A POET’S PROGRESS: READING ROBERT GIBBONS
Who among us has not dreamt of a particular prose, a poetic prose which could translate the lyrical movements of the mind, the undulations of reverie, the leaps of conscience? — Baudelaire
In his essay “Training For Poets”, H. L. Hix writes, “Poetic inspiration occurs not upon the occasion of an unmotivated visit from a capricious muse but as a function of the poet’s own progressive embodiment of an attitude toward language and the world.” I would like to trace Robert Gibbons’ development across three decades of publication with Hix’s statement in mind.
To read Gibbons feels like learning to read the world again, as one does in early childhood, continually making connections —some sound, some spurious — among the things one is learning. There is a radical innocence here — not of the Craig Raine What-If-You-Were-A-Martian? school, but a less studied and manufactured naked looking, more related to Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” than to any willed suppression of the foreknown. There is, in this poet now a grandfather, still a boyish intelligence fully capable both of apprehending beauty afresh and — in his dissenting mode — pointing out that the emperor is without clothes. In fact, it is well to recall that the clothes being praised by all others in the Emperor’s retinue are made of words, insincere by virtue of their intentional masking of reality, indeed of the reality of an absence — of beauty, of utility, of meaning. Gibbons is attempting nothing less than the restoral of what Baudrillard called “the dialectical capacity of representation as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real.”
In Baudrillard’s schema, which he called “the precession of the simulacra,” signs (words, images, poems, works of art) begin, at least ideally, as mirrors to reality, equivalents to experience. Soon, however, the sign begins to be used to mask a reality, and later to mask the absence of a reality (as in the example of the emperor’s new clothes.) Finally, the sign becomes independent of reality, referring only to itself.
I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that one needs Baudrillard’s apparatus — or anyone else’s — to read Gibbons. The worth of his revolutionary poetics, which I will trace here, does not depend on an academic taxonomy. His poems locate the real at the intersection of desire and history. Language, sullied by pandering and propaganda, is restored in this poet’s work to a medium capable not only of art, but of reintegration, regaining its erotic relation, its ability to respond sensually, to the world.
Big claims; perhaps it can be argued that this is what poetry always attempts to do if it is genuine, to “purify the language of the tribe” in Yeats’ formulation. But there are few poets in any generation who are able to keep this commitment at the heart of their work, and fewer who have understood this charge, especially in the wash from postmodernism’s often intersecting wakes, in the way that Gibbons has embraced it in his work.
Gibbons approaches poetry not as a profession or career, but as a vocation; in as much as that term conjures a priestly identity that sets one apart, I expect that Gibbons, radical democrat that he is, would reject it. And yet his practice and his poems are one and the same and seem to arise from his embrace of the ontological category of “poet.” It is as if there is a form, platonic, a priori, to be bodied forth in time, as one bodies forth other ontological designations like father, mother, warrior, healer, leader, lover. To read Gibbons body of work from its beginnings to the present is to watch him make himself into a poet the way Coltrane or Mingus made themselves into musicians.
Gibbons began publishing his poems in a series of chapbooks in 1980. Small press publications, exquisitely designed, on cream stock, hand-sewn, these thin books are made with the same care as the poems themselves. The first of these, Yellow & Black (Four Zoas Night House), demonstrates Gibbons’ equal interest in word and world, in where they meet, escorted there by the poet’s commitment to precision, the words sometimes strange as the world is sometimes strange. Take the second stanza of the poem “The Scimitar Moon”:
slices through the
of the Earth’s albedo
in the wild.
“Albedo” is the strange word here of course, but also the exact one; it means the electromagnetic “skin” on a celestial body as well as the thin membrane of white pulp lining the peel of a fruit. For this reader, that word unlocks the extended metaphor of the poem, a poem that begins the implicit enactment of Gibbons’ poetic mission — delivering/ a vision/ cultivated/ in the wild — that will body forth in his subsequent work where his care for the visionary fruit beneath the rind of the world will require a commitment to remaining “in the wild.” One thinks of Yeats’ statement that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
Rereading the title poem with the hindsight afforded by familiarity with Gibbons’ work, especially his most recent, one can see plainly the urge to trace connections historical and cultural in order to subvert compartmentalized understandings. This synthesizing urge, which refuses to dumb itself down or exclude any of the manifold things this learned poet knows, will be familiar to readers of Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus Poems, or Duncan’s Passages. “Yellow & Black” recounts a trip to Mexico and an encounter there with a mosque containing a sculpted Black Christ crucified, a figure both soiled and sanctified by the dirty hands of the pious. I will quote part two of the poem here:
In March 1911, searching for the creators of African
glass, similar to that found in sites with terra-cottas
and bronzes in the Yoruba holy city of Ile-Ife,
Frobenius enters the craftsman quarter of Bida, Nigeria
where the Massaga Tribesmen, working in a guild system,
are manufacturing the glass in two indigenous colors
yellow and black, leading him to call the splendid
Past, the poem of related cultures.
