Robert Gibbons (Salem, MA, 1946) is one of the great secrets of contemporary US poetry. Based in Portland, ME, he has published more than a dozen books of poetry, and a similar number of chapbooks. Much of his work has appeared in small, independent imprints, such as Nine Point (Bridgton, ME) and Innerer Klang (Asheville, NC). It has also been translated into Danish. Gibbons was poetry and fiction editor of the review Janus Head. But he is far removed from the staples of more feted poets, like big grants, prizes, MFA posts, or major publishers. He circulates his work in progress, along with generous and copious correspondence, among a small group of aficionados, of which I’m glad to call myself a member.
Animated Landscape (2016) emerges from the imprint BlazeVOX, who pronounce themselves a publisher of “weird little books.” But it isn’t a little book (the proof I read runs to over 150 pages) and it isn’t especially weird. For those who have been following Gibbons over the years, it continues his departure from the prose poem form that dominated collections such as Body of Time (2004) and much of his middle work. But he always wrote verse, as his compilation of new and selected work, Beyond Time (2008) demonstrates.
This book opens, like many of his collections, with epigraphs, used as a kind of route marker. He quotes Gary Snyder: “[…] the United States is located on a landscape with a severe, spectacular, spacy, wildly demanding, and ecstatic narrative to be learned.” Gibbons sets himself the task of comprehending and telling this story. Landscape, we might argue, is natural only in the sense that “nature” is created physically and discursively through our interaction with it. The act of observation changes what is observed; perhaps even more so that of describing or demarcating. Gibbons’ poems want to get at those tales told where mankind meets the land. As he writes in one poem,
What is it there inside the writer,
sculptor, or Aurignacian painter, other
than his, or her own awe to match in language,
stone, or ochre, the raw material of the object at hand?
A poem from later on in the collection, in fact the titular piece, puts it another way. Considering petroglyphs on the shore of the Kennebec river, Gibbons says,
[…] the very act of creating these glyphs
seems to reveal a desire to share
magical energy derived from art.
When we consider cave paintings and other prehistoric art forms, the tendency is to attribute a purely mimetic or indexical function to them: our ancestors wanted to leave a record of what they saw and maybe what they achieved. Alternatively, representation is given some magical property: in painting we possess the spirit of the beast depicted. The Argentine poet and activist Julián Axat argues in a poem from the collection Peso formidable (2003, p 52) that an understanding of primitive art as a form of possession filters down into mankind’s urge for domination and mastery, as manifested in the factory farm or the prison camp. By writing of the “magical energy derived from art” Gibbons is doing something different. The work of Michael Taussig asks us to examine the belief in magic that resides at the heart of our most everyday practices, of which art must be regarded as one. The act of reflection is a salutary antidote to the urge to mastery.
In another poem, Gibbons writes of the need for “precise attention / to the totality of things.” This is a simple statement, but also a paradoxical one. How can we look with precision at totality? It would seem to imply a “parallax gap” in vision, of which Slavoj Žižek has written at length. Borges also mocked such intentions, embodied in the figure of Carlos Argentino Daneri, the antagonist in his story “The Aleph,” who attempts to capture the whole world in verse, with sorry results. Daneri carries echoes of Pablo Neruda, or a ghastly parody of Dante, but also the Whitman-esque ambitions of Borges’ own writings of the 1920s. Gibbons treads with care this tightrope between close observation and grand scale. He moves from the small to the big and back again, allowing observations from the two poles to enrich each other.
The collection traces the link – through time, space and art – between how we experience the world and how we attempt to communicate that experience. Gibbons writes of
One of those days
when there is no difference between the beauty
of the world & the need for language
In many of the poems this is visually clear from the form: angled slices of verse, like rock formations, or the angle of a Bronze Age blade. Paraphrasing Charles Olson, he states:
an object of attention so that metaphor ceases,
& the object becomes once more what it really is,
the seat & as it were homeland of our thoughts.
The object in question is the spear point. Gibbons continues,
Concentration on this spear point
with its sharp edge & added
barb brought on more
last night, when
the tide rolled
the sea floor […]
The reference to the archetype takes us back to Jung, source of the other epigraph to the collection. Many of the poems describe and respond to cave paintings, in particular those at Pech Merle, which Gibbons visited, many years ago. Gibbons tracks these images through to their modern heirs, not least Picasso, and his Guernika, in which forms inherited from the very earliest art become a denunciation of and an incantation against political terror.
This implicit linking movement – I hesitate to call it an argument, for Gibbons is not didactic – is one found too in a beautiful Chilean film by Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia de la luz. This poetic documentary takes as its site of investigation the Atacama Desert, where high-powered telescopes stand over millennia-old human markings. The desert is also the final resting place for victims of the Pinochet regime, which murdered and buried its opponents in the sand. Thinking the harsh climate would destroy evidence, the dictator’s goons overlooked the arid climate, which instead preserves evidence of their crimes.
Politics and political violence are never far from Gibbons’ purview. The close attention he demands of his writing allows him to take a simple object and follows its wider ramifications. “Iron Bars of Ballast Tell a Story” links the history of the slave trade to protests in Baltimore over police violence, as he listens to Nina Simone sing of racism and injustice. Another poem connects his travels through Mexico to the financial crisis that threatens to see Detroit’s municipal art collection sold off to the highest (private) bidder. There is plenty of emotion here, especially contained anger and outrage. But it is not polemic or invective. Similarly, in a series of poems entitled “Five for the Homeless,” Gibbons shows sentiment but not sentimentality.
There are many literary references in the collection, to among others Olson, Julia Kristeva, Li Po (Li Bai), and, especially, Herman Melville. He responds to the question, “Are these an inspiration for your writing,” that “No, they are a validation for it.” Gibbons has for a long time been interested in, maybe obsessed with, Moby Dick. Last year he gave a reading in front of an installation based on a logbook inspired by the great novel of the sea. Ishmael’s voyages and Queequeg’s tattoos appear alongside Gibbons’ reflections on his own travels, in cliff-like blocks of prose.
Gibbons wrote that Animated Landscape was the collection he was destined to write. One hopes too that it’s the collection destined to reveal him to a wider circle of readers. It places him firmly in the tradition of modern US poetry, following Olson, Creeley and the Objectivists, and alongside some of the best contemporary Anglophone poets, like Jean Sprackland, and great poets writing today in Spanish, like Cristian Aliaga and Sergio Raimondi.
Ben Bollig teaches Spanish at Oxford University. His translation of Cristian Aliaga’s The Foreign Passion is now available from Influx Press (London). With Alejandra Crosta he edited and translated Antropófagos en las islas, a collection of contemporary British poetry in Spanish translation, published by Espacio Hudson (Argentina). He is completing a book entitled Politics and Public Space in Contemporary Argentine Poetry. The Lyric and the State. @benbollig