When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life, in each place and forever: three poems by Bob Hicok


Imagine spring’s thaw, your brother said,
each house a small rain, the eaves muttering
like rivers and you the white skin
the world sheds, your flesh unfolded

and absorbed. You walked Newark together,
tie loosened, a silk rainbow undone,
his fatigues the flat green of summer’s end,
all blood drained from the horizon.

It would have been easier had you music
to discuss, a common love for one
of the brutal sports, if you shared
his faith that breath and sumac are more

alike than distinct, mutations of the same
tenacity. You almost tried it for him,
cinced a belt around your arm, aimed
a needle at the bloated vein, your window

open to July’s guant wind and the radio
dispersing its chatty somnolence. When
he grabbed your wrist, his rightful face
came back for a moment: he was fifteen

and standing above Albert Ramos, fists
clenched, telling the boy in a voice
from the Old Testament what he’d do if certain
cruelties happened again. Loosening the belt,

you walked out, each straight and shaking,
into the hammering sun, talked of the past
as if it were a painting of a harvested field,
two men leaning against dusk and pitchforks.

That night he curled up and began to die,
his body a pile of ants and you on the floor,
ripping magazines into a mound of words
and faces, touching his forehead with the back

of your hand in a ritual of distress, fading
into the crickets’ metered hallucination.
When in two days he was human again, when
his eyes registered the the scriptures of light,

when he tried to stand but fell and tried
again, you were proud but immediately
began counting days, began thinking
his name were written in a book

locked in a safe on a sunken ship,
a sound belonging to water, to history,
and let him go, relinquished him
to the strenuous work of vanishing.

Backward Poem

The poem ends in death so I’ll walk it

backward home. The heart of an 87 year-old woman
starts on July 7th and immediately doctors
syringe morphine from her veins

and her daughter puts a tissue

together and steps from the room. There’s
a general turning from dark to light
and what she said to grandchildren

then she says to grandchildren now

only the words face the other way and blood
removes itself from scraped knees and all
her photographs resolve to black

as she lowers the camera from her eye

and sleeps it back into the box. She waves
as if erasing the sky amid the turned-around
hissing of the ocean and the elated

leaves retrieve their green and jump
into the trees and sex culminates with something
like warm proximity, a simple radiant fact.
Remembering her body old, she frets

the evaporation of liver spots

and tightening of skin, interrogates the mirror
as gravity gives the curves back and begins
her first date with my grandfather

operating a quick stranger’s stride.

And soon I’ll send the poem the other way and soon
she’ll turn soft in bed as my mother shreds a blue
and powdery thing into finer dust

and just before the inevitable

I’ll write a baby seeing the sky for the first time
floats with antecedent, which naturally molts
to the last wind to touch the body

is all the body becomes. If time’s

no more than the flesh of space arching its back, what’s
to stop the limber words from making geraniums
bloom in winter, what’s to bind

my grandmother to an oath of death?

I declare her young now and leaning on a sill with color
supplying the field, throats of the flowers open
to the pilgrimage of bees, the sun

dead above hoarding the shadows for itself.

Other Lives and Dimensions and Finally a Love Poem

My left hand will live longer than my right. The rivers
of my palms tell me so.
Never argue with rivers. Never expect your lives to finish
at the same time. I think

praying, I think clapping is how hands mourn. I think
staying up and waiting
for paintings to sigh is science. In another dimension this
is exactly what’s happening,

it’s what they write grants about: the chromodynamics
of mournful Whistlers,
the audible sorrow and beta decay of Old Battersea Bridge.
I like the idea of different

theres and elsewheres, an Idaho known for bluegrass,
a Bronx where people talk
like violets smell. Perhaps I am somewhere patient, somehow
kind, perhaps in the nook

of a cousin universe I’ve never defiled or betrayed
anyone. Here I have
two hands and they are vanishing, the hollow of your back
to rest my cheek against,

your voice and little else but my assiduous fear to cherish.
My hands are webbed
like the wind-torn work of a spider, like they squeezed
something in the womb

but couldn’t hang on. One of those other worlds
or a life I felt
passing through mine, or the ocean inside my mother’s belly
she had to scream out.

Here, when I say I never want to be without you,
somewhere else I am saying
I never want to be without you again. And when I touch you
in each of the places we meet,

in all of the lives we are, it’s with hands that are dying
and resurrected.
When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life,
in each place and forever.

When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life, in each place and forever: three poems by Bob Hicok

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