In a book otherwise filled with shapely lyrics, their movement and music largely the product of the tension between line and syntax, this poem, attempting to be faithful to the understanding that is its subject, appears to strain against lineation itself; indeed it is hard to determine if these are truly lines in the conventional sense or simply ragged right paragraphs. It may be too much to say this fullness prefigures Gibbons’ eventual embrace of the prose poem, but I believe we can begin to see that the poet here is already pressed by his material to find a form capacious enough to accommodate its reach and allusiveness.
The Woman in the Paragraph (Cat Island Press, 1982) is comprised of 17 quiet, meditative, and observant short poems, including such lyric gems as “Winged Psyche”, “Kouretes”, and the exquisite epithalamion, “The Ring the Sun Is, The Silence in the Vow”. Although Gibbons has spoken of the profound influence of Charles Olson’s work on his development, Olson’s student and colleague, Robert Creeley, seems more in evidence here. (In a recent interview, Gibbons acknowledges Olson’s influence, as well as his own need to escape from it, “It took me a long time to get free.”) However, citing Creeley’s presence in these poems is not to suggest that they are at all derivative, it is rather to say that Gibbons is guided by the same insistence that form be the inevitable extension of content, the shapeliness of the idea emerging from contemplation of the subject itself. It is the beginning of his repudiation of prosodic artifice, a turning away that will be accomplished after a dozen more poems in free verse, the chapbook Ardors (Innerer Klang, 1986.)
The 12 poems of Ardors worry the question “What is color?” and avail themselves even more fully than before of the poet’s love and knowledge of the visual arts. (Gibbons was, for a time, a librarian at The National Gallery.) More than that, they discover, via this steady inquiry, the “ardors” of the title. The first lines of “Light of a Dark River”, the first poem in the book, make a chord that will be heard in various keys throughout the sequence:
There is no grief
without cause of Love
Composed in graceful free verse couplets, Gibbons’ verse here has the effect of slowing our movement through the sequence, encouraging a savoring of detail. As we progress, we note recurring words, images, lines (“A rich light endures the distance which is night.”) And we approach, with a kind of musical hesitance, a moment of insight, part memory, part family lore, in which the poet sees himself as a feverish child:
My first memory occurred two miles
from there, a lambent sun at night
appeared above French doors to decorate,
I was later told by those attendant,
the recurring fever of a four year old.
I may be taking too much time discussing this early work, but when a poet is at once as sui generis and as informed by aesthetic theory and the practice of his (claimed, honored) forbears, it seems well to try to trace his progress toward the full and confident embrace of the poetic project he has chosen to make his inheritance and responsibility.
Lover, Is This Exile? (Innerer Klang, 1989) seems to me the breakthrough work of Gibbons’ early career; for one thing, it marks his departure from verse, for another, he has broken the bonds of the merely personal self, and audaciously so:
This narrator earth, lines wrested from the block & pigment of truth.
The point at which the glare of objects enters directly & in their most solid forms surge into our own lives, from an oblique angle others march in: the erotic equal of the body itself.
reads the italic proem that sets the sequence in motion. The whole chapbook is bathed in the light of the understanding set forth here, in fact the rest of Gibbons’ work in its entirety seems to me to proceed from this “point at which the glare of objects enters directly,” and his poetic practice will be to abide there, or try to, where the world shows itself to be “the erotic equal of the body itself,” where “others march in” so that there is a kind of spiritual commerce rooted in a shared erotic reality.
In other words, Gibbons is a poet less concerned with forging a stance toward the world of experience than one committed to finding a poetics that will help him remain present, as fully as possible, within it. This is a positioning of the spirit that keeps him in the doorway Janus-like, looking both out and in, where the poet does not so much exist in relation to his world as he both contains it in an expanded consciousness and lives inside its rhythms. His stance is less reciprocal than complementary, to borrow Gregory Bateson’s terms; he does not “relate to” the world so much as situate himself within its bounty, its hungers, and its suffering, its fundamentally erotic reality. To enumerate the ways that such work is healing, reparative, we would have to discuss the Cartesian error, or perhaps before that the shift in human consciousness attendant to the Neolithic change from hunting to agriculture, or perhaps to the Fall itself, the ancient “exile” of the title.
