I know it's been a couple weeks since I've gotten a real review up, but Bob Hicok's new book, Words For Empty And Words For Full, has made it worth the wait. I first found Bob's work—one second: Bob, can I call you "Bob"? I've read so much of your poetry, I feel like I know you now. And it's more fun than calling you "Hicok"—where was I? Oh yeah, I first found Bob's work through Verse Daily, a great little site that posts a different poem/poet every single day. He hit me immediately. It's hard to explain, he's kinda got this "Hey, I'm a poet, I take my work seriously, but there's no reason I can't write about silly things seriously, or serious things sillily, or something" feel to his writing. Does that make sense? No? Here, take for example an excerpt from "In Michael Robins's class minus one," a poem from Bob's last book, This Clumsy Living. It begins with the line, At the desk where the boy sat, he sees the Chicago River, and follows that metaphor closely throughout the poem:
Have you written a poem for us? he asks the river,That's how many of Bob's poems go. He introduces readers to a situation or an idea, and then leads them down a curious path, sometimes stopping to notice the people and things important to him, but more often driving onward towards an attempt at understanding. Understanding what, exactly, is often a mystery, but Bob's poems are always full of mystery.
and the river reads its poem,
and the other students tell the river
it sounds like a poem the boy would have written,
that they smell the boy's cigarettes
in the poem, they feel his teeth
biting the page.
Words For Empty And Words For Full starts off rather slowly, with few poems of any immediately apparent significance in the first quarter of the book. There are a handful of poems referencing serial killers and dubious motives, some more quirky than others, but it all seems rather innocuous. The book absolutely explodes, however, once that true mystery of the collection appears within "So I Know" on page 37. "So I Know" is the first in a compelling series of poems dealing the Virginia Tech massacre that took place three years ago today. Bob, a creative writing professor at Virginia Tech, was on campus at the time of the shootings and had close contact with many of those affected by the tragedy. "So I Know" kicks off the series beautifully, expressing well the mixed emotions that the poet experiences in the wake of such a gruesome event:
He put moisturizer on the morning he shotBob opens up to his readers, revealing candid thoughts about the tragedy as he attempts to cope with both loss and a level of survivor's guilt. Don't know why the kid didn't come after me,/I nearly failed him, the poet admits at the beginning of "Whimper." Eventually, though, he moves on. Or at least pretends to, by acknowledging that others have, most notably in "Terra incognita," where he writes:
thirty-three people. That stands out. The desire
to be soft. I could tell the guy from NPR
that's what I want, to be soft, or the guy
from the LA Times, or the guy from CNN who says
we should chat. Such a casual word, "chat."
I'm chatting to myself now. You did not
do enough, I write to myself, about the kid
who turned in writing about killing
a few buildings from where he killed.
With soft hands in Norris Hall killed.
And on the seventh day, as if someone said,The rest of the book takes its own advice and moves on, a little sadder, perhaps, but no longer dealing directly with one specific tragedy. There are others, though. "First do no harm" begins vividly: While trying to extract a fly from a spiderweb,/I pulled one of its legs off. This quasi-amusing look at tragedy in general is one of the things that makes Bob Hicok's work so accessible. He writes poignantly about topics that other poets can only handle by being lofty and aloof. He has a colorfulness about his work that enables him to successfully link physics and his wife and flowers and vacations, without appearing scatterbrained. Most importantly, he speaks his mind. It just so happens that his mind is filled with the unseen connections that all things share. Words For Empty And Words For Full is no exception. All of these poems are connected, but not in such a way that they cannot be appreciated on their own. Bob Hicok is a master at his craft, and after reading his work, one can't help but feel like they've not only gotten closer to him, but closer to themselves as well.
"May the healing from the refrain
'May the healing begin' begin," we have Frisbees,
exuberant grass and thighs
against spring air, the sound
of sanding wood in breathing hard
not far from Norris Hall with suddenly
a fence around it. "Life goes on" is also painful
to hear, to see in truth that we have to get back
to wondering if eight of us can fit in the car
and where's the goddamned pizza with three meats
Words For Empty And Words For Full
by Bob Hicok
You guys know the drill by now: there's no numerical rating for poetry. Everyone has different tastes. I happen to love Bob Hicok's work, but you might hate it, and that's fine. I highly recommend that you at least check out some of his work, though. This Clumsy Living is a great introduction to his work if you don't want to jump right in with this book, but really any of his poems can give you a clear example of his voice and tonality. Give him a try! I think you'll really enjoy his work. Until next week, keep reading, Genoshans!