conclusion. These pale, nearly white images, an abandoned wall or a fallen tree, evoke loss. My father pastes new paper to the walls in the cabin and re-planks the porch, which offers a view across the meadows to the peaks. But I am left struggling with my means of perception, filling in the gaps with imagined scenarios. The photo admits the light leaks and flaws of process. These distortions, these blotches or scratches, they matter. I learned from a doctor that collodion, a chemical essential to my work, was used for surgery in the Civil War to bind wounds together. I set the lenses on the lake’s edge. Next I acquire material from the lake floor. I want it to be a snapshot of the lake floor. I only include what might have really been seen there at a given instance. I would dredge a real moment from the water.

The Women We Were in Books

This is for Ida who doesn’t like poetry but likes this poem. I want to locate your hands within the poem. Often I see you have your hands in your pockets. Or your hands rest on the bed and the nurse’s hands rest in her pockets. The hospital room, white linoleum day after day, your shadow blurred on the wall behind you—how can you stand it? In this image, your face shifts as you pass a little emotion across its surface. As I am waiting, writing, and from these writings making books, I am in shadow. My forehead has passed into shadow. But the men in suits finish each hospital scene by laughing or congratulating one another. And you say, “Why else did God give us the bomb?” Everyone sees something changing from one image to the next. Once, I was flattered when a teacher said to me oh your work is so good it looks just like a man’s. But, you know, Ida has a real problem with women and art. I myself never like the all-women poems. “Does it label our women? Does it ghettoize our women?” she asks. I think it is important to ask myself, Why Ida? I have assisted in many plastic surgeries. I draw inspiration from going in to repair flesh that isn’t damaged. It’s a calming activity to hold the breast and make new forms. They’re crude; they’re weird; but they’re wonderful to me. To look natural, the body must be somewhat uneven. I’ve assisted in two kinds of plastic surgeries: additions and subtractions. I either supplement the body so that it rounds out and fills or I tuck the body into itself, scraped free of excess fat or skin. The best part about these women is that I never know what they will become. While I watch, in my mind’s eye I also become hairdresser, stylist, and photographer. Each time something changes, the portrait changes. The knuckles of your right hand have now become the pearls of your left wrist just as my fingers fold over a cigarette. Although you don’t look at your watch, the time tells us we’ve crossed into some other frame. What mouth you have will not release the breath. Or you hold your stomach in to trap a cough. “Stop crying!” Ida calls out. I want to believe you sleep and will soon wake. That it grows light outside this room. What I see beside you is only a curtain of mist, a frame of water and breath. I’m sure of it. Sure that the battered lung will fill. I have witnessed a face relaxed and reassured myself: Nothing changes. I have faced the blank page and turned it over to find your face has only now appeared. If it is not a scene at night in a lover’s house but only another day in that hospital room of white linoleum, you will say, “I can still smell it,” meaning decay, and press your back to the wall. Despite arthritis, despite aging, despite the overwhelming threat of decay, I recall the women we were in books. “Are you still there?” you ask. When my back is toward the camera and my heels are toward the camera, I can see the bottoms of my feet lift from the floor. What does this but memory? I retreat toward my shadow. My shadow rises to meet me, breaking the line of floor, entering the screen of the horizon. “Life is good, isn’t it mama?” you will say. But could you ask me this in Times Square? Did you ask me this in Times Square? I’ll think. I won’t remember. On the screen, you lean to the left. Your hips turn away from me. Your shoulder drops. Your head falls lower than the image of your head and your torso brightens as you pass into sun. Night approaches. Night recedes. The screen recedes. There is no explosion this time. As much as I love New York and you, we each fluctuate between being specific people, a nation, more than one nation, and an intimate void. Nothing takes the place of poetry. It fulfills a particular function. It’s a mirror. I write you into the performance and you call out. Even as I seek to bind the breast or to sculpt the face, I wonder what will happen to all these women. I’ll remove what they’ve come to give up, I’ll increase what they’ve come to receive, and I’ll record each transaction in book and memory. But in my image of you, what I have kept or recalled looks small against your large hands, struggles helplessly under the slight pressure of your restless thumbs.


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