Rayfish by poet Mary Hickman received the 2016 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, given to recognize an outstanding second collection by an American poet. It is a collection of 15 longish prose poems, each an ekphrastic poem inspired by a work of art, a cultural artifact, a photograph, and much more.
It is more than worthwhile to read these poems aloud; in fact, it may be mandatory. For it is only by reading them aloud that one finds the rhythm and pace of each poem, hears and experiences the drama building in the narrative, and even tastes the precision with which Hickman writes.
We find poems like “Still life with Rayfish,” inspired by a painting by the Russian artist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) and a poem about the life of artist Andy Warhol. We read “I Have Had Many Near-Death Experiences,” based on a dance by the Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010). We discover the poetry inspired by an invasive garden weed, hip replacement surgery, and open-heart surgery (Hickman worked in the medical field for a time). And the poetry of a photograph.
We even find poems inspired by Chinese cities, poems informed by Hickman’s childhood and young adulthood in China and Taiwan. One, “Beijing,” is an imagining of the experience of the Cultural Revolution, which officially ended the year after she was born.
When the violence began, it was less like violence and more like parades. Students flooded the streets with bodies, horns—a hysterical mass surging forward, black and red banners pierced with holes, bodies stumbling as if hallucinating or asleep and I want to say I am unable to write this. Or I want to say that there are two Chinas and I can recover each with ease. I sometimes introduce myself as my child self or to write a bio I’d start with childhood. I was raised in China and sent to boarding school in Taiwan. But so much about past and present is absent in this. What does China have to do with this portrait, this moment? I tell myself stop looking, or look into the water; see the Medusa’s self-coupling in wet concrete. Evading house arrest, we fled. We boarded a plane headed south… (The complete poem can be found at the end of an interview of Hickman by OmniVerse.)
The daughter of Christian missionaries, Hickman was born in Idaho but raised in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. She worked as a surgical tech assisting in open-heart surgeries in Taiwan. She received her degree in book arts from the University of Iowa Center for the Book, an M.A. degree from the University of Iowa, and an M.F.A. degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first poetry collection was This is the Homeland (2015). She works for the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and with her husband Robert Fernandez started Cost Nostra Editions, a chapbook publisher.
Reading a collection like Rayfish is not only to be taken on a tour of culture and its artifacts. It is also to explore what culture is and what it means, and how it forms the DNA of both society and daily life.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish