Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full

by Jess

I don’t know where to begin.  I’d love to throw some excerpts at you, but I fear I’d end up excerpting the entire book, and that would surely be in violation of some copyright laws.  Or something.

I think I’m going to begin with an excerpt anyway.  Here are the opening lines from the opening poem, “In these times”:

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, just as now,
three clouds travel north, one
above another, smallish, amoeba shaped,
and the bottom cloud just died,
and the top two have joined forces
and left me to fend for myself
under a new sky.

The opening poem (or opening lines of a novel or collection of stories) should, in effect, show you how to read the rest of the work.  Here we are being placed distinctly within the downtrodden economic milieu of our day.  Note how Hicok spends time thinking about the situations of other people, about relationships, about the natural world around him, and about the “new sky” he finds himself under.  (We’ll come back to that.)

Later in the poem, he waxes Whitmanesque in referencing “the thrum and hum that is all there is / except what there is not.”   The poem ends on a consideration of human connection:

… me,
who has to mumble through
some version of

could you, I don’t know, maybe send me,
I hate to ask, a few bucks?

If you never had to make that call,
let me kiss the inside of your skull, let me intercede
on the part of the burned field
for the grass,
on the side of the cadaver
for the walk under the moonlight, I’m only praying
you listen to the theory
that how we get to be alone
is how we work to be together, since there are stars
inside your thumb, your breath,
and how you say yes or no is how they shine
or burn out.

I love his beautiful wordplay in instances like let me kiss the inside of your skull and there are stars inside your thumb.  It’s fantastical and weird and beautiful and moving all at once.

In both of these examples, the whole stanza is one long, winding sentence, an associative exploration through the narrator’s thoughts.  Many of his poems are written this way, and they’re generally my favorites, although in some pieces, he also plays with words in a way that at first makes them seem nonsensical, like in “See side,” where he says things like, “Mind as wave: whoosh.  As wet.”  And, “I come onely, you two.  Boo-hoo.”  And then there are the long, paragraphed prose poems.  And then there are the poems with pie charts and graphs (“The pie chart’s the only dessert-related / presentation tool I can think of. “).

As always, his quirky way of viewing the world comes through in lines like, “…but I love ponies / how they let our children / ride them in circles with helmets on in case / the circles fall” (from “Some things that come together in coming apart”); “The gravel sounds like breakfast cereal eaten straight from the box” (from “Endangered species”); “…we’re talking about…the Klan, which he saw as a child, / they gathered on a highway east of here, hundreds of men / dressed like beds” (from “Redoubling our efforts”); “The clouds in being zipperless / are Amish (from “An account of lately”).

The second section of the book contains the collected poems regarding the Virginia Tech shootings.  It’s a very moving meditation on the whys of the whole thing, and the uselessness of asking why, filled with images of the shooter’s inhuman silence-turned-mad raving, or devastated parents crumpling to the floor.  He explores the inability of language to express the emotions of the incident (“Here you might recognize language / as one of the ways to end a poem.”).

(There aren’t tons of reviews out on Words for Empty yet, but you can read reviews that excerpted poems about the shootings here and here.)

There are many poems about water, various references to the war, to death, to birds and cows and ponies and dogs.  But you’ll have to read it to understand what all of that means.  You might read it and still not understand what all of it means, but that’s okay; you don’t have to understand a work of art to be moved by it.

I come away from this collection with a sense of trying to make sense of it all, of this new world we found ourselves in when we woke up this morning, with perhaps a melancholy look back at the innocence we’ve lost.  As Hicok says, “…everything / is changed forever all the time, I’ m not here, / I’m up ahead, running with my arms thrown back / to embrace how mild life seemed / when I first noticed light coming to rest / on my mother’s face.”  And there’s an incredible coming-togetherness of all of us, the whole of humanity almost.  The closing lines of the closing poem say:

In this way I have given you a primer.
Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.