Any poet who pursues a vision, who intuits a direction to take, must find a way to break with the period style. Today’s emphasis on “craft,” on the poem as a made object, admits of only so much innovation, after all. Gibbons’ attempt to reflect in his writing the way he wishes to be radically present has led him to a technique, a practice that Whitman describes at the beginning of Specimen Days:
If I do it at all I must delay no longer. Incongruous and full of skips and jumps… All bundled up and tied by a big string, the resolution and indeed mandate comes to me this day, this hour, — (and what a day! What an hour just passing! the luxury of riant grass and blowing breeze, with all the shows of sun and sky and perfect temperature, never before so filling me, body and soul), — to go home untie the bundle, reel-out diary scraps and memoranda, just as they are, large or small, one after another, into print-packages, and let the mélange’s lackings and wants of connection take care of themselves. It will illustrate one phase of humanity anyhow. How few of life’s days and hours (and they not by relative value or proportion, but by chance) are ever noted.
Whitman is falsely modest here, but he is doubtless right in claiming that his method arose from necessity, and his achievement in that book is to render the life of his times as no one else has. I suspect that Whitman and Gibbons arrived at similar crossroads, where to remain whole and responsive to a furious reality (Whitman’s Civil War, Gibbons’ millennial landslide of global history and culture) it is necessary to respond at a rate coequal with the press of experience, or else begin to narrow one’s aperture and live in a manner less welcoming to the world. I suppose that we can call this courage. From here on out, growing more and more confident and prolific, Gibbons continues to refine this method of bricolage, as if to refuse to deny any part of his experience. He also continues to question the common wisdom about poetry, its form and function. There will be no collections of little green monopoly house poems from him. It starts here, after a period of study and preparation, with Lover, Is This Exile? and continues as one long improvisation that leaves us two decades later with a portrait of an educated, lively, earthy, sensual, responsive, millennial man and his times — our times.
I should mention that I come to this writing as one who for years professed skepticism regarding the prose poem. Sometimes my objection was to the term — how distinguish the prose poem from the short-short? From “flash” forms? Other times prose poems seemed to me the first paragraphs of narratives the writer hadn’t the energy, art, or inclination to pursue. I would have agreed with the critic Stephen Yenser: “the distinction between poetry and verse is a facile distinction, and prose poem is a contradiction in terms.” That was, of course, before reading Gibbons who seems to me to have successfully enacted the injunction of his idol, Baudelaire: “Always be a poet; even in prose.”
Of DC (Innerer Klang, 1992), with a cover designed by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, continues the ongoing metamorphosis of the poet, along with his strengthening confidence that he can break free of other compositional habits. “As if it were all informative, signaling, with the added dynamic of sensuous appreciation. Non-interpretive, no mere looking for that which is analogous,” he writes in “Sentences for Wisteria,” reminding himself that he is alive in the world, at a particular complex instant; he does not raid the world to plunder it for analogies. The practice that I see him defining and refining for himself is akin to that of Eliade’s primitive nomads carrying with them a pole that is the Axis Mundi so that wherever they stop they can erect it and know where the center of the world is. For Gibbons, that world center will move from DC to Boston to Gloucester, to Paris, to Venice, and to Portland, Maine, all places which he has found to be “the erotic equal of the body itself.”
This Vanishing Architecture (Innerer Klang, 2001) is an exquisite series of poems that offer variations on three ideas, from Kristeva, Colette, and Proust that comprise the chapbook’s epigraph:
Remembering through the senses is the same as being in love, & these two processes constitute the narrator’s [Proust’s] essence. Venice — the place made of the same substance as the narrator’s desire.
For anyone not able to dawdle along a pavement & indulge the fortuitous whims & luck of the stroller, there remain only the superficial sights. There is always so much to look at when one travels slowly.
Church steeples or wild grass growing in a wall — they composed a magical scrawl, complex & elaborate, their essential character was that I was not free to choose them, as such they were given to me.
