BOB HICOK IS THAT RARITY, a cheerful contemporary poet — if not completely happy, still hopeful and celebrative: “there are stars / inside your thumb, your breath, / and how you say yes or no is how they shine / or burn out,” he says near the beginning of his new book Words for Empty and Words for Full.
And, “I love ponies, / how they let our children / ride them in circles with helmets on in case / the circles fall.” And, “Group hug, the all / of us, this wave charging hard, foaming / at the mouth, as if to slather with embrace.” Humor, too, plays an important part in Hicok’s poems: “They’re almost mittens,” he says of maple leaves, and calls the pie chart “the only dessert-related / presentation tool.”
Yet a real-life horror lies at the heart of this book: the April 2007 shooting of thirty-three Virginia Tech students and faculty by a student from the English Department where Hicok teaches. “Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me, / I nearly failed him,” he says in “Whimper.” If you want poetic reports from Battlefield USA, they’re here. Still, ever alert to the transient beauties and beautiful ironies of the world, Hicok’s poems praise even as they grieve. Love, physical and emotional, is a consistent theme: the joy of it, the need for it, the pain of lacking it, and above all, its ability to redeem.
Violence haunts the book even beyond the Virginia Tech massacre. “Methodical,” for instance, likens Jeffrey Dahmer’s preparations for drilling holes in young men’s heads to a pilot, high above the earth, readying himself to drop an atom bomb: “there’s the moment / when the bomb has nothing against anyone, when it’s not / sound or blaze, and someone is walking home from work / along a road that she’s trusted her whole life.” The violence, though, is not the poet’s, but the world’s; the speaker in these poems is consistently kind-hearted, a lover of nature and gentleness, romantic as the groom in “A wedding night,” who takes his pillow to the top of a hill, letting it absorb the beautiful sights and smells and sounds to bring home and share with his new wife.
Hicok’s method leans strongly on improvisation. Poems often start with a clear subject or premise — “Banks were given billions of dollars,” or “He put moisturizer on the morning he shot / thirty-three people,” or “Paris is happy with America, and I am happy / with Paris” — and then proceed via imaginative leaps, associations, word play, and unpredictable interconnections until, much as in improvisational theater, an especially apt line pops out, the poem’s inner director signals “Cut,” and the poem ends. He feels no compunction about breaking the fourth wall, readily baring his technique to comment on the act of writing. “When I thought of life / as a race between words /for empty and words for full,” he says in “Life,” “I was at the end of this poem.”
As with any set of improvisations, some of these performances will strike the reader as more inspired than others. I’m least enthusiastic about the ones in which syntax seems willfully sprung, as if Hicok is trying to channel e.e. cummings or Harryette Mullen. Every so often the humor strikes me as a bit too cute: “I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go / to be in Michigan.” Yet even the lesser poems make this reader doff his cap to their virtuosity. “[T]here is no dearer child than yes,” Hicok writes at the end of “To find the new world.” And so, an enthusiastic “Yes!” to Words for Empty and Words for Full.