Words for Empty and Words for Full
University of Pittsburgh Press, $14.95 (paper)
Almost twenty years ago Bob Hicok published his first collection of poems, a chapbook called Bearing Witness. It’s a little hard to believe that a poet who in his latest book has a poem entitled “Hope is a thing with feathers that smacks into a window” ever could have been satisfied with that earnest, earlier title.
Sure, the movement from simplicity to the witty, complex, and allusive is emblematic of the changes this poet has undertaken over a couple of decades. But there is something else in the earnestness of that early title, a sense that the act of poetry could bear witness—reach out past the merely personal and the purely linguistic—and perhaps even that it should. Behind the more nuanced frame of the recent work, that attitude has continued to inform Hicok’s poems, even as they have become syntactically complex, seriously humorous, and imaginatively demanding.
I should disclose, though I do so with some embarrassment, that at the request of the publisher I contributed a particularly fatuous blurb for Bearing Witness. But I remember being genuinely impressed by Hicok’s facility with constructing wildly different personae for his poems. The people who filled the chapbook came from across the spectrum of American life, and as the poet entered their lives, he was able to see our culture through their eyes, or seemed to. His approach indicated a level of empathy I associated with the best authors of short stories—Chekhov, for example, or Alice Munro.
While hardly unique, the poems seemed individual enough to occupy much of a writing life, particularly one that was built in the cracks left after other demands. In those days, and through several of the books that followed, Hicok worked a day job as a tool and die designer for the automobile industry. Machines and cars, road trips and highways, have continued to be a part of his poetry. In reading “In these times,” the poem that opens Words for Empty and Words for Full, I don’t think I am the only person to assume that this poet is talking about the auto business: “My sister’s out of work and my brother’s / out of work and my other brother’s / out of work, these are facts available / over the phone or in person . . .”
Earlier on, Hicok’s restless intelligence was not particularly apparent. He wrote impassioned poetry with strong, clear lines, but he didn’t seek the rich and often bizarre connections that have become central to his work. At one point he was comfortable constructing narratives.
By his third book, 2001’s Animal Soul (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), that had changed. Hicok had begun to follow the leaps of imagination suggested by brief snatches of storytelling. His poems began to work by association, the way so many contemporary poems do, but he always found a way to come back to the moment of narration, even if it was in a place far different from where he’d started. The poems became more meditative, with a sense of humor that made them feel quick and lively, and started to draw heavily on the attributes and artifacts of the cultural moment. In “Green on the day,” from the 2007 volume, This Clumsy Living, Hicok comfortably brings in the auto-parts manufacturer Delphi and the communications giant Verizon in an outraged moment that examines the struggles of one “you” during an economic collapse. He then follows his imagination through historical and literary associations that seem to flow naturally, from Greek mythology to Rilke to NASA:
Verizon sounds like horizon, by the way,
like sunsets at the lake and Delphi’s where Apollo’s temple
was discovered in 1890, that was a good job, worshipping
the archaic torso of a god who’d one day
go to the moon—
before coming back to that “you”:
months now, you circling ads in red pencil,
calling, going out, standing with hundreds in lines,
interviewers who don’t let you sit down…
Hicok’s associative meditations on American life garnered the attention of institutions, leading him to an academic job at Virginia Tech just a few years before Seung-Hui Cho committed the worst school shooting in American history there. Cho had been a student of Hicok’s.
Hicok has learned to follow his leaps within a poem while keeping it intellectually and emotionally unified.
Over the years Hicok’s poems had come, often in wry asides, to question their own clarity of observation, yet in Words for Empty and Words for Full, he is compelled to write about the events at Virginia Tech:
For sixteen weeks
he didn’t talk. I think I’m breaking the law
in telling you this but the Internet already knows, his un-
saying has been said, over and over,
through days and nights of teleyammer. A semester
of neither “hey” or “hello,” not a giggle
over the stupid shit, no sigh for spring’s tulips rising up,
just a shadow under the awning of his cap.
The poet is uncertain about writing poems that respond to this tragedy, and he questions his own uncertainty. In the first poem in this section, he admits that he has little choice:
Maybe sorry’s the only sound
to offer pointlessly and at random
to each other forever, not because of what it means
but because it means we’re trying to
I am trying to mean more than I did
when I started writing this poem, too soon
people will say, so what. This is what I do.
And so he does in the remarkable group of eight poems that make up the second section of Words for Empty and Words for Full. Among other things these poems are troubled ruminations on the role of the artist confronted with this horrible moment. Hicok’s colleague Nikki Giovanni read a well-received but necessarily polemical piece at the service for the Virginia Tech dead. Hers was a public text written for a specific and important purpose—memorializing the dead while inspiring the living—but by its very nature it must remain tied to the event. Hicok’s meditations, quieter and connected to the uncertainties of one imagination, do not allow us to turn away from the act of violence, neither from the person who committed the act, nor from the ironies of survival: “there’s nothing, no knob of sound, / no uttered rung / to hang onto, and no letting go.”
The power of the Virginia Tech poems and the weight of their occasion color the poems that come before and after, yet the playfulness of the earlier Hicok is often in evidence. Hicok has learned to follow his leaps within a poem while keeping it intellectually and emotionally unified, and the poet of Words for Empty and Words for Full takes all of the technique learned in the earlier books and applies it with the gravitas learned when he felt compelled to write the Virginia Tech poems.
The final poem, “A primer,” is a tour de force of humor and contemplation. Hicok begins almost slapstick: “I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go / to be in Michigan.” As the slapstick continues, the reader is led nearly effortlessly into a more subtle comedy constructed at the intersection of memory and idea:
The state bird
is a chained factory gate. The state flower
is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical
though it is merely cold and deep as truth.
A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”
can sincerely use the word “sincere.”
On and on Bob Hicok goes, playing, making us laugh, until at the end he gets, oddly, to “In this way I have given you a primer. / Let us all be from somewhere. / Let us tell each other everything we can.” It seems earnest, again. Some readers might find it out of place or a bit too sententious. I find it a perfect coda, one that lifts the poem out of the brilliantly playful and prepares the reader for something else. Hicok ends an earlier poem in this collection with one of those large statements that he seems to have become comfortable with, statements that reflect on the art that contains them: “Irony / is without nutritional value.”
With Words for Empty and Words for Full, Hicok has begun to find a way to combine the several aspects of his imagination—narration, association, humor, self-conscious reflexivity. The result is poetry memorable for its structure, its image and sound, but also for demanding that we readers enter into some serious thinking about our place and time.