Open Air Bindery, by David Hickey
Reviewed by Alex Boyd
Where Canadian poetry is concerned, this may come across as pointing out one person in the middle of an epidemic, but David Hickey deserves more attention. Any book that describes a snowflake as “The sky’s small / bolts in your hand,” is worth the price of admission with those words alone, and it was far from the only refreshingly original moment to be found here.
This is only a second book for Hickey — his first, In the Lights of a Midnight Plow, was published by Biblioasis as well — and it’s my hunch he’s among those very careful poets, quite far from publishing everything he writes in favour of, well, favouring us with the best he has to offer. A poem like “Suburbia the beautiful,” aside from quite remarkably finding moments of reverence where most people would find only boredom or despair, is a careful marriage of form and content. The short lines slide away, slipping into memory as quickly as the summer day he’s describing: “The lawn / waters itself off to sleep.” For placing the reader in a fresh perspective, I refer you to “Public Transit,” where the street looks up “from all places at once,” to see “what it was shouldering.”
Hickey flirts with being overly transparent in a poem like “The Tree of Old Worry,” where the strong, central image of worry with roots in the mind is a good one, but the poem prefers various somewhat plainly written tangents: “As for the owl / you spot in its branches, / it’s safe to stop saying / hello.” But this is a problem common to all poets interested to balance originality with enough clarity to capture and communicate something elusive. If they stumble once in a particular collection, it’s hardly fair to pounce on it and declare it typical of their style.
Other poems, despite equally straightforward titles, are perfectly balanced between accessibility and requiring the reader to fill in the details, as we see in a poem like “The Story of Two Horses:”
The first horse had no interest in escaping.
The second was wearing
its evening clothes. The first looked as though
It had stolen
through a midnight bakery, so the second was
brushed with a dusting of flour.
It’s like this: the first story is good
flesh. The second is all fetlock and narrative.
Giddy up, said the car
As it motioned past the field.
We were late with the day’s last requests.
Only the final line stands on its own, and adds a whole new element to the poem, which is the kind of detail that demonstrates how carefully crafted his poems are. And then there’s “Giddy up, said the car,” which blends various animal and technological worlds in ways that aren’t conclusive at all, except to say it’s a fascinating framework for the reader to fill in. It’s a poem that strikes me as purposely elusive, though it’s also perfectly clear that’s the goal, as suggested by the slight playfulness and the absolute openness of its framework. Even in writing a poem the reader needs to try and supply, Hickey allows for clarity.
Reading the book, I also made note of “The Astronomer’s Apology,” and “Insomnia Drawings,” (where “the faucet plays its favorite trickle”) for having the same kind of success at pulling something ineffable out into the open: “the spoon’s an old / fable, the clock’s a lost king.” I found a lot to appreciate in the idea of a dreamy world, possibly born out of fatigue, and his willingness to play with rhyme is quite brave when it can often be seen as quaint. In “Once Upon a Business Trip, in Faraway West Virginia,” we find the line “He sat by the television’s stream,” which quite neatly summarizes that technology has replaced nature, and also that we’re frequently passive to it. In short, Hickey writes the kind of poetry that’s easily overlooked. Between his clarity and potency, there isn’t much to be debated or discussed. This isn’t an argument poetry should never be dense, or to suggest that dense poetry can’t be rewarding. It’s simply what works for Hickey. He’s a brilliant poet. It’s only unfortunate for him he’s the quietest kind of brilliant around.