In which I review Robert Walicki's new chapbook

A Room Full of Trees
Robert Walicki
Red Bird, 2014

“but suddenly,
the wall was filled with hemlocks,
and deer drank from streams,
walking out of the wall, 
Somewhere there was a way back in.”
    -“The Way Back”

In Robert Walicki’s first collection of poetry, the natural world serves as a conduit for memory to surface, giving way to situations both magical and real. Nature, in its various aspects, also acts as a witness and commentator as Walicki recounts lyrical moments that consider grief, trauma, and the way time changes people and their roles within a family. 

The speaker’s role as a boy, a young adult, and finally a man is explored in a way that is simultaneously forbidding and tender. He does not get much help as he attempts to navigate his unfolding masculine identity. As a young soccer player, he is ogled by an older man. “I was the backup, the replacement. / Every game he sat, top bleachers, always looking, no wedding ring, / never blinked. And I watched him too… / till I was called for and had to turn….” This poem and others that follow give one the impression that abuse was more than a threat for this speaker.

As a young adult, the speaker volunteers to help set up at a party for John, who is leaving town after his lover, Matt, has passed. The speaker is a friend, but not a member of the gay community (“You’re not like us, so how could you understand?”) At the end of the party “When the cold enters the room I know without looking that the door is open. / Someone holds it for me, then moves out of my way.” Sweetness turns awkward. Affection, even at a time when it is so desperately needed, is too much to bear. 

Throughout this intricate navigation, nature is present. When the abuser threatens, “the pines that bordered the field would sometimes bristle in the windless air.” At the party, which is a wake, or a more literal bon voyage, “the light is weird / in the kitchen where I say goodbye to John and he hands me back the bowl empty.”

Near the end of the collection, the speaker must reconcile the evolution of his own identity after the loss of his father. “When I walked into the room where my father was / the whole wall behind him, was covered in flowers. / The whole room had that sweet, slightly drunk scent. / A flourish of color spread across the room, / and the lush, deep greens of the leaves enveloped every gap behind them.” He regards the dead body of his father amidst all this lushness and recalls a childhood incident where he and two boys took turns battering fresh road kill (“…when it was my turn I didn’t want to, / but someone started laughing…. When we saw the blood / everybody ran home.”). Access to this unbidden memory of death / not-death is no comfort. (“I thought of the stick, of the running.”) This death, the image of this transformed father-body, will not be something from which he can run.

In one of the book’s most poignant moments, the speaker is making a scarecrow—reconstructing an effigy—using what the natural world, and his own father, have discarded: “Hay on a stacked pile, loose shoots of grass… / long stems and thistle.” “Now I’m sliding on his pants— / wool shirt over wood pole arms….” But nature, and bodies, are entropic. “The crows take pieces off him with their beaks.” “There are parts of him everywhere.” 

Walicki illuminates the small moments of (both) violence and kindness that boys and men show each other. A Room Full of Trees chronicles with much sensitivity a formidable journey from childhood to adulthood. 

Buy it here.