Eli Burley on Mary Hickman: This Is the Homeland

This Is the Homeland, Mary Hickman. Ashahta Press (2015).


As a surgical technologist assisting in open-heart surgery, Mary Hickman spent three years with her hands inside the bodies of strangers. Her new collection This Is the Homeland explores the uncanniness of this intimate dredging that we subject each other to, inside the operating room and out. The book’s attitude towards the life the body lives, the remoteness and beauty of existence, is no doubt influenced by a circumstance introduced in Hickman’s poem “Territory”. In it, she writes of “holding/ at least one heart a day.” The poet is at once baffled by how we’re thrown into existence with so much indeterminate obligation and astonished by how oblivious we are to the miraculous nature of this. Why should we believe in anything?, she seems to be wondering: Why not believe in everything? seems to be the collection’s reply. Homeland constantly stokes a fire of strangeness. It embraces all the great Icarian flights and falls of humanity in a way that’s tragic, comic, and profoundly reassuring.

Hickman’s collection laughs at the insanity; the contingency; all the waiting and hoping of life. In the long poem “Joseph & Mary,” the speaker refers to the Virgin Mary, saying, “The mockery of it! Her absurd name and neck. My name is absurd too. /// My name for her is best: the sea!” For Hickman, all birth names are absurd because they are given the moment we’re thrown into the world. Yet the divine power to name is also irresistible, provocative, and hilarious. In a poem about a rambunctious love affair, the speaker says, “William named my garden New York City. Then shoved me on my / knees.” Names, beliefs, and relationships—these arbitrary-seeming things we often build our identities out of—are framed by the book as forces grounding us in that which is greater than ourselves. The book demonstrates that naming and being named; believing in and being believed; can sometimes be the only thing keeping the world from falling to pieces. “I don’t want my name” says the speaker of “Mary & Joseph,” followed by a rejoinder which seems to echo from the sky: “You are a delusion. You, brought all this way, do you believe?”

This Is the Homeland’s tone is simultaneously irreverent and earnest. It invites you to join Hickman in her sly flippancy towards the divine and her revelling in humanity’s fraught relationship with it. In her author statement for Ahsahta Press, Hickman says of the series “Remembering Animals” that it “wants to know ‘What is grace?’ and whether I’m even allowed to use that word.”

“Do you pray, Mary? Do you then suddenly vigorously care?” asks the speaker of “Joseph & Mary.” Hickman’s Mary is more human here than in most other written incarnations. The poet’s birds, meanwhile, smoke Lucky Strikes and coexist on dynamic lines with “phonemes,” the smallest discrete units of language. Through postures like these, the book acknowledges that sometimes sublime joy trips over its shoelaces and falls flat on its face in a slapstick instant. “Love, tender as a beetle” which “shoots down[…]shoots / us down, pushing on the larynx” is presented as a transcendent blooming of personhood, but also a vehicle of strangulation. Homeland contends that the distance between home and alienation is a short one. The collection is filled with images of rapture closely followed by images of rupture, with the “lowing” sound of our many animal yearnings. “What’s the best news? Home.”

Like James Joyce’s Ulysses—a work bearing a significant influence on Hickman’s own—This Is the Homeland blurs the line between wandering and meandering. The collection quotes the novel, shouldering its concern with motherhood and its delight in mixing the sacred with the profane. At different points in the book, Mary and God are framed as holy helicopter parents who we don’t call as much as they’d like: “Mother, let me / be and let me live, for Chrissake.” The reader may find themselves lost in the expanse of a vast desert wondering, as the speaker in Territory does: “Body lumps and chest-hole. What land is this?” Hickman’s conclusions can often feel indecisive, leaving the reader uncertain about where they’ve been left and what resources they’ve been given to navigate this unidentified space. One of the seven poems entitled “Remembering Animals,” for instance, closes with the speaker’s realization that “You know / I’d still love / to live in Spain.”

Hickman’s crooked syntax gracefully conveys all the body’s “Knobs–discs–cups,” the curvature of the spine, the nerves and passageways laid bare in surgery, the rambling lines on a loved one’s palms. The body becomes, like the title of one of her poems, “A Moving Temple.” Homeland’s corporeality asks a comfort with nomadism of those who aim to inhabit it. For the poet, humans in all their paradox can engage in this active searching, yet are often swept away as passengers within their own bodies and upon God’s Earth. The mind of Homeland, meanwhile, both resists and accepts the constant impulse to diagnose. The poet’s words rummage around guts and the folds of organs like a fiber-optic camera on a flexible tube, if the camera were sentient and acted more the tourist than the probe. In “William My Man,” the speaker exclaims: “As if there is a fig tree rooted in heaven / & each of its leaves knows all the rules,” before going on to witness a boy, “His guts an a-readied muck.”

The collection’s written body is cavernous, full of seas and infinities of life-giving cells, but it is also full of shit. It is awe-inspiring and repulsive all at once, at times embarrassed by itself and by what it sees of itself in others. “Shame is a sudden thing . . .My shame / is ashamed of itself and calls me / stillness,” says the speaker of another “Remembering Animals” poem (because even our shame can be a grounding, naming force). In This Is the Homeland, the body does only what it can: move, idle, process, reject, deteriorate and repair itself until it dies. Thus, Hickman writes, “I’m here to find out / how to leave with the self.” Mirages abound in Hickman’s feverish verse, but so do oases; places to rest, to renew one’s energy and nourish one’s self on rich poetic manna. For the poet, all travel is tied to the fear of losing one’s self in a distant place. Yet the book offers the consoling conclusion that almost all growth and learning is a process of osmosis. We are all, at all times, voyeurs and invaders, always impinging on the personal space of someone else’s living and dying body:

If you turn out intimacy
without a space for
the singular, what will happen
happens in public. You won’t see

—Eli Burley