By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
It is bracketed and held in place, solid. Turn on the faucet and water flows, steady and sure. Drains spin and sewage is whisked away because somebody laid pipe in hidden spaces, in the in-between spaces. Robert Walicki is the poet who recognizes the work and the beauty in the humble, the plain and the neglected.
In his new collection, Fountain, (Main Street Rag Press, 2019), he celebrates the value in the drainage ditch and a Sunday drive. He highlights the essential humanity in the turn of a wrench and application of a clamp. He sees life in an accident on Route 28 and the love of alternative music. His poems are crafted in spite of the crunch of middle-aged knees worn through years of building and fixing, with hands that offer condolences. He roughs-in and builds connections through poetry.
“What should I write about?” Walicki said over a cup o at Mechanic’s Coffee, not far from his home in Verona. “And it struck me, you need to write about your work experiences. I had this pre-conceived notion of what poetry should be. It’s where the friction, the energy, where life is. This is what I need to write about — this is who I was.”
He writes to open a window to something bigger or more meaningful than the quotidian, even as he uses his everyday experiences as tools to excavate those spaces. He writes about his work day, the job site, the secrets we all keep, the things we tell, and the moments which are simultaneously unique and common.
In “If a Tree Falls,” he muses on the world of workers hiding in plain sight.
“If a tree falls by Billy K’s bar will anyone get up
off of their bar stools to notice the excavator devouring earth outside,
gutting grooves in the mud for plumbing?
I’m here, laying white pipe down,
like bones in a grave, all of us addicts and has-beens
have made it here before the rain,
for the burial of elm, and maple, thicket of Sweet William …”
Walicki has been a poetry dork for years, working his craft, work-shopping, reading at events, and amplifying other poets. For about five years, he ran the reading series Versify, but stepped away a few years ago. The last two years have been especially busy and productive, as Six Gallery Press published his collection, ‘Black Angels,’ in 2018 and this second collection hit quickly thereafter. “I hadn’t even absorbed the first book’s publication when this happened,” he laughed.
Fountain also contains work which mines childhood memories, feeling its way through some of the things that shaped him, like the punk and underground music he held tight to in some challenging years.
“I felt wrapped up in that weirdness. I felt like I was weird, I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere and I was trying to find where my place was in the world,” he explained.
We define ourselves in all kinds of ways. This is me, and that is you. The boundaries are sometimes easy to grab onto — our physical bodies, work, zip code and education. Others are more ephemeral, dancing to Joy Division or the carrying around Marie Howe’s transformational book of poetry, ‘What the Living Do,’ until the color is worn off the cover and spine is held together with duct tape.
Walicki and I talk about growing up in Pittsburgh in Reagan’s America. It felt like the entire city was a place apart from the high times in DC and Wall Street — collateral damage, overlooked and forgotten.
“We were really struggling with our identity. At least I was,” he said.
“I have a lot of memories of my grandmother’s house — I spent a lot of time there because both my parents worked. It was on Baker Street in Morningside. It burnt down. It overlooked the river and I remember staring out and the barges when I was in grade school. And how dirty the city was. That made an impression on me.”
His work looks to lay bare his actual lived experience, all the moments when he felt out of touch and awkward and ill-fitting. And also the moments of reprieve, where even a parking lot rainbow of puddle water and brake fluid makes the universe magic.
He writes about aspirational drives with his father that stuck with him and that he understood only in retrospect. Those were important for him and represent a strong feeling to write about what is around him. “No one is going to write that,” he said. “That’s unique to you.”