betsy snow hickok
iowa city, iowa | interviewed 2-19-2002
"In the Telling"
In one tale Athena bursts full-blown
from her father's forehead. Even as victims,
Leda becomes a swan and Persephone is returned
to life for half the year.
These acts are as possible as cruelty.
More so if we will them harder
than the violence that removes
all dignity from victims tumbled like children,
limbs torn away like flower petals.
Early myth was not religion
but science, an explanation
of nature, human and otherwise
of the elements, which are found in all violence
and all healing: earth, air, fire, water.
In myth, things leave
and are returned to us.
Which story would they want to hear?
Their lives only in an instant were death.
If cement and glass can become as light as air,
why not spirit?
Didn't we see them upright, whole in the full
Didn't we see them riding the smoke like angels?
copyright © 2001 Betsy Snow Hickok | All Rights Reserved
In a college play that made the news this December
the students make Jesus gay,
and a young bold sophomore
plays Him wearing nothing but
underpants. You'd have to be
that young and passionate
to sit onstage in underpants,
or you'd have to be gay,
or you'd have to be Jesus.
Here in the Midwest those bland
announcers can barely stand
to see Jesus in underpants.
Edie Fawcett and Bruce Aune
are trying not to laugh or
look disgusted. I think
the clip is nice, a break from
bombs pounding the hills
of Armageddon. In Israel and what was
once and probably partly still should be
Palestine, I can't keep track of who
has committed the worst atrocity:
ten dead on a bus, a thirteen-year-old shot
at the border, several children injured.
I don't know how the wailing wall
and the holy interiors stay intact,
ground zero for the faithful,
the places people go to weep
for joy. An eye for an eye or
turn the other cheek, the Bible teaches. This kid
sits on the floor in underpants, barely
not a child, his narrow chest,
his long legs, his wild hair
and beaked nosenot an attractive
boy, which gives him appeal, like a guy
I knew in college, the night we tried and
didn't have sex. His pose onstage is exactly
the same: on his knees, sitting upright,
long white legs tucked under,
an embarrassed swan looking for water.
I don't know how these things get started;
one man takes another man's pants
and then his country and it's all
downhill from there.
No man looks right without pants,
too vulnerable, too like a girl, that's why
the boy is so courageous. His pose is supplicating.
I doubt he's even gay, but he's willing
to pretend to be gaywell, gentle, really
and appear in underpants on regional TV
where his parents can see him.
While he's onstage,
there's a guy somewhere sitting like this
begging for mercy with a gun to his head.
Where they gently laid Jesus
lobs a bomb overhead. Where Mohammed spoke
from under a tree, a flare goes off.
"Please," the 19-year-old director
says with youthful arrogance into the camera
as Edie and Bruce snicker,
"All I ask is that people don't judge the play
until they've seen it."
Quiet demonstrators, who haven't,
stand outside the theatre in the cold, expressing their gentle
hatred. What the hell does that headstrong
young director know, a kid who wants to stir
things up? Except that what he said, that virgin,
dumb luck, was like something Jesus said, wasn't it?
copyright © 2001 Betsy Snow Hickok | All Rights Reserved
I guess what shock does is it protects you in some way, so I think for me, for the first few days the bigger implications didn't really sink in. And what I was feeling was just a profound sense of sadness for the people who were in the building and for the families of those people. And just the horror of what that meant for so many loved ones.
Three days after the event, I was able to write one of the poems. But I didn't mean to, and I actually really didn't think that I would be able to write about the event. And after I wrote this one poem, I couldn't write about the event for several weeks. No, I did not think about writing. In fact, I thought, this is so huge, that there is no way that words can begin to express what this is, and it would be almost too contrived even to try.
October 7 (Bombing of Afghanistan)
I remember hearing it, and I think, like a lot of Americans, I had very mixed emotions about that. I was not in the gung-ho, let's-just-bomb-the-heck-out-of-them camp. I felt that the United States probably didn't have any choice at that point, but at the same time, I knew that there would be civilian casualties, and I felt a deep, deep sense of grief and responsibility for that side of it.
"In the Telling"
I was still very focused on the victims, and what was really troubling me, was that idea that these thousands of people had lived nice, normal, loving lives with their families, and had touched so many other lives, and that now, because of the way they died, I was concerned that that would just overshadow the value of their lives, and the brightness of their lives.
Before I was born, I had an older brother. And he was riding his bike, and he was killed. The tragedy of his death, which happened in an instant, really had a deep, deep effect on my family. It took me years to learn about him as a person, because who he was, was very much colored by the tragedy of his death. And I know that that was in the back of my mind when I was writing this, because I really felt for these victims, and I thought, Let's release these people from being identified only as victims of this tragedy.
I think it took a lot of weeks for us all to get our senses of humor back, and even then, it was almost more a sense of sort of cynical irony than a sense of humor. I wrote this poem in mid-December during the holiday season, and really it just came from a newscast I saw one night where there was news about the bombing, the bombing, the bombing. And then there was this real short piece about how some college students had written a play about Jesus and decided to make him gay, and this play, of course, was very controversial and people were demonstrating. And obviously I was just having fun with that juxtaposition of events and some of the irony in even our own attitudes about religion and our own sense of tolerance in the American culture.
I'm really not cynical about the United States at all, and I believe very deeply in democracy. I think that the events of 9/11, for me, certainly brought out patriotism, but also a real need to do some soul-searching. The United States has a tremendous amount of power. It has tremendous resources. And I really see us as kind of the rich kid on the block that is living in a way that is really not taking other people into consideration. And that's not to say that the violence of 9/11 could ever be justified in any way. But I do think that there's a real need to look at our relationships to other countries in the world.
This country has so many articulate, thoughtful people, and it's disappointing to me that we can't put that to work in trying to resolve some of these problems. I'm not convinced that the way we're handling things is really going to resolve them in the end.
Betsy Snow Hickok was born in Albany, New York in 1960. She grew up outside of San Francisco, California, until she was eight, then she and her older siblings moved back to Brattleboro, Vermont with their mother. Both music and writing have been important parts of her life from a young age.
She earned a B.A. in English from Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, and an M.F.A. in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. She has had various teaching and writing positions, and currently works as a communications writer for the University of Iowa Foundation. She lives with her partner in a farmhouse near Iowa City.
She is a published poet and writer, focusing now in her own work mostly on poetry. She writes in the early hours most mornings.