Between Flesh and Shadow: A Review of Rayfish, by Mary Hickman

Omnidawn Publishing, 2017. 80 pgs. ISBN: 978-1-63243-031-1

by Anita Olivia Koester


Each poem in Mary Hickman’s James Laughlin Award winning collection, Rayfish, is like a portrait where the subject’s gaze is snared by some shadow just beyond the canvas that is most likely––death, the subject’s eyes blaze with light both internal and external. These are poems soaked in blood, poems that not only contemplate flesh and its weaknesses, but poems that have directly witnessed the cutting open of skin and muscle. Hickman slices, prods, pulls and distorts her lens––the flesh––in order to reveal the alterable interior. Mary Hickman previously assisted in open heart surgeries; the heart for her is not only a concept, a metaphor to hold in the mind, but a thing that has pulsed directly in her hand. The unique intensity of this experience reverberates throughout these poems which pulse loudly and relentlessly in their pursuit of portraiture. Here is a poet who looks to the external world to assist in the mapping of the interior. Throughout these poems, Hickman turns to visual artists as well as sculptors, choreographers, philosophers, and filmmakers, ranging from Andy Warhol to Sally Mann, to aid in her quest for capturing likeness.

The collection opens with one of the most autobiographical of her poems. The poem describes what feels like the original event–– her first realization that flesh was more vulnerable than she had imagined. As children, Hickman and her brother were playing alone, “carving our names into trunks in the lychee grove. He cuts his hand. The knife slips, slicing his thumb and forefinger,” but in this moment there is not only fear but fascination, as the body reveals more of its internal workings. It seems probable that this was the incident that led Hickman to study medicine, and ultimately to write this book that is steeped in the concerns of the flesh.  

The title of the collection is taken from her poem, “Still Life with Rayfish,” which discusses the early 20th century French painter Chaïm Soutine, and his series of paintings of dead rayfish after Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting most often referred to as “The Ray.” The poem, like most of the poems in this collection, verge on essay, and are rooted in art history. They weave in and out of references from various centuries in an effort to suture together a collage-like portraiture. In “Still Life with Rayfish,” the subject is Soutine. Just as Hickman’s poem is commenting on other artists, so does Soutine’s painting of rayfish comment on Chardin himself, “In Still Life with Rayfish Soutine attempts a portrait of Chardin. The ray rises howling from the table its membranous belly shuddering.” Hickman here suggests a kind of resurrection of Chardin within Soutine’s paintings of this same rayfish.

Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision.

Hickman is concerned ultimately with the liminal, with the space between life and death, between prose and poetry, between biography and autobiography, and with the destruction and possible resurrection of the flesh. With the finesse of a film director, Hickman opens the poem with a gruesome and unforgettable scene; Soutine drenching a carcass in blood:


Soutine attempts to keep the color of his first carcasses fresh with buckets of blood. The neighbors hate the stench and the flies but he continues to pour blood over the bodies until he is ordered by the police to stop. Only then does he use formaldehyde. He isn’t preserving the flesh, just refreshing it, maintaining the life-color of the carcass and painting that blood as lush.


Here Hickman paints the artist at work, in his desperation to capture the colors of the exposed flesh, of skin bruising and bones protruding, Soutine put himself at odds with the outside world as he looks into the flesh attempting to reanimate it. Hickman’s fascination with the rayfish originates with Soutine’s ability to animate and give expression to the dead rayfish. In comparing Chardin’s rayfish with Soutine’s, one sees how Chardin painted the skin of the rayfish–– so luminescent it looks as if it has become angelic–– while the flesh of Soutine’s rayfish is still ruddy, the expression on the face almost comical in its exaggerated agony. The carcass seems to be moving, unfolding perhaps, Hickman points out how wing-like a rayfish’s fins truly are, how poised for flight.

This liminal space reminds Hickman of the movie Jacob’s Ladder, the protagonist of which is stuck in a place between life and death; his world either an hallucination or an experience of dying. Here is where the abilities of the essayist and the poet are in resemblance, as the poet must wield metaphors in order to bring two unlike images in relationship to one another, so does the essayist pull from a wide variety of sources and yet find common ground. Equating the director of Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne’s “body horror technique,” with Soutine’s often ghastly manipulations of the flesh, seems oddly fitting. The faces of the ghouls in Jacob’s Ladder in fact resemble the strangely human distortion of Soutine’s rayfish’s face. But Hickman doesn’t stop here, she interjects, as a great classic painter might, a moment of mystery. Using the text, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, Hickman creates a layer of mysticism. Quotes from this book are imbedded into the poem in italics without being commented on:


The face moves with alien speed, a filmatic sensation of seizure, fit, possession, mutation. He who has known the world has fallen into the body, and he that has fallen into the body, the world is not worthy of him. The ray’s blank eye and the attending angel’s carved sockets equally terrify. Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision.


Hickman is preparing us for her kind of seeing, a multifaceted, many-layered approach to discussing the body, and our experience trapped within it. Here she layers the ray’s eye over the angel’s, Soutine’s eye over her own, she is willing to give up a portion of her own seeing in order to see through all the artist’s eyes she brings into this collection.

In an interview with her publisher, Hickman explains how the impetus for writing the book was the death of one of her literary heroes, Leslie Scalapino, but also how she was dealing with family tragedy at the time. However she discusses how autobiography doesn’t interest her as much as biography, she states:


I wouldn’t say autobiography has all that much authority. There will always be counter versions and alternative narratives that are just as valid. And then there’s the propensity to protect oneself and stretch the truth. But there’s a way that, through the artwork, biography can be universalized—it’s a moment when intimacy and the singular cross the threshold into the collective and universal, a space in which the particular can be read across multiple horizons and times.


And yet these poems are not only biography, we feel the poet’s breath across these pages, her finger prints molded into the clay of each poem that she sculpts, carefully, as if building a house out of flesh. In a reworking of the Lucian Freud quote, Hickman titles a poem about the 17th century Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, “Everything is autobiography and everything is a portrait.” Hickman recognizes that any portrait, any biography, any autobiography is flawed and incomplete as any conversation. And that the artist must respond to their materials, in this poem about Artemisia, Hickman finds herself struggling with the subject, “Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive. I have worked to make her appear three-dimensional, rounded. But in this one, done by night under artificial light, the figure looks greenish, bony.” Later in the poem, Artemisia’s “teeming” skin becomes the historical figures she painted, just as Mary Hickman’s skin is glimpsed in the body of Artemisia.

Through my intimacy with the people I portray, I may have depicted aspects they find intrusive.

I sought out Rayfish because I was writing a chapbook of prose poems that dealt with art history and self-portraiture, but I never imagined I would become so engrossed in Hickman’s web of references. And it must be said that to truly understand the depths of thought inherent in Hickman’s references, the reader must be willing to do a little research, and yet these poems are well worth that effort. Instead of pushing the reader away, the poems in Rayfish draw the reader into the conversation. Because of the way Mary Hickman seamlessly incorporates her sources, often leaving out italics and quotations entirely, the fluidity of these poems left me feeling as if the book had no end. Instead, Rayfish is one part of a larger conversation, and anyone who reads it is invited to participate. In that sense, these poems can be approached the way one might enter an interactive exhibit at a museum. Be ready to play, to engage, to follow the references wherever they might lead. For this is a book about making, it shows us we can build poems out of all kinds of speech, that our own voice can work in conjunction with others, that our own gaze is only one layered upon others, that our flesh itself, our mold, is shared.