April 2010

Evan Karp


The Ancient Book of Hip by D. W. Lichtenberg

The Ancient Book of Hip begins with a statement of purpose: it attempts to document the phenomenon of hip. Author D.W. Lichtenberg has said publicly several times that this intro and the book’s title are only said in jest. Certainly the book makes no actual attempt to produce historical documentation. Instead, it provides “something more accessible,” and Lichtenberg’s commentary is a fitting key to the book’s primary conflict.

As Elaine Equi has so accurately observed, these poems “admirably resist the urge to sound poetic.” It’s as though Lichtenberg, in trying not to be poetic, is resisting the urge to be hip; poetic flair is akin to personal fashion: it’s important to have a keen sense of style but unforgivable to take yourself too seriously. No one can claim to be hip without forfeiting hipness, and sometimes the most poetic expressions are accidents.

Hence the disclaimer: “The title and intro are jokes.” In this pronouncement of jest Lichtenberg has taken hold of the word hip and is entitled to talk about it. Readers are invited to take what they will from the book. Is it hip? What is hip? Do they, does the audience know?

At first, The Ancient Book of Hip is like a collection of puzzle pieces strewn about the ground; although each piece is compelling and clearly crafted with care, the more you fit them together the more clearly they each appear. After several reads, each with its own artfully stealth rewards, the book becomes a meditation on the intersections of need and expression and posits the basis of identity as a relationship between these two. Naturally, each person will evaluate The Ancient Book of Hip according to his or her constitution.

The book opens with a poem entitled “Why I Write”:

I was thinking about it, and
you know how you always say I never tell you anything?
Like, I don’t know, about my problems or something.

Well, I was thinking about it, and I thought,
you know, that’s probably why I write stuff.

It’s not clear whether he refrains from speaking because he’s incapable or simply prefers not to; all we know is he foregoes interpersonal communication for authorship. As the book develops, Lichtenberg explores different reasons for this rudimentary self-knowledge. But he does not profess to know. The poems are observations that often do not contain commentary; his may be the motto: the more you look, the better you see.

In “This Heat Box,” he talks about sex in a hot New York apartment:

Romantic but only on the page.
Romantic but only in the way
She was romantic.
Before you really got to know her.
Before you really got to know her.

The idea is often a lot more attractive than the reality, and some people keep parts of themselves to themselves for this reason. In “Your General Sadness,” he mocks the need to relegate expression to the page, suggesting that sadness is worthless unless it’s converted into something positive, but that might be attitude or philosophy or action, instead: 

But now and again
and again and again
It’s that general sadness
That doesn’t add up correctly.
It’s important to take that general sadness
And really make it add up.
Make it Good on paper
Make it Good on all accounts
You’ve got nothing
Nothing without ink on paper.

In “Poem for Charles” he considers the difficulty of sharing this emotion and the power with which it threatens to reveal itself:

I’ve been seeing a lot of people bust out and cry lately. Honestly, I’ve sort of been waiting, for a while now, for you to bust out and cry. Hell, I’ve sort of been waiting for myself to bust out and cry. Right out in public. And everyone would sit there and watch.

But image is important to well-being in many ways. In “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” Lichtenberg denigrates something so universally beautiful (and even the source of all life) simply for showing its colors. Personality might equal naiveté to those too hip to express themselves, who prefer instead to react to others. In other words, he expresses the epitome of caring without showing he cares.

Part of the book is entitled “Two Things,” a series of notes between lovers that ultimately reveal one has already committed suicide. All of these poems are like this, little pieces that fit together to provide a glimpse of what it means to be a single person amongst other people. The idea and intimacy of these notes is romantic but the actuality is oppressive, and the playfulness of the notes does not reveal their sad nature until they are already endearing. As Lichtenberg refrains several times throughout the book: “This would be fine if this were a movie. This would be fine.” Because the notion is romantic but the reality is grim.

In “Super Hero,” he says:

There’s this certain responsibility (basic, basically)
that applies to every human being in the world.
It’s this general sort of responsibility
and it means you gotta do stuff.
A super hero,
that’s somebody who follows up on that responsibility.

The obligation is to be honest, to be who you are and to project that, not to go home and develop your emotions in a vacuum but to keep communicating with other people. It takes a super hero to do this because most people do not want to reveal who they really are. But all it takes to be a super hero is to be who you are all the time, no matter what that is. To care. To care about things and to show it.

“It’s More Real to Show It than to Write It”:

In a bar a man takes a dive onto the floor as he tries to get off his barstool and stand up. Everyone in the bar looks at him. They think, this is the true definition of dive bar. They think, this man needs to get a hold of himself. Pull it together. Get the fuck out. Get a life. Get a job. Sober up and pull it together. Pull it out of a fucking hat if he has to, just pull it together.

He remembers how to get up and does so. He looks around and sees them looking at him, sees them looking at him. This would be fine if this was a movie, he says to them. This would be fine. This would be fine if this was a movie.

After he’s exited, the people don’t look each other in the eye. Laughing but forcing it. Biting their lips. Tapping fingers on tabletops. Commenting on other things, anything. The music on the jukebox, the strength of their mix drinks, the weather tonight.

One younger guy at a tall table near the door says to the girl he’s with, nervous -- That guy’s probably a writer. You know, because he’s frustrated. He probably wants to show it. It’s more real to show it than to write it.

The girl wishes she didn’t have to drink at dumps like this because of her shitty fake ID.

But writing serves a purpose too. The writing on the walls is not an end in and of itself; it is possible to follow these words. This is the message of the book’s final poem, “In Tokyo”:

In Tokyo I saw
graffiti that said
                            dance dance dance! Motherfucker
so that’s what I did, so that’s what I’ve done
                                          so that’s what I’m doing right now.

You can see it and then do it. What you can claim, you -- or someone -- can do. Lichtenberg demonstrates this. He calls it The Ancient Book of Hip.

The Ancient Book of Hip by D. W. Lichtenberg
Fourteen Hills Press
ISBN: 1889292214
89 Pages