NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
What The Heart Can Bear: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1979-1993 by Robert Gibb
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2009)
Robert Gibb was born into a family of steelworkers in Homestead, a mill town six miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He gained a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Kutztown University in 1971, a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Massachussetts Amherst in 1974, and his Master of Arts and Ph.D. at Lehigh Universirty in 1976 and 1986 respectively. In many ways, Homestead is central to his work as an American poet. Three of his books, which comprise what he refers to as The Homestead Trilogy reflect in what amounts to nearly 100 poems, the vanishing industrial history and culture of America’s Steel City. The first book in the trilogy, The Origins of Evening won the 1997 National Poetry Series Open Competition.
The poems in What The Heart Can Bear have been selected from four previous volumes: The Names of The Earth in Summer (1983); The Winter House (1984); Momentary Days (1989) and Fugue for a Late Snow (1993). Interestingly, they are presented in reverse order which means that we travel back in time from 1993 to (according to the book cover) 1979. A series of poems written between 1980 and 1990, which were previously uncollected, round off this substantial offering of his work.
The cover art, Snow Fence, Shosanbetsu, Hokkaido, Japan © 2004 Michael Kenna, is a good indicator of what is to come for Gibb maps the weather with precision and there is a lot of snow in this book. In the poem Snow Fences Gibb observes
Unlike us, they are reeds. They are weirs
Straining drifts from the snow.
There are huge gates missing between them
Watching the world go blank,
I’m not sure what I like most about them -
Their gleaming ease, or the way clarity’s
Part of the emptiness in which they occur.
What strikes me the most about Gibb’s work is that it is totally unpretentious. He does not try to be clever or even original. He does not have to be because his command of language in expressing his subject matter is so complete that it needs no other elaboration to claim our attention. Gibb tells it as it is but the description is powerful because the scene has been well-observed and keenly felt and the language is finely honed. In Blues for December 21st he can even make a frozen pipe sound like music to the ear:
Shortest day of the year
And cold too,
Marled thick as quartz
In the collar
of the pipe.
Winter dominates these poems. It is the season in which he has invested his poetic gift and the vocabulary is used to good effect. He is acutely aware of the landscape surrounding his homestead and of the animals and birds that populate it. His descriptions of nature are never sentimental or maudlin. The violence of nature as well as the beauty, like the weather, is conveyed to us in a dispassionate way. Several poems on the subject of road kills, for example, are written with the precision of a pathologist’s report. In Road Kills, the animals he discovers Halfway to heaven on the roads, he sees how
….the bowels turn black
As fallen apples, their pelts break
Down into the hard nap of asphalt…
As so often happens in the middle of his poems, a second, more personalised, thought takes over from mere observation, creating a bigger emotional impact:
I think of that two hour life
As matter your baby sank through,
Lungs like small wet leaves,
And the world flooding his eyes
Like headlights. If I were to tell you
That death begins in such sweetness
As any of us would drown in,
Would it help?
Several poems in this volume work along these lines. In Buying Raw Milk, his thoughts turn to Wang Wei; and in Dusting The Garden, it is Mendel who suddenly claims his attention when he remarks
The seven characters Mendel discovered
In the monastery at Brno are nodding
Inside my peas.
In the poem that follows, the thought process is neatly encapsulated in the title: Working In The Garden I Think Of Thoreau Who Opposed The Mexican War and then elaborated in the text. This movement from one thought to another is subtly conveyed through imagery drawn from the natural world.
Gibb’s capacity to draw the reader into his landscape is, at times, hypnotic. It is as if we are invited to look through a zoom lens at a detail we have not seen before. In Autumns (section three headed Wild Turkeys) he says:
I looked through my field glasses
Straight into the thermals of the turkey’s heat:
The whole of him headdress and ruffled,
The great tail fanning warily where he oversaw
His women, of which there were four.
Reading his work I am, at times, reminded of Frost. Two Walks in the Winter Woods and these lines from Leaving the Valley remind me of Frost’s iconic poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:
To have stood in November
At the edge of a wood and seen
In the blade of winter twilight,
Its cold pewter and waning grays,
Something of that long affair
Burning itself to ash…
It is not so much because the month happens to be November but because of the way Gibb makes us, like Frost, look deeply into the wood while, at the same time, keeping hold of some sort of detachment.
Not all the poems in this selection are about landscape. The landscape is often used as a metaphor for something else. The Surface Hunter is a good example of the way in which the poet makes use of his material to delve beneath the surface to reach out some deeper significance. As soon as he found a small stone adze, he says:
…I knew I was onto something
In which the years leaped back
To mussel shells and campfires
And shelters carved into the rocks.
The thrill of this journey of discovery, of past memories through the medium of association, is beautifully conveyed at the close:
The scent of crushed sassafras lay
All around me. I could smell it
In the fields at evening as I walked
Back home, in my clothes
As I sat at the kitchen table
With the new world I had found,
In it up to the elbows.
Two poems Williams in Autumn and Listening To The Ball Game, are worth reading side by side even though they are separated by over forty pages in the book. In the first poem, Gibb writes of William Carlos Williams who
is tired of being a house
Whose rooms are closing,
Stroke by stroke,
And wants now simply to sit
Bathing in the light
he thinks is falling for him
For the last time on Yankee Stadium,
Flooding the shapes of the players
And spilling into his room…
The poem is full of autumn, of the great sense of time passing and time already passed.
The second poem, in which Gibb himself, listening to another ballgame. reflects on the passage of time and contemplates on his own mortality:
I don’t know….how long
My momentary days will continue
To fill with such splendid ease…
but what he does know is that
So much of what we love takes
place beyond us…
Both poems have a remarkable aura of serenity about them; an acceptance of things to come.
In closing, we catch a hint of what the writing of poetry means to this poet in his poem The Dance:
Maybe then, I kept thinking, the last poem
Won’t mean the end of touching the world.
These are indeed poems that touch the world and also the heart.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna published by White Adder Press, Scotland (2011) and The Worcester Fragments published by Original Plus, England (2013).