By the time we arrive at this series of poems, Gibbons has wholly embraced the more ample and accommodating form of the prose poem, and his method, his practice becomes truly his own. Take for example the second part of “Twin to the Campanile in Venice”:
When my two young friends and I took a tour of the Custom House in Boston, twin to the campanile in Venice, I thought of the blue beginning Visconti gives Aschenbach’s arrival by steamer, the bewildered hero seated in a rattan deck chair, belltower ultimately visible in the pink distance. Aschenbach could well be Proust’s coalheaver, who denies he is one, although he’s black all over. This week the winged-lion of the Chadwick Lead Works on High St. said, as I stood under its paws, “I may not rival St. Mark’s, but I’m present for you.”
The allusiveness here is associative, not decorative or studied, and its consequence is the restoration of history, art, film, literature, symbol, and architecture as the true context for our daily life. That there is more to an encounter, a photograph, a streetscape, or a memory then we at first realize is a given for this poet, as is the radical subjectivity, the self that is the spider to all this webwork.
Here the New World resembles the Old, is in fact a knock-off of it. And the “Death in Venice” referred to is not Mann’s story but Visconti’s film version of it. An observation about the protagonist Aschenbach’s likeness to “Proust’s coalheaver” further raises the issues of similitude, dissimulation, and denial. This allusiveness is extended to the transmigration of the winged lion (who speaks!) “Of the Chadwick Lead Works on High Street” who both evokes and denies the St. Mark’s original (itself, it should be pointed out, an emblem of Assyrian origin) in the way of old wine in new bottles, bringing us full circle to the New World’s denial of the Old, the recurrence of archetypal motifs, and the arguable superiority by default of whatever is “present for you.”
One caveat about my own close reading here, which perhaps misleadingly approaches allegory: Gibbons is not so didactic as to play algebraic games with what the world affords him; it runs counter to his method, even at this still early articulation of his vision. And yet there is excitement in the connections he makes across cultures, through centuries. The poet Susan Tichy has remarked of collage that it is a “nest” in that it is constructed of things removed from their earlier contexts and brought together for a new purpose. In a Gibbons prose poem, which seems to have as much in common with Andy Goldsworthy as with Baudelaire or St. John Perse, the instant is an instance of something breaking through to consciousness, some apprehension of relation, and there are few prose fasteners, the elements plaited together with no more rhetoric than is necessary to keep them in relation to one another.
To remain for the moment with “Twin to the Campanile in Venice,” consider the first paragraph —the poem is in two — which moves from “artillery Brown” Belgrade to a view of Venice from the air that calls to mind a drawing by Jacopo de Barberi in 1500, as well as a recent dream of the poet. These associational “leaps” feel synaptic, not strategic or crafty. There is happily something of the essayist in Gibbons’ work, and I mean that in the purest sense, the credo from which Montaigne proceeded, that everything in the universe is connected to everything else. Associative power is honored, and recognized as not only the individual consciousness showing itself, but at least some of the time, the still living patterns of history, culture, and psychology emerging into view. This Vanishing Architecture ends with the poem “The Present Is The Roof Of Time” in which a flower girl (herself a kind of avatar) balances “flattened cardboard boxes that about an hour before, millennia before, contained gladioli, irises, strawberries, oranges, roses, yes a living caryatid, the long bodily architectonic column of Time.” From this point onward, as if Gibbons has written himself to the vantage he will take thereafter, Time is capitalized, a kind of piety that suggests that the poet has found and made explicit his Daemon.
In 2004, Six Gallery Press published Gibbons’ first two full-length books, Streets for Two Dancers and The Book of Assassinations, within a month of each other. Here, from the former, is “Communicating Vessels”:
It was as if things & utterance merged. Red delphinium vibrated behind our talk influenced by French Burgundy. The friend called soul and fertility of soil equal. It happened in a flash. On a street given over almost entirely to fashion. For a second poetry clasped presence and memory together with the strength of sinew. Language, direct descendent of the senses. Love rose, a sea in the bloodstream.
a poem which seems to me an explicit ars poetica, as well as the record of one of those instances for which Gibbons works so hard to be eligible, those moments when the world inside this one, a world elemental, archetypal and unchanging, shows through: “It happened in a flash. On a street given over almost entirely to fashion.”
In The Book of Assassinations the poet continues to question the means by which we are able to make poetry, indeed to make meaning. In “About American Poetry” Gibbons makes his case explicitly for a responsive rather than willful poetics, quoting himself quoting Olson at a symposium, “The trouble with the symbol is, it does not trouble.”
