This Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman’s This Is the Homeland consists of eight poetic sequences written over a ten-year period, begun when she worked as a surgical assistant in open-heart surgeries. The homeland of the title sequence is the body, open upon the steel surgical table; the sequences are linked by an attention to the visceral elements of language and by an exploration of the themes of health, transformation, desire, and identity. Hickman charts the precarious and ecstatic response of consciousness surrendering itself to language and experience, a vertigo in which the self is called back to itself and the world through losing itself. These poems are as much about love as loss, therefore—elegies to times, places, and people whose presences sear and haunt the poems. Using the teeth of language to grapple with the exhilarating passage of time, This Is the Homeland presents the deft maneuverings of a vibrant new poetic intelligence—sensuous, sensitive, and awake.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about lyric scale—the lyric line as a kind of horizon line, an infinitesimal dimensionality that the upright ‘I’ can miraculously inhabit, the line’s elapse equivalent with the collapse of a provisional universe. Mary Hickman’s agile, congenially profound poems designate that fingernail’s-width interval of incarnation working both ways, the body a spectacular threshold between existence and obliteration, wholeness and damage, pleasure and pain, proscription and election. Like ‘a fig tree rooted in heaven,’ it is the woman’s body which must bear fruit, bear war, bear the godhead, bear Art. In the ultracollapse of these poems, the soul exhibits for an impossibly glimpsed interval the bright sleeve and tail of her dazzling clothes.” —Joyelle McSweeney
“Hickman works language into strange skeins, twisting it through image and insinuation to return again and again to sound: sound as logic, sound as plot, sound as the foundation of thought. As an assistant at open-heart surgeries in the early 2000s, she had the job of holding the patient’s heart in her hands. Literally. Could this inform her work other than metaphorically? I think so. I can never read her poems without feeling her hands around my own heart, keeping it intact.” —Cole Swensen
“‘This is the new word’—it takes some courage to include that sentence in a poetry debut. And it takes a daring poet like Mary Hickman to make this verse ring true throughout an entire collection. Hickman’s carefully wild transpositions of sound, image, and thought make her words ‘get up and live’ naked speech within the startled reader.” —Anja Utler
The Comets Laugh (from “Joseph and Mary”)
The comets laugh. I’ll tell you, the damn comets cross; they know. The lord was there and there was music and I sang but broke out in a wheezing laugh and we did ample justice. I was with wife. I had bumped against hell. He held his caved hands. I was moulded. He shut his eyes tight, his body shrinking and blew a sweet chirp and was, by god, lost.
“This concise and focused debut from Hickman envisions people as spiritual yet corporeally driven by bodies for which one can find few words. Her sometimes choppy sequences, slim lines, and brief verse-prose hybrids modulate among bird, animal, and insect alter egos. ‘Every living thing is a hinge,’ Hickman writes, ‘and, at the heart of this, our analogy.’ Hickman sounds up to date with her omissions, her playfulness, and even her adults-only scenes and lines: ‘William Who Lives’ sees a lover as an arthropod or a dreamt monster, ‘his thousand/ hands grown from his ribbed-for-my-/ pleasure side’: ‘William named my garden New York City. Then shoved me on my knees.’ Undercurrents, and some titles (such as ‘Joseph and Mary’), give the characters religious and literary parallels. Hickman’s spirits, both low and high, are always listening for their own parallels in the nonhuman world, and most of her best lines come when she finds them: ‘Your name is strange: Lapwing. You flew./ Seabedabbled lapwing, because you know.’ Hickman's sentences possess both the vivid mystery and the sometimes bedeviling curtness of Saskia Hamilton or even Jean Valentine. Passages shine, but the strength lies in the program of the whole: ‘I want to dream/ just this just/ a private rising/ towards an otherwise/ animal refrain.’” —Publishers Weekly
I grew up in China and Taiwan, the child of Presbyterian missionaries, and in high school I worked as a lab assistant for a biologist, collecting, preserving, and dissecting animals for a Taiwanese natural history museum. In my twenties I worked as a surgical technologist, assisting in open-heart surgery. At this time I read a lot of Paul Celan, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, and Federico Garcia Lorca—writers who are all, in their various ways, trying to bring across the essence and intensity of lived experience through poetry.
