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Brett Foster


Bob Hicok and Jamaal May

Spoken words worth the trip.

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The body of the woman
has many ways to cease
being the body of the woman.
I have one way
to be happy
and she is that way.

A poem such as "My last factory job" reveals Hicok's ongoing interest in our working lives and his own rust-belt experience. His poems with social concerns, such as this one or "Everything's Fine," which he read at Georgia Tech and which contemplates global warming, resist either valorizing or soap-boxing. Instead, they proceed with a matter-of-factness balanced with a penchant for pointing out the absurd angles of a topic or situation.

Other poems' lines resemble the set-ups of stand-up comics: "At a party I talked with a man / and woman in the old style of listening / and letting sentences be finished," one speaker says, followed by, "The liquor was good / and by good I mean someone else's." This comic element was present too in the last poem that Hicok read, which is also the final poem in his most recent book, Words for Empty Words for Full. "Primer" displays a loving if self-deprecating attention to the state of the poet's birth: "I lived in Michigan / forty-three years. 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.' " You never forget how to be from Michigan, the wry speaker continues: "It's like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing." The zingers just keep coming—" 'What did we do?' / is the state motto"—until the poem expands in its feeling at the end: "In this way I have given you a primer. / Let us all be from somewhere. / Let us tell each other everything we can."

Words for Empty and Words for Full would be an apt first volume for encountering Hicok's diverse poetic effects. "In these times" begins the book by brooding on the economic downturn, and on a modern landscape generally that makes a later speaker remark, "sometimes / how eager / we are / to die." Growing class inequality and the foreclosures that have affected so many homeowners become the subjects of "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down" and "For the time capsule." Dizzying shifts of scale occur, as in "Kinesis" where a broken Krups carafe leads to internet research and the company's activity in World War II and our consumer compromises, the "six million / instances of ash you're a part of [.]" Other poems contemplate the violence of recent and ongoing wars; one offers a short list of mass shootings with what seems at first a disturbing irreverence: "I have killed no one, I am behind."

The subject becomes horribly real and personal for Hicok in a series of poems in the middle of the book. Hicok for several years has been a professor of creative writing at Virginia Tech, and so was present during the mass shooting there. One of the strongest poems of this series, "So I know," daringly humanizes the killer by focusing on the moisturizer he was reported to use. The speaker declares the kind of self-recrimination that must be unavoidable for teachers who lived and knew of the student's troubles ("Don't know why the kid didn't come after me, / I nearly failed him" the next poem begins). "You did not / do enough, I write to myself, about the kid / who turned in writing about killing / a few buildings from where he killed. / With soft hands in Norris Hall killed. / This is my confession." Certain poems become intense testimonies of post-traumatic stress ("I don't want his face / behind my eyes") or witnesses of a campus trying to recover normalcy—"Students are full // of being full of grief, it's coming out their feet / as they sprint after the Frisbee[.]" Another of the section's strongest poems, "In the loop," begins with the awkward ritual of condolences sent via email, and ends with a sober assessment of how an event of this magnitude clings to and haunts survivors: "and then it was over, and then it had just begun." These poems were inevitably the ones that received the most attention in Words for Empty and Words for Full, and Hicok even addresses in one poem the expected criticism that the poems were written or published too soon. There are many poems on either side of these, though, as important and courageous as this series is, and throughout the book Hicok's unpredictable inspirations are patent, and to be savored.

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