Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Sightlines: Poems by Robert Gibb

Sightlines: Poems by Robert Gibb, The Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2021 (89 pages, $15.00)

Pittsburgh-based poet Robert Gibb has always displayed dazzling powers of description during his long, productive career. Some of his earlier poems showcased his gift for ekphrasis – the rendering of works of visual art into lyric art. In his 2009 collection What the Heart Can Bear, Gibb’s poem “Penumbral” is a marvelous gloss on Edvard Munch’s painting “Puberty;” “At the Exhibition of Ice Age Art in the Museum of Natural History,” Gibb offers insight into a range of objects, from tiny sculptures to giant wall paintings, made by our ancient ancestors.

This year, Gibb has given us Sightlines, a collection almost entirely consisting of ekphrastic poems. Originally trained as a painter, Gibb shows an unerring eye for unveiling what is breathtaking in paintings and in photographs. Winner of the Prize Americana, Sightlines is a gift of mouthwatering confections, which offers us the experience - named in its opening epigraph – of “the voluptuousness of looking.”

I don’t wish to suggest that these poems are at all sugary or insubstantial; they are in fact profound, and profoundly humane. Nor are they short on the darkness which permeates so much of Gibb’s work, notably his 1998 collection The Origins of Evening. Yet, as the wondrous descriptions of photographs in Sightlines reveals, Gibb’s darker preoccupations are not so much with the noir of this world as with its sepia tones.

That tendency is revealed in the opening poem of the book, “Two Photographs.” Hotel Greenwich, 1966 presents the “deluxe room” of a flophouse, a place with

“…enough space

Between the wall and cot for a broken

Wooden chair on which to drape your clothes.

That is if you were willing to shed them

In the first place and slip between the folds

Of those blankets,

Olive drab and rent

By larvae, the cast-like ashes from cigarettes.”

This first part is followed by the equally unsettling Drake Hotel, 1973. Both parts are so exquisitely constructed that it took me several readings to realize that I was examining a pair of sonnets.

Sightlines contains a great many sonnets – but I’ll get to back to this book’s craft component later on. For now, I want to concentrate on Gibb’s subject matter and the artful arrangement of the poems in which he expresses his concerns. In its initial section, poems about decadence and death are layered with such wonders as “Cloud Chronicle,” which juxtaposes “Constable’s…mutable pageants…/Modeled curds of cumulous, wisps/Of fleece, the cloudburst brushstrokes/Cloning rain…” with, for instance, Steiglitz’s “inner weather…clouds taken out of context…swatches /Of surfaces in which our emotions lurk.”

Not to be outdone by his own portrayals of mere vapor, Gibb provides “Watermarks,” a series of close observations of particular paintings which depict the sea and other manifestations of liquid H2O. Regarding Albert Ryder’s Marine, Gibb writes:

“His materials were ‘eccentric and unstable,’

The experts complained. As if the unearthly

Might be harrowed in any other way.”

Of Childe Hassam’s Rainy Day, Boston, Gibb notes that: “What looks like weather is really the way/He’s found to handle light…/The rain-blurred brick of the townhouses/Or nickel finish on the puddles/Beneath the horse-drawn cabs….” Gibb’s poem about Winslow Homer’s Prout’s Neck, Maine, begins:

“That sinuous spout in the foreground

Is pure Art Nouveau, spume’s solid column

Flung up among the rocks where water

Churns in channels. Out at sea, beyond them.

Sunset seams the horizon with clouds

Like bloody chum….”

Reminiscent of Gibb’s regular return to the natural history museum for subject matter, much of the artwork described in Sightlines itself portrays the natural world. One sequence examines the illustrations in the Field Guide to Wild Herbs. The series “Potato Prints” offers a stunning sequence of meditations about aspects of those homely, ubiquitous, sustaining tubers and “their edible rubble.”

There is an ambitious, magisterial set of poems about the paintings which illustrate Audubon’s Birds of America, starting boldly with Plate 1. Wild Turkey. Benjamin Franklin famously opined that the wild turkey would be a better choice as the USA’s national emblem than the bald eagle, characterizing it as “a bird of courage [that] would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on." That poem begins:

“The litmus-headed cock bird: blue, then red,

With a feather beard pendent at its breast.

The puffed-up warlord bluster

Each dress-rehearsed entrance he makes,

Patch-quilt, centripetal, fit to kill….”

In each poem Gibb writes, he marries form to content so seamlessly it seems instinctual. Gibb seems to toss off sonnets almost casually; only upon analysis is it evident that the naturalness of his poetic voice comes from such devices as the perceptive, pitch-perfect selection of off rhymes. Similarly, Gibb will mix the end rhyme patterns of the stanzas within a sonnet, or inflect a line by breaking it, making a foot with breath. The artlessness of these jewels of poems is studied; lapidary.

If you’ve wondered who and what is great in contemporary American poetry, treat yourself to this book. It’s one you’ll return to. These virtuoso poems demonstrate how a double-barreled artist turns images wrought for the eye into images for the inner eye, and food for the soul.

1 comment:

  1. During my study of art history,I had to keep a journal of responses to paintings. My approach was what I perceived to be the psychology of the painter,through choice of color form,and, subject in relation to the times. I very much relate to his poetic perceptions.