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Reviewed by:
  • Insomnia Diary
  • Jack Vespa (bio)
Bob Hicok. Insomnia Diary. University of Pittsburgh Press

I had the opportunity to hear Bob Hicok read from his poetry at a small liberal arts college in northwest Georgia where I was then teaching. I was struck by the candor of his poems, and the humility with which he rendered his sense of human experience. After reading Hicok's new collection, I understand more clearly what I found so appealing that evening – he writes an observational poetry, grounded in the emotional quintessence of experience, with all of its doubt, irony, and wonder. [End Page 204]

Something of Hicok's observational bent can be glimpsed in the opening poem of the collection, "Bottom of the Ocean," which concerns a former college roommate, ostensibly, and some of the conversations they shared while living together. "At least once you should live with someone/more medicated than yourself," the poet begins, wryly; his roommate is "a tall man" who "closed his eyes before he spoke,/stocked groceries at night and heard voices." Their inner lives become subjects of discussion: the speaker recounts how "He said that she said/we're all out of evers without explaining/who she was or how many years we had/to begin with or where they were kept," over breakfast; "and Kierkegaard I thought was writing stand-up/with the self is a relation which relates/itself to its own self but my roommate/nodded as I read this aloud," attuned as he was apparently to the psychology of self-representation. The roommate returns to a treatment facility at some point; meeting for lunch a year later, the speaker finds a different man: he was in "a caul/of drugs meant to withstand ants and fire/nor did his mouth work but to hold words in . . . ," unlike his former self. "I'd wanted to know all that time what happened to our evers," the speaker admits, "I wanted him/to tell me about the woman who whispered/or screamed that our chances were up/because the phrase had stayed in my life/as a command to survive myself." Whatever his roommate's psychological situation, Hicok's poem celebrates the polyvocal mind or consciousness in all of us, and the insights we might derive if we are willing to listen, even though such polyvocality is something that many fear – "caul" is an especially apt word here, denoting the membrane surrounding the amniotic fluid, and offering an apt figure for prescribed or self-induced retreat – even at the expense of self-knowledge and self-reliance. As meditative as this poem is, though, I do not want to suggest that the mind is the main region of Hicok's poetry, although it is a recurring motif in this collection. Hicok is attuned more to articulating the poetry in experience itself, rather than his mediation of it.

This collection is best understood as a chronicle of a poet gleaning the extraordinary from the everyday, and sometimes the ordinary in the extraordinary. Many of the poems appear to be autobiographical, such as the one discussed above, but none of these poems need be considered so exclusively. Hicok voices the thoughts and feelings associated with the rituals and rites of passages in our lives, as we strive to feel our way through, learning to live with frustration, grief, or happiness, not to mention those more experimental moments we have as well; there is the meditation on an uncle he never knew in "The Semantics of Flowers on Memorial Day" or the father he knows too well perhaps in "Small Purchase" and "Radical Neck," the various accounts of companionate love in "My Life with a Gardener," "Tuesday's Walk," "Echo," and "Truth about Love," the quiet desperation felt by a man trying to live within his means in "Capitol Crime," the fetishism and humility of the man who has himself tattooed in "Becoming Bird," or the vagaries of a society curious [End Page 205] about pop culture in "American Studies." Amid this chronicle are moments of lyric grace, too, such as "An Old Story":

It's hard being in love with fireflies. I have to do all the pots...


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pp. 204-206
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