I keep changing my mind about which of Bob Hicok’s books of poetry is my favorite. Is it Words for Empty and Words for Full (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010) or This Clumsy Living (University of Pittsburgh, 2007)? I finally decided to write about the former title, his latest book, although right up until I started this post I was undecided. What I love about Hicok’s writing is its conversational tone and ways of unexpectedly turning the world inside out and making me think about it differently. Reading these poems, I feel as though he’s talking to me about his own feelings and observations, and something more: the universality, and— contradictorily —the singularity of those feelings.
The second section of this book deals with the shocking shootings in April of 2007 at Virginia Tech University where Hicok teaches English. Take a look at “Whimper,” which describes in one long sentence, a search for reasons to help explain the tragedy, and ends with this long stanza:
…and why ask that why
of the larger why, why did this happen, and why from that why
branch to the why am I alive why, there’s the why
are we here why and the why do we let so many questions
begin with a bang why and the why do we say aftermath
when it never ends, the desire to add for some and subtract
for others, we say we want answers, that it’s very quiet
around here now, all this light, the sun more full of itself
by the day until July will strip us of shadows and time
will seem to have given up on night, why is the song
we add to nature, we’re like birds as kids, why why why,
we sang, we sing, whole flocks of us swirling now,
turning our turns into turning, not knowing
in our direction what our direction is, how things
get decided undecided, lost if you need to find us
is where we are.
Whether it’s the progression of his musings that results from breaking a coffee carafe to the wars in far away countries (“Kinesis”) or a description of a conversation he had with his plumber, in to fix a leaky hot water heater (“Redoubling Our Efforts”), which includes doubles, Noam Chomsky, and the plumber’s son who wants to join the Army, or, perhaps my favorite, “from the history of grade school,” reading Hicok’s poetry makes me look differently at the world. At various times, as I read and re-read these poems, I am filled with happiness at Hicok’s language play and humor, with awe by the way he makes language new, and with a renewed feeling of terror at the randomness and unexpectedness of life.