Baudelaire, whose photograph is on the cover, is the presiding spirit of The Book of Assassinations, also providing two of the four epigraphs; the first of these, however, is Walter Benjamin’s: “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.” What follows is 137 pages of poetry, 103 poems. So what’s happened? Has our poet become a mere diarist? Yes and no: there is no “mere” about it after such a long and learned cultivation of both oneself and the means at hand. We are well to recall that the root of journal means day, and that Gibbons daily genuflects to Time, working to remain open to all it brings.
Poets’ journals are generally understood to be a secondary literary pleasure, part gossip mongering, part investigation of creativity, part research into the poet’s life and times — a pleasure mainly enjoyed by scholars and biographers. Still, interested readers may search there for the sources of the poet’s inspiration, or for keys to the poet’s practice: how did he or she transform the dross of experience to the value of art?
But what of the poet who makes the journal itself, with its disciplined observations of both the inner and outer world, his art? In this case, the interval between experience and reconsideration represents also the space between candor and self-portrayal, a kind of “what you see is what you get.” Honesty raised, or restored, to its place as a primary virtue. The cost to the poet, or at least to the poet’s ego, must be enormous.
Read in the aggregate, Body Of Time and Beyond Time: New & Selected Work 1977-2007 are a kind of memoir, or anti-memoir insofar as there is no attempt to create a story, that offer a portrait of millennial man as open, as naked, as welcoming to experience, as possible. Indeed, one of the poems in Body of Time seems to address this specifically, even in its title, “How Much More Alive Can A Man Be”? An exemplary poem, it can stand here to represent some of the deep pleasures of moving in this poet’s mind with him as he invites us to do:
How Much More Alive Can A Man Be?
One of those mundane Mondays when one might as well be interred, or disinterred, for that matter. Everything so familiar, nothing stands out. Then Claire writes from Pittsburgh that stone heads above Roman doors convey welcome & demarcation; David wonders from London if I’ve seen the Medusas placed sideways to avoid the Pagan evil eye in the basilica cistern in Istanbul; & by pure chance, a couple of hours later, Itir writes from her cousin’s house on the Asian side of the city that I wouldn’t believe the voluptuousness of the Virgin Tower in the middle of the Bosporus, while watching the sunset on the European side of Istanbul. Suddenly I’m lifted up, risen by tension carved in stone in Rome, & by the generous hand that wrote it. Far, far from immune to the power of the evil eye, poets are able to avert that gaze by inversion of ego toward creativity, & the love of the language of fellow men. How much more alive can a man be, when out of the mundane of every day, a Virgin surfaces out of narrow straits linking Black and Mamara Seas, illuminated by a Byzantine-neon light, & quiet, humble tongue?
Body of Time is a treasury of tesserae, sharp shards of what can never be in this time-bound life apprehended whole, but which consciousness can arrange and rearrange kaleidoscopically in a kind of ecstatic acknowledgment, almost worship, of ongoingness, of Gibbons’ ever capitalized “Time.”
The individual prose poems of Body Of Time accrue to what Claire Barbetti calls, in her preface to that volume, “the massive surface of a corpus witnessing itself through language.” Like the poet’s friend Gang’s Buddhist wish to be reincarnated as a stone “in my best friends pocket” (“A Small Stone”,) the poet wants only that ecstasy that will further unify him with the rest of creation. In “To An Already Grace Filled Day,” he watches a kingfisher watching with presumed hunger a school of minnows in shallow water. “Now it’s on the next rock over,” he writes, “larger than I thought through my binoculars. Both with our work cut out for us.” Gibbons has all he can do to simply perceive, to witness the terrible beauty of this one visible world. If the occult, the hidden, the transcendent nevertheless appears, it is through the power and patience of his looking, his capturing the visible. He knows there is “One star visible, & a billion burning.” (“The Right Stone”) and that he can only examine the one that Time presents to him, visible and subject to his questioning and appreciation.
Reading the poems of Body of Time page after page is to experience a torrent of images, allusions, ideas, questions, conversations, meals, journeys, homecomings, dissident outrage, and outpourings of love and appreciation for the poet’s beloved, Kathleen. And yet this is a flood somehow not of water and earth, leaving a residue, but of air and light, leaving energy.
