All night i hear dogs outside my window
Playing or fighting or
Singing lamentations to the moon
The power is out and the air is still,
And I lie awake,
And listening to the howling dirge
My friend tells me she’s afraid of death
She thinks about it all the time.
She’s convinced she’ll never make it home
And is consumed by all the possibilities
Fantasizing plagues and natural disasters
Watching her plane go down on a loop behind her eyelids
She’s exhausted from being afraid
She tries to think about it less.
Another friend tells me she’s afraid of death
Of how casually intimate Pohnpeians are with ghosts and graves
She thinks about the old man in the next room
How soon his body will become The Body
How soon the neighbors will come by bringing pigs and yams,
Wailing to the heavens
And there he will remain, in the next room as she goes to bed,
As up she gets up
As she makes her breakfast.
She’s embarrassed of being afraid
She tries to think about it more
Pohnpeian funerals last ten days.
Everyone is invited,
Whether they knew the deceased or not,
Because really, everyone knows everyone.
Ten days of cooking, grieving, eating,
Slaughtering pigs and dogs, pulling yams and taro from the soft earth
Procession lines of stewing, plating, serving,
A spectacle of efficiency.
A smiling friend tells me,
Pohnpeians really shine at funerals
The Politics of Poetry: Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full
I’ll begin where judgment always begins—on the surface. As is human nature, contrary to the idiom, my initial judgment of Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full was based on its cover, which features a long-exposure photo of people walking across a footbridge in an urban environment, placing the onlooker into oncoming traffic. The image is an overused one and reminds me of vapid early 2000’s pop music—the album artwork for Avril Lavigne’s Let Go, the music videos for Snow Patrol’s “Open Your Eyes” and “Chasing Cars.” The metaphor—for the constant bustle and over-crowded isolation of the Internet age—is too obvious, and an inappropriate match for Hicok’s poetry which, once you get past the cover and actually open the book, is rich, honest and complex (sometimes too complex).
The last lines of the book read, “In this way I have given you a primer./ Let us all be from somewhere./ Let us tell each other everything we can.” This last, hopeful note, suggesting the power of community and cultural sharing, is somewhat at odds with the rest of the collection. A great number of thematic threads run through Words for Empty, most of them darkly pessimistic—or perhaps just painfully realistic—about the insane, greedy state of the world and its impending political and environmental doom. The poems are broken up into four sections, each thematically distinct, but cohesive in their defeated tone and politically-charged subject matter.
The first poem, “In these times,” immediately establishes the topical nature of the collection. Hicok uses repetition and macabre imagery to convey the grind of unemployment and the recent recession, but stumbles in his distracting wordplay. Phrases like “the day’s dollop or wallop of woe” and “a little Keynesing now or a lot of keening” come off as cloyingly clever. The entire first section of poems is a challenge—the poems are overly proud of themselves and some are simply impenetrable. The second poem is a perfect example of this inaccessibility, with lines that seem to the reader-outsider to have no meaning: “I prayed very leap myself with a quid,” and “rugged peels no the slouch.” The poem “This, that needs to be done” is similarly frustrating in its surface-level meaninglessness. “Woods the dirt take to the full bucket/ of the? Woods they not.” Hicok clearly enjoys showing off his ability to string together words that sound beautiful and feel playful on the tongue, but they mean little to those who exist outside his own head. Reading these jibberish poems feels like a frustrating exercise in futility, a cryptogram without the key. Other early poems such as “See side” and “A wedding night” are written in plain English, the words straightforward and unadorned, but the meaning is buried, leaving readers to wonder whether the message is over their head or if it is there at all.
Hicok’s choice to place his most difficult poems at the beginning of the collection is a curious one. I was immediately put off by this organization, which seemed like a kind of pretentious vetting process for potential readers. But as I forced myself to keep reading, Hicok’s work grew on me as the poems chronologically grew more accessible and straightforward. Hicok writes from a very personal place, and his poems, especially those clearly about his own life and personal discomfort with the state of the world and American politics are impassioned and emotionally charged in a way that is endearing and engaging.
