Get past Nicks’ self-conscious cleverness and you’ll find a poet of great depth and feeling.
The great British critic Christopher Ricks is famously unimpressed with William Butler Yeats. He suspects that Yeats’ verse is more “sonorous” than substantial—that his cleverness as a wordsmith hides the fact that his poetry is much less weighty than we might assume. The phrase in the subtitle of Nicks’ new volume—“the Wordrows of Elsewhen”—leads one to suspect that there is a similarly empty cleverness in this poet’s work, too. Yes, “Elsewhen” is a savvy-ish play on “elsewhere,” but one fears such play will get us nowhere fast. Some of Nicks’ verse suffers from the same flaw. The early piece “At My Age (under the yoke of over)” begins, “once upon a time and twice upon a place; / three times I’ve started over.” “[T]wice upon a place” is like “Elsewhen”: we get the joke, but we may not be laughing. Fortunately, Nicks often abandons these tricks for simple, moving evocations of real life. As one example, take “Things I’ve Learned Out Here”: “water is free / and drinking a lot of it / can help you feel less hungry // bread doesn’t really go bad; / it just gets a little stale and, at worst, a little moldy / and can be had for incredibly modest sums / just because it’s not fresh from the oven.” This isn’t poetry about play; it’s about work. Or more precisely, it’s poetry about need—a need one suspects the author himself has experienced. This need punches through the words and springs off the page, hitting the reader square. Another admirable, unpretentious piece, “Animals And Words,” opens, “i looked up, / the sun looked down; / a good day for a ride / but the traffic wasn’t mine / so i went back to work.”
Nicks is better when working rather than playing.