After working in surgery for a few years, I moved to Spain and then to Iowa. I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow, studying with Cole Swensen, Mark Levine, James Galvin, and Mary Ruefle. I also earned a degree in book arts from the University of Iowa Center for the Book and started Cosa Nostra Editions with the poet Robert Fernandez, producing hand-printed chapbooks by many young writers, including Lucy Ives, Jon Leon, and Anthony Madrid. I also earned an MA in literature at Iowa, focusing on the crossover between 20th-century poetry and the artist’s book. I now work for the International Writing Program in Iowa City and feel extremely fortunate to be immersed daily in such a dynamic and vibrant community of writers.
My earlier experiences working in heart surgery continue to influence my writing and I find myself interested in painters that paint bodies but work at the border between figurative and abstract art, painters like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. The work of the British painter Jenny Saville is especially important to me. All three of these painters work to make art that gets right up on the nervous system (as Bacon would say). They depict bodies not just in scenes nor as static subjects but as experience, as sensation. In my own work, I continue to write about injury, illness, loss, and recovery. As Saville says, “I paint flesh because I’m human.”
My poems have been published in Colorado Review, jubilat, the PEN Poetry Series, and featured as a Poet’s Sampler in Boston Review. My work also appears in the anthology The Arcadia Project. I have been a finalist for the Grolier Poetry Prize and the EPR Discovery Award and I have scholarly work forthcoming in Jacket2. This fall I will be traveling to Turkey and Armenia for the US State Department as part of the IWP’s Reading Abroad: American Writers on Tour Program, participating in public readings and visits to universities and literary institutions in the two regions.
As a surgical technologist, assisting in open-heart surgery, I spent three years with my hands inside the bodies of strangers. What I felt when I worked in heart surgery was that I wanted to make art, that I was seeking something that peeled back to reveal “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” in the words of Dylan Thomas—I wanted that which felt rich, gold, alive with light, things that breathed and moved, surged and sprang forth: the antithesis of the mundane dismantlings and deaths in my hospital life, an antidote to the cold, sterile rooms, the draped bodies. Not an antidote to death but a vision of being in which the force driving the green fuse, blasting the roots, is also our destroyer. In this way this book reflects my struggles with faith, with this desire for life to be resonant, beautiful, surprising and to not feel like the sad mechanics of the surgery unit.
The series “Remembering Animals,” written after my brother-in-law’s death, asks all of these questions and wants to know “What is grace?” and whether I’m even allowed to use that word. The yoga-inspired poems come out of a longer series titled “How to be Healthy and Heal” and of course they don’t offer any answers, only contortions. While I was writing the William poems, I was newly in love, but are they love poems? The speaker makes and remakes the body of the lover, tortures it, even demands that the lover somehow save her, which, ultimately, he cannot. When I began writing those poems, I was reading about the legend of the Golem, that figure from Jewish folklore, made from clay to be a liberating warrior, and I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I began to think about invention and creation yes but also about intimacy, about the irresponsibility and cruelty often inherent in intimacy—to know oneself to be monstrous and yet to seek to make something from that monstrosity, something with life and vision—art, relation, even a new self built from the spirit one finds in another.
The poems in this book come out of a deep longing for spirit and out of a desire for real encounter, connection, relationship—a desire to understand what it is to know and not know another, in violence (the opening of the body with a knife, even in a gesture of healing), in love (and the despair of loss)—a desire for a connection that both consumes and isolates everything it touches—plant, animal, person—and out of a deep need to understand the way that a body looks once spirit is gone. The poems in the book also question memory—ask what it is to remember those high-gloss moments of awe and discovery and also to remember the ugly present that crushes us in the midst of tragedy, to understand what in us continues to hold the past, what rises, sinks, longs, rejoices, hates, and mourns.