The entire second section of Words for Empty is devoted to the shootings at Virginia Tech, an incident that Hicok is intimately tied to as a professor at the university and as someone who knew Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator. The Virginia Tech shootings have come to define the university—when googling “Virginia Tech” the Wikipedia page for “Virginia Tech Massacre” appears before the page for the university itself. Just as the event has irreversibly changed the world’s perception of the institution, so too has it changed Hicok’s perception of the world as well as himself. He spends eight poems of the 59-poem collection running over and over his disbelief at the ugliness of the world and in himself as a bystander. The poems read like a therapeutic exercise, almost uncomfortable in their vulnerability. Hicok’s pain is tangible as he blames himself for not predicting the future, for not fixing Cho, for moving on with his life. While these poems are honest and effective in their emotional impact, an entire section devoted to this subject may be too much. It’s clear that Hicok needed to write these poems, but it’s less certain that they all needed an audience.
Just a few of the best Virginia Tech poems—“Mute” for its stuttering rhythm and palpable anguish, “Terra Incognita” for its beautifully-rendered imagery and fresh content, tackling the guilt of moving on instead of the guilt of fresh grief—would have sufficed and even been more poignant. Though the poems in this section are each written in different forms, the content and the sentiment eventually become slightly stale. Hicok seems at times to be painfully aware of his own shortcomings, and often works small disclaimers and apologies into the body of his poems. The last poem about the shootings, and the first one to mention Cho and the university by name, laments, “I’m writing about the shootings again./ I don’t mean to.” Hicok is clearly consumed by these events, and by including all eight poems about them, it seems he wants his readers to be as well, or at least provide them with some understanding of the repetitive, seemingly endless nature of grief and community crisis, but instead of underscoring his points via quantity, he makes a section that could be extremely powerful become trite and overworked.
His other subjects and themes—environmentalism, human reproduction, distribution of wealth—are also examined many times in many poems throughout Words for Empty, but their differing, diverse contexts make them more impactful. Nature is a near-constant presence in Hicok’s work, and his concern for the Earth’s future is one of the threads that gives the book its cohesion. In “All law enforcement is local” Hicok deftly critiques corporate greed, the ineffectiveness of law enforcement, and the depletion of the world’s freshwater sources in a brief poem that even manages to devote a quarter of its length to listing kinds of pie. At times Hicok’s political commentary feels overly-didactic: “Banks were given billions of dollars./You’ll want to know this, I’m writing it down/ so you can read a poet’s history of money.” But, as with his Virginia Tech poems, Hicok is acutely aware of his audience. As he describes the foreclosure epidemic in “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” Hicok laments, “I promised myself/ I wasn’t going to do this, no one listens/ to this kind of poem anyway,/ it might as well be a sermon or the side/ of a cereal box.”
Hicok’s ability to predict his audience’s reaction and comfort in breaking down the fourth wall is effective in gaining the reader’s trust. It made me feel as if I was part of the writing process, negotiating the terms of my attention span before the book was even finished. Hicok, continuing his theme of self-awareness, writes constantly about writing. Many of his poems speak directly about themselves. In “Watchful” Hicok describes a wasp’s nest behind his house, where he observed the insect “working the chambers.” Later in the poem, Hicok sees that “the wasp was there, flew off/ and was back, on the fallen nest, just now,/ when I checked after typing ‘working the chambers.’” His candidness and transparency about his thought patterns and writing processes are disarming and endearing, creating the opposite effect of Words for Empty’s earlier, largely impenetrable poems.
The least effective poems in the collection are those that try too hard. Those that strive to provide a diversity of forms, (as with the clunky prose-poem format of “Find the new world) those that attempt to breach new subject matter (the starkly un-political “A wedding night” or the entirely out-of-place “Punk, or a mouthful of sweat glands”), and those that try to stray from straightforward story-telling and personal narrative, (the cipher-like “After the procedure”). When Hicok speaks from the heart in plain language, allowing himself to be alternately anxious, enraged, and embarrassed, his work shines and crackles with energy and authenticity. In some of the first poems in the collection, Hicok’s work walks a fine line between believing in itself and being full of itself. Words for Empty’s finest moments occur when Hicok falls on the youthful, impassioned, former side of that equation:
This equals this: I’m a phantom of the body politic
if I don’t speak, I’m required to, freedom’s
a tended dream, a public mapping of belief.
When we’re silent, government flows into the spaces
we leave open, and remaps, acquires for itself
the severed faculties of democracy.
The strength of Hicok’s conviction in the potential of poetry to do cultural work and the importance of voicing one’s opinions as a member of the body politic are inspiring, charming, and is ultimately what makes Words for Empty a worthwhile read.