We’re in this together, at least we should be: Tammi McCune on Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full

Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010

This review refers to the Kindle Edition

In Words for Empty and Words for Full, Bob Hicok widens his wildly associative and quirkily humorous style to tackle large and messy issues of contemporary American life. In ruminations on our ailing economy and endless state of war, on the ravages of cancer and violence, as well as the ebb and flow of relationships, Hicok doesn’t tread new ground as much as he extends beyond the intimacy and wonder at the ordinary of his previous work. In his customary leaps of logic and long, unconstrained lines punctuated with wordplay, pop-culture, pie charts and even a crudely-drawn map, Hicok shares our concerns and leads us on a winding but insightful journey through the hows and whys of our bad-news-filled days. The poems in this most recent book, his sixth, are the art of a more mature, smartly humorous and humane poet than was revealed in earlier collections.

Hicok’s poetry layers associative flow and image on a narrative base and with a conversational voice confronts real life. A range of knowledge, from astronomy and myth to linguistics and philosophy, appeals to our intellectual side, while Hicok’s compassion for people and passion for peace embraces our shared human experience:

…doesn’t it seem

like every second, if you stop, has this whole life

inside it that is so completely yours,

it would die without you dying to never be

without it? I want to live to be three hundred

and sixty two.


A colleague at Virginia Tech teases that Hicok is becoming famous, for a poet, and besides his many awards (Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, Pushcart Prize, etc.) and the number and speed at which he publishes, Hicok’s poems are readable and likeable because they are accessible, but also imaginative and surprising; because they confront our difficult realities, but are playful; because they are emotional — hence human — but not sentimental; because they are intelligent, but unpretentious; and because they are socially engaged, but personal.

Although he’s now ensconced in academia as an associate professor at Virginia Tech, Hicok previously spent 20 years in the automotive industry in Michigan, while writing poems. As in his other collections, Hicok’s wife, parents and dog make appearances in Words. In the opening poem, “In these times,” he uses his own family to engage our struggling economy: “My sister’s out of work and my brother’s/out of work and my other brother’s/out of work.”  Intoning the frustration and wide reach of the current recession, the poem voices for many in this situation, “could you, I don’t know, maybe send me,/ I hate to ask, a few bucks?”  The poem’s conclusion compels us, especially those of us who have “never had to make that call,” to compassion and even to aid:

… 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.

Hicok‘s poems draw us in with their large vision and genuine concern for our world and for America’s soul — not in a preachy way, but in a “hey, we are all (lost) in this together” way. He regrets our tragic, numerable failures, but finds a glimmer of hope in connection and in change. In “Foreign Dispatch,“ the election of America‘s first African-American president inspires him to think “of exclusion…/that there’s less of it now, more ways in, more places/to enter.”

Sometimes the cup is half empty, sometimes half full. Though we are lost, we are not without hope. Working beyond narrative and with an insistence on things — cows, clouds and aardvarks, the sky, stars, and Michigan — Hicok reflects with wordplay, weirdness and weight on our multiple battlefields, serial killers, sex, politics and the Holocaust, and with care, some prodding, and often humor, we arrive somewhere around “hope, I have hope, somehow/hope.”  (“Meditation on a false spring”)

Hicok’s tempered optimism is also evident in “Go ____” in which he invokes the rally cap, a turning inside out of your favorite baseball team’s cap to “presto” a change in luck:

Say it is possible that I hate you.

Say it is possible that I love you.

Say that we’re going to vanish and we know we’re going to vanish

but we haven’t vanished yet and we know we haven’t vanished yet.

What this leaves is time — another inning, a near-infinity

of generations, of fucking things up

and fucking toward knowing more than we know now.

Words is divided into four sections. The first, third and fourth sections encompass bank bailouts, global warming, dying languages, the weather, abortion, gorillas and more. Humor surfaces especially when Hicok delves into discomfort: “We were doing algebra then each other then cocaine/then aerobics broke out like acne/upon our thin souls and my point is/we need a better phrase than shit happens.”

At times, Hicok’s associations lead to ramblings, losing us in an insistent “I,“ but despite these few distractions and a tendency toward dark moments, he exhibits a sensitive eye for relationships, as in the beautiful love poem “A wedding night”:

…she will breathe all of these

when she leans over him, drapes his face

with the night of her hair, the curve of her

falling to all sides, from a center, from a moon,

from an asking, from a giving, from now on.

The second section of Words gathers eight poems about the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. The shooter Seung-Hui Cho was in one of Hicok’s writing workshops. In these poems, Hicok writes of and through grief, asks the painful questions, and voices guilt and anger, “… Maybe I should have shot the kid/and then myself given the math. 2 < 33.”   One of the most powerful images in the book is a vision that reappears as Hicok tries to “go on” with daily life: “I’ll sense a parent some states away/dropping to the floor… .”

Words is more than ponderings and more than further examples of Hicok’s skill at beginning here, surprising us around to there, and then bringing us back a bit sideways of where we started. As in his previous work, the poems of Words reach for understanding of our lives and times, but beyond understanding and critique, these poems call for accountability in how we care for each other and our world. Words calls us to connection and to action without being pedantic: “The only answer I want when the night taps me on the shoulder/and asks, did you try, is yes, yes sir, hard and double hard/and harder still.”

These poems emphasize the essentialness of language to our humanity. Language distinguishes us from the animals, but more importantly separates us from the monsters. For Hicok, the Virginia Tech shooter’s “un-saying,” his inability or refusal to communicate, especially when contrasted with his recorded ravings, is central to his character and his horrific acts.  As Hicok concludes in the book’s final poem, “A Primer“: “Let us all be from somewhere./Let us tell each other everything we can.”

Words attempts to articulate the poet’s job in society, and many of the poems speak directly of the act of writing. “Watchful“ allows us to witness the writing and revising within the poem itself, and we are included in the process —  ours and the poet‘s work as parallel:

this isn’t an ars poetica — it’s what we do,

all we do, essentially, that dogs do not,

butterflies do not; see a thing and draw it

to another thing, make them clash and kiss, knit, gather.

Although Hicok confesses some doubt regarding his job in “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,”

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 …

we are reading Hicok’s kind of poetry, and hopefully we are listening and will consider closely Words for Empty and Words for Full’s call for connection.


Tammi McCune currently lives in Hyderabad, India.