February 14, 2015

If They Would Touch Me: A Review of Robert Walicki’s A Room Full of Trees by Michael VanCalbergh

cover credit: Red Bird Chapbooks
A Room Full of Tress by Robert Walicki
Red Bird Chapbooks (2014)

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh

Everything about Robert Walicki’s debut chapbook, A Room Full of Trees, is stunning. First, the reader is treated to a gorgeous, hand-bound cover from Red Bird Chapbooks. The cover art and drawings by Carl Huelsman complement the poems to create one, complete work of art. And Walicki’s words explode even brighter.

From the first poem, “Red,” Walicki introduces the complex way his narrators deal with distance and touch. The poem explores the speaker’s memory of his father watching his soccer games. The two never communicate, but even being as close as a player to the stands feels ominous and dangerous. The speaker states:
Every game he sat, top bleachers, always looking, no wedding ring,

never blinked. And I watched him too, till it was my turn,

till I was called for and had to turn, had to show him my back
Walicki’s use of caesuras makes the readers feel the suspicion and hesitation of turning their backs and letting someone creep closer to them. In fact, the hesitation toward physical contact runs throughout the book.

In “The Boy,” after seeing a kid get beaten up, the speaker comments, “What I saw taught me how to stand by, how to say nothing.” The fear of reprisal by the bullies in this line is immediately universal. Who didn’t witness some form of bullying or torment in school and kept quiet because they didn’t want to be next? Even later in “Touch,” the speaker suspects that the group of people seeing a friend off “knows I couldn’t bear it if they would touch me.” But when this space is breeched in other poems, the reader, like the speakers, is shut out or violated by it. The narrator in “When the Sunlight” explains:
When he touches you,
think of trees.
And when you say no,
he’ll say I’ll kill your parents if…
The lack of touch and the omnipresent distance is so expertly constructed by Walicki that the readers identify directly with the speakers, even if similar experiences are not shared. Together, the readers and speakers can only speculate what connection could feel like. This struggle is most clear in “The Way Back,” wherein a narrator tries to relive a memory of an old home by “draw[ing] the floor plan in the air.” While exploring this “house,” the narrator remembers going through his mother’s things:
I am downstairs when the last of her things are boxed up
In the photograph I ask to keep,
nothing moves.
It is 1933 and she is standing in a bread line.

And I am trying to remember the last time
I touched her.

I hold the photograph up to the light.
My thumb touches her face,
but she doesn’t notice.
The reader is not even given a memory of touch to experience, but is left with a thumb on an old picture. The lingering effects of loss, as well as striving to recreate past moments, is again felt when a speaker erects a scarecrow with his sister. While using his deceased father’s clothes as the scarecrow’s costume, he states that “She doesn’t know I’m building a man,” as if he is trying to rebuild the person with the leftover materials of memory.

Despite anxiety, distance, missed contacts, and loss, light plays a key role in keeping the collection from getting too dark. Even when recalling sexual abuse in “When The Sunlight,” there is a“… sliver of light through the gaps / reaching you, here, and now, and always.” Walicki’s poetic gift to readers is filling all the space that he has created between bodies. “What the Light Wants” starts by saying, “Not the tall branches above me rocking and breaking. / Not the dead branches over tree lines too high to touch.” The poem uses the title and the first two lines to state that light isn’t interested in the living or the dead. Instead, the light wants the rest of the poem: the struggle between a son and his deceased father.

Dealing with death and the seemingly unbridgeable distance between people can be immense and disorienting. For all the pain and darkness, though, light is always somewhere in Robert Walicki’s poems. There is still “sunlight flashing off the windshield” even if it’s sometimes a “broken light… moving through the space between the trees.” The ability to express this complexity while keeping his poems layered and inviting is nothing short of radiant.

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