Poetry has never been my biggest thing, whether that be via reading, or being academically forced during my school years to write some. It’s this chaotic frontier in the world of literature that I could never really grasp - where focus is on the action of expression rather than the meaning behind it. As an individual who definitely prefers the obvious messages in classical art over the free-form of modern, perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for the medium was also going to be an accompanying trait - being terrible at producing it certainly didn’t help, in any case. But, just like contemporary art, poetry is an essential cultural component even if just for its embracing of the improv and the free-for-all. Both the installations of the West LA gallery and the pirouetting lexis of the poetry slam may both suffer at the mercy of windbags good for producing hot air and little else. But when their stock is on point, they capture the very essence of who we are - and remind us that the human condition is a collective, and often moving experience.
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Neil Hilborn is definitely a poet whose ability puts him in the latter camp of artists. This is well demonstrated by the rampant viral success of a recorded performance of his poem, ‘OCD’, which has now enjoyed over 12 million views on YouTube (and which you can watch above). It’s a success not just because of the emotional honesty in Neil’s delivery, but also because of the poem itself - a portrayal of the vulnerabilities we all have to expose in order to achieve human relationship. Most of us may not have the obsessive-compulsive symptoms that Neil’s character in the poem waxes on. A lot of us still, don’t exhibit any of the ailments present in mental illness. But what we can relate to is the pain of abandoned love and the grief that comes with it. It is just one of the many empathetic elements - which include plentiful helpings of dry humour, nostalgia and musings on the empowerment and trappings of mental health - that are repeatedly evident in Hilborn’s writings. They come together in Our Numbered Days, Hilborn’s debut collection of works, and they make for a compelling and very thought-provoking read.
There’s a surprising amount of content - 45 poems to be exact - that just about advocate the $16 price tag slapped on the back of this meager-looking paperback. Not all of them hit the mark - ‘Song for Paula Deen’, an ode to the maligned cooking host, is indeed a head-scratcher. But the better ones more than compensate for the mis-steps. Hilborn is undoubtedly at his best when espousing on a couple of fronts - the first being that most familiar source of inspiration for the poet, the dramatizing of the everyday mundane.
‘April, 2013’ poses a very humourous point about the Minnesota winter being an invincible shield against the madness of the modern world, especially while the country continues to fret about possible terror attacks (“Winter forever means I will be safe forever… Who would build a bomb in this weather?”). ‘Memorial Day’ is an account of a brief observation of two elderly women at a St. Paul park that poignantly snapshots the emotion of reminiscence, and the similarly titled ‘Moving Day’, which details an inventory of items being shifted during such an occasion, bluntly but effectively marks the bittersweet end of an era that comes with the upping of sticks. The celebration of the ordinary is very often the critical foundation of the poetry writer - after all, the banalities of the day-to-day are what we are exposed to more than anything else in our lives. But Hilborn is able to embrace these better than most simply thanks to a knack for the right word, and for the right flow. It may be basic poetry mechanics, but even on this most elementary of platforms, he’s a master of the art.
It’s a platform that also enables him to bring the affinity and depth to the strongest of his two strengths. With ‘OCD’ alone, Hilborn may have painted a picture of the struggles those battling with anxiety disorders face in a world insistent on demonizing them, but it is additional poems like ‘Joey’ and ‘Chitin’ that turn that one landscape into a whole gallery of overlapping perspectives. The former details the shifts in character undertaken by a friend as they go through treatment for depression (“Joey got a promotion and now he can afford Prozac. Joey is Joe now. Joe is a cold engine which none of the parts complain”), as well as the mutual complimentary relationship that mental illness often has with creative brilliance. ‘Chitin’ meanwhile is anxiety acutely metaphorized - a fleeting account on the habit of fingernail biting that portrays the act in both its physical and figurative form. It is the backbone of this collection that provides the deeper introspection though - that spine being formed by a number of poems carrying the same title of the book, which throw psychological disorder against the canvas of our own mortality. Underneath headings of ample quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and even Aldus Dumbledore on the limited time we have in this world, one poem in particular - a defiant rallying cry against depression’s debilitating shadow - involves the writer divulging on a manifesto to “wield my joy like a broadsword or a fucking nerf gun” to keep its effects at bay. It’s a rousing flashpoint in a collection that offers numerous stirring moments - and is just one of the many different tones that Hilborn uses to depict the emotional maelstrom that life forces us to undergo, especially when such a storm is dictated by our own thought processes.
Individually, many of Our Numbered Days’ poems may represent a temporary moment or emotion in time - a short exchange here, a recollection there. But together they form a mosaic of life lived under the spotlight of neurosis - relatable, uplifting, despairing, but never dull. We may not know the people that Hilborn effuses about, or have explicitly had the experiences laid bare here happen to us. But we can definitely identify with them in the implied sense, because our existences - our own numbered days, if you will - are all built on the very same emotional foundations. In a world of commodity and social expectation, Our Numbered Days is here to remind us that life isn’t supposed to be all happiness. There has to be a good amount of chaos, heartbreak and worry to appreciate the joyful moments all the more.
Our Numbered Days is available for purchase at Button Poetry: http://buttonpoetry.com/product/our-numbered-days/
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