Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This London – Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, on the basis of this collection alone, is now the contemporary poet whom I don’t already know personally whom I would most enjoy having lunch with. Our interests and attitudes seem to align perfectly. Hicks is an Irish-American currently living in the Midwest, but he spent a considerable amount of time in London, and that is what This London is based on. The poems come from all corners of history and all levels of society. There are poems about Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man, Jack the Ripper, Samuel Johnson and Boudicca; poems about Piccadilly Circus, an Indian restaurant, the British Museum and the red-light district in Soho. Hicks is fascinated with history, with personality, with literature and with culture, and he pries into the details behind famous historical events and fleeting everyday occurrences.

Though politics is not his aim, humanism pervades his observations—Hicks finds glory in history but not in conquest; he admires Britishness at the same time he questions its existence; he is intrigued by our shared humanity. He writes like a scholar, but not a pedant; rather, his voice is that of a curious bystander and daydreamer.

Dictionary n.f. [dictionarium, Latin.] 1. A book holding words of any language in alphabetical order; 2. a lexicon; 3. a word pool that mirrors social thought.

Back during the gin craze of the 1700s,
when colonial bounty was stacked across London,
Samuel Johnson felt words flow around him.
His bulk, like an O, buoyed him in pubs and palaces,
syllables broke against the gunwale of his ear.

A book was planned, and his amanuenses
(they entered that word on page three),
flapped open a great net of ink.—
Johnson hunched at his desk like a C
and sorted speech into kingdoms.
For years he stood like a Y directing traffic,
shepherding words into their stalls,
everything from aardvark to zebu.

When Johnson’s great ship of a book
was finally launched into public thought,
his black manservant, Frank Barber,
picked up the Middle Passage of words
that he had helped to quill.
He looked up words like empire
and independence and slave.

This freeman knew the power of connotation,
he stood as rigid and as proper as a capital I,
and he insisted that the word abolition be included,
so that the world could see it, chained onto page one.

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