What we see and what we get from Robert Gibbons in his latest work, Travels Inside The Archive is something like time lapse photography whereby we see themes, thoughts, questions, allegiances, outrage, regrets, epiphanies — and above all observations — amounting to the shape of a consciousness with that generosity of attention Whitman called “amativeness;” indeed, these are truly Gibbons’ own Specimen Days. There is more of the world in these poems, seen through the poet’s daily gaze at his beloved city of Portland Maine, than in any since Leaves of Grass. (One epigraph to this work is indeed from Whitman: “City of my walks and joys!”) An index of this volume, the record of one year’s daily improvisations, from November 24th, 2007 to November 24th, 2008, would be nearly as long as the book itself. The 986 foot tanker Polar Adventure, Mayakovsky, Robert Frank, Thelonious Monk, Benazir Bhutto, varieties of wine, fish, — and always Gibbons’ ongoing Rubaiyat, his celebration of Kathleen’s companionship. His literary reference points alone include Benjamin, Kristeva, Ranciere, Baudelaire, Pound, Olson, Kerouac, Rilke, Cixous, Celan, Lorca, Deleuze, Vallejo, and others. The book is complexly prismatic. It is as if, at bottom, his aim is, roughly stated: these things all exist together in Time, in which and of which I am conscious, therefore allowing them — ships, books, memories, fish, water, persons, sky — to move, to exist in dynamic relation in language on the page, is the way to chronicle both the inner and outer world’s continual shifting, becoming, turning and returning.
Gibbons is not a religious poet in any conventional sense; however, there is something of the responsiveness of a devout adherent in the discipline that so faithfully produced this book. To say this work is re-ligious is only to suggest it is rejoining, reparative, reunifying. Gibbons is a poet of the day; seldom do the nocturnal humors of melancholy, regret, sadness, wistfulness, or ennui intrude. The sun shines in his poems — on the waves of the harbor, the ships from far ports, the conversations, the books and paintings and architecture, the travel, the food and wine, the commerce of a world brave and new each day. His genius is for freshness, for somehow renewing the sense of wonder.
And yet to acknowledge the diurnal nature of his work is not to suggest a lack of shade, of shadow. Many of the poems in Travels Inside The Archive are overcast and darkened by a political anger, by foreboding, by umbrage at the latest instance of barbarism. Here is “Possible Swift Solution?”:
Possible Swift Solution?
Monday, September 22, 2008
It may not be a bad idea, necessarily, regarding a few thieves on Wall Street, or butchers in government, to follow a precedent set by folk near Goya’s hometown in Zaragoza, which the artist recorded in a drawing & eye witness account jotted down in his Album F. Goya says the people of the town placed a constable named Lampinos inside the body of a dead horse, & left him there overnight to die. He survived the night, while dogs circled the carcass gobbling up discarded entrails. Now, I’m not suggesting we allow the dogs of Abu Ghraib in, & I’m not at all suggesting death result. Just a little YouTube excerpt of thieves, butchers, & advocates of torture sewn inside the belly of an already dead nag, their heads, as Goya drew it, peeking out of the rear end, names of CEO’s & Administration officials running in bold print underneath?
I have wondered what accounts for Gibbons’ obscurity, the ignorance of his work among readers of contemporary poetry. Is it because his entire body of work has been published by small or independent presses? Is it because the prose poem is seen as a lesser form? Does the fact that, despite his immense erudition, Gibbons has never held a faculty position in a university account for it? Or could it be that the sheer volume of his output — close to a thousand new poems in the last decade — suggests, wrongly, (since we often confuse rarity with value) that there can be little of worth there? Or are other poets, comprising these days the bulk of poetry’s readership, simply intimidated? I don’t know.
I do know that by any measure, these are poems that deliver. If we bring Aristotle’s simple criteria to bear on them, we find they delight us with their adventurous juxtapositions, their hunches and intuitions, their improvisatory and unpredictable movements, and they instruct us, not because the poems are didactic but because the poet’s erudition is the result of his indefatigable curiosity and his only pedagogical impulse is to share with enthusiasm what he discovers. It is a combination of virtues Theodore Roethke would have recognized. “A teacher,” Roethke wrote, “is one who carries on his education in public.”
Still, I suspect that Gibbons doesn’t care much about his reputation. He’s been doing what he does, and doing it better and better, for thirty years, as if in agreement with Milton that the poet “ought himselfe to bee a true poeme.” Gibbons is. And serious readers deserve to know his work. To read Gibbons, to situate yourself at the proper angle to his work, is to feel a chthonic rumbling, as if tectonic shifts are occurring under you as you allow your mind to move with his. Because his philosophical orientation is more and more strongly an articulation of an alternative to the common wisdom, and perhaps of a more salutary way of being in the world, we read him with a quickening sense of excitement akin to danger, as if we are being summoned to let go, to come away, to accompany the poet on something like Whitman’s Open Road.