This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features the poet Bob Hicok reading his poem “Calling him back from layoff” at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Hicok has said, “What I’m most consistently doing is trying to understand why something is on my mind. . . . Maybe writing is nothing more than an inquiry into presences.” In this poem about a laid-off worker being re-hired, we see the economic headlines of our present moment on the mind of a poet.
For a biography of the poet Bob Hicok please visit the Poetry Foundation Web site.
Bob Hicok worked in the U.S. automotive industry for many years, and the problems his native Michigan is going through as a result of the economic downturn are very much on his mind. While it may not be hard to understand why the sufferings of the thousands of people who lost their jobs are on the poet’s mind, it requires more thought to understand why a man getting his job back—being called back from layoff—would have an unsettling undertone to it.
The narrator is a man who has a job, and he is calling one of the people who was laid off from their company to give him that job back. The narrator seems like a Human Resources representative, someone who works in the department that has to issue layoffs when hard times come. He may have had to tell hundreds of people they no longer had jobs at the company. So when he has the chance to tell someone they have a job, it should be a happy moment.
Instead, it is awkward. He doesn’t know how make small talk with the man. He sees all too clearly in his mind’s eye what has happened to this laid-off employee: he imagines a man gone to pot, unshaved, watching daytime TV. None of this is necessarily real—it is in the imagination of the narrator.
When he gives the man the good news, the man is overcome with emotion—relief and joy spill out, and the tension and stress he has been feeling are released in his tears. As the man confirms the narrator’s worst fears about how bad life has been during his unemployment, the narrator becomes embarrassed: “each confession/of fear and poverty/ was more awkward/than what you learn in the shower.” The call ends at last, and the narrator is left with a terrible feeling of “the seven/other people staring at their phones.”
Read a biography of the poet Bob Hicok at the Poetry Foundation Web site.
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