Bob Hicok’s “Insomnia Diary” is a collection of poems written by a mature poet. It seems fitting that the book housing Hicok’s poetry isn’t too flashy. The University of Pittsburgh Press chose a simple layout, tried and true. There is nothing too sophisticated about the manner in which this chapbook was printed; binding and material used are standard, layout is sober, and the blurbs on the back cover are all business. The front cover features a painting by Luis Cruz Azaceta that offers insight into Hicok’s project. A gaunt, darkly lit nude man dangles a clock by a thin string in hues that are at once warm and hauntingly drab. It took me more than one inspection to realize that the man is in fact decapitated, and that his lifeless eyes are staring directly at mine. This is a disturbing image, no doubt, but one which properly evokes the hegemony of time that runs through much of Hicok’s poetry in “Insomnia Diary”. In order to grasp the material in this chapbook, it helps if the reader realizes that at the time of its publication, Hicok had been teaching creative writing at Virginia Tech for some time, and he had published several other chapbooks that had gained national recognition. He is a mature man who intimately understands his craft and what to do with it. In short, Hicok is a serious poet, and “Insomnia Diary” is a serious chapbook.
The most recognizable characteristic of Hicok’s poetry is simplistic structure and diction. His verse is devoid of erudition and most poems are loosely based on blank verse, some being broken into couplets or stanzas. There is nothing experimental about Hicok’s approach to his subject matter; in fact, I detect a certain disdain for the experimental in “Cutting Edge”: “Anyway, sorrow about a dog / looks silly in a beret. It / should be plainspoken, / like everything else / I try hard not to say” (80). His form helps to convey his subject matter in a straightforward manner. Hicok’s expertise shines by way of subtle elegance when tackling subjects ranging from the absurdity of the midlife crisis to the emotional turmoil of miscarriage. These are topics coming from those years between 30 and 40, a place that Hicok knows well and can weave into provocative verse that has an amazing ability to connect with people of all ages. Underneath the dispatch from that bizarre midlife space lays a tone reminiscent of those tumultuous younger years, when the world was interpreted through a mind/body connection lubricated in beer and narcotics. His images are solid and the impact is visceral, all delivered in a mood that oscillates from raving hilarity to somber meditation. The speed at which Hicok is able to shift between subjects and mood keeps the pace lively and the poems fresh. There are few, if any, misses among the 84 pages of poetry here. What’s more is that it seems every poem fits perfectly in relation to the others, which speaks volumes not only for the poet, but the editorial staff at the University of Pittsburgh Press as well.
Hicok has proven himself a masterful yet accessible poet. He writes from experience in a tone that straddles the line between optimism and cynicism. At its core, “Insomnia Diary” is real poetry in every sense of the word. It’s one of those books you want to shove in the face of anyone claiming that American poetry is dead.