"This Time, Robert Gibbons' tour de force, showcases the talents of this artist. Ear for language, eye for detail, ability to touch both intellect and emotion at the same time distinguishes his work. 'I'm going to try to shove the tail into the mouth of the snake of Time' he writes in Snake of Time. The collection works hard to fulfill that aim using references to music, art, nature, and philosophy to startle the reader into lifting one's eyes to where they are in Time, using language to enhance our ability to see more clearly and perceptively. This is a book to be read slowly, carefully. A journey, creating for the reader a sense of Timelessness permission to undertake personal exploration and reflection. One completes that journey a better observer and with a deeper appreciation of the world with Gibbons as the guide."
—-David Ferriero, former Director of the New York Public Library
I’ve said before in Evergreen that surrealism still provides the dominant impulse in American poetry, perhaps because its ambitious, bottom-line program — that everyday life should be permeated with the playfulness and creative spirit of art – seems further from realization than ever before. And this influence is felt even by poets who are not avowed surrealists, such as Robert Gibbons, whose latest book can be seen as taking up and reconstructing prominent surrealist themes, just as an avowed American surrealist, Allan Graubad, perhaps the premier American poet in this style, can extend some traditional surrealist tropes in unexpected and psychically satisfying ways. First to Gibbons. To me, the identifying trait of this writing is how his verse is filled with splendid, deeply won concatenations where his observations on, say, a walk along the Portland harbor ties together with his readings and knowledge into a terse, bone-solid commentary on his and our lives. But, taking this aspect in a wider context throws me back to the surrealist idea of objective chance. This concept refers to chance events, seeming coincidences, that are imbued with a near-holy significance. An example of this occurs when Breton meets Nadja, the mysterious woman who becomes the center of his novel. A fragment of a dream and some recent readings cross with and foretold what would happen in their accidental rendezvous. The thing about such instances of objective chance is that, for the full-blooded surrealist, they are to be awaited and fulsomely welcomed as signal occurrences. Gibbons put this concept in a new light by fashioning his life – filling it with deep reading, solitude, a rapt involvement with nature and close attention to artistic masters (from Bach to Coltrane to Goya to Klee to Bergson to Kristeva), the droop of the day, and the moods of his partner – so that objective chances are a daily occurrence. In other words, such vital, unprompted coincidences are found opening spontaneously at least once in every 24-hour cycle. And I mean 24 hours literarily since, taking another hint from the surrealists, he often finds these match-ups are links between what he dreamed the night before and a waking happening. Given this, two questions spring to mind. The first, which has already been answered, might be put like this: How does one mold a life that will yield such fruits? His solitude, awareness and immersion in aesthetic depths already explain that. The second would be this: If these coincidences are captured in verse, what type of poetry will they yield? An examination of any of these prose poems provides an answer. In one of the last poems in the book, Gibbons describes an incident that occurred at his job as a machine tender (by the way, it’s quite a commentary on the state of the arts that one of the greatest poets in our nation finds himself, age 58, earning his living by working in a textile factory). He is discussing a poem of his with a fellow worker and mentions “Jerry at front line conveyor belt expressing genuine interest in my work, & interpreting it better than slothful academics at the local college … Amy [another worker] loved Matisse. Cheryl preferred van Gogh.” He summarizes his thoughts on the factory in this way, “There were Great Souls kept out of sight there.” However, that’s not the key insight of the poem, the one provoked by objective chance. When he gets home from the day’s work, he finds a book in the mail, sent by a friend at the National Gallery. It’s called Grave Matters, and includes pictures of the headstones of famous writers and artists. Amused but not overly impressed, he remarks that it doesn’t include the last resting place of Bach, but, he adds, in an insight that includes both the composer and the Great Souls, “But then, again, work is the true marker.” As an aphorism that last thought might not be overly striking, but as it appears here, embedded in and reflective of a day’s flow and its surprising coincidences, it is both profound and profoundly moving. Another color is the poetic horse Allan Graubard rides. His work is steeped in the surrealist tradition. Despite the complex intellectual scaffolding that surrounds this movement, its verse tends to be narrative, not cerebral or reflective (in the manner of a Gibbons). The surrealists are story tellers, taking plots from dreams rather than other genres, and, more often than not, focusing on love, mad love. Key writers in this style, among whom I count Graubard, describe a world filled with wonder, excitement, awe, humor, anything but business as usual. Here’s how Graubard introduces a character: “You came with fox fur stilts … with feet torn by stingers.” You can imagine what his first encounter with a woman like this will entail. He approaches one with this pickup line, “It’s time we sat down // and swapped faces.” His images are extreme, ravishing and rush upon you like a spilled bucket of lava. But as I said surrealist poetry is filled with stories. One of the book’s high points, the sequence “Fragments from Nomad Days,” describes a desert encounter between the narrator and a mystery vamp. Their relationship takes various bizarre turns, as when he says, “I would step through her eyes, closing each door behind me, one then another and another after that,” and includes an invocation of the surrealist project I noted at outset, the dream of making life creative through and through, here expressed by noting the reverse, “I accept my lot, which is something quite different from making peace with the world! The spirit of my anger would never allow me to collapse so thoroughly that I would perpetually mistake modern life for what I desire.” This last sentiment helps point up the contrast between the two poets. Despite his lowly social position, Gibbons lives a bulgingly full life. Guided by a reliance on objective chance, he is able to find a pith of each day that is intellectually bracing and emotionally deep. Graubard, by contrast, while also acclimatized to his lot, is perturbed by the multiple failures, injustices and criminality he sees around him. It might seem this has led him to tell surrealist tales that might light a fuse under readers, whom, admiring these offbeat fictions, will grasp his view. But such a supposition is too facile. After all, who picks up a book of surrealist poetry except someone who is already miserable? I don’t mean they are morose beings, but rather to make this more specific, they are dispirited and near defeated by the lackluster and shallow quality of most personal relationships in our menacingly evil society. Tulip seeks to turn a page, not by demonstrating what human connections, especially love affairs, would be like in a freer society, one, to keep being concrete, organized on either socialist or communal anarchist principles, but by graphically instancing what the feeling tones of such loves would be: ever-unexpected, ever-dangerous, ever-entrancing. BIO Jim Feast with Ron Kolm wrote the novel Neo Phobe (Autonomedia), and has written a number of health books with Gary Null, including Germs, Biological Warfare and Vaccinations: What You Need to Know (Seven Stories). He belongs to the Unbearables writing group and has co-edited four of their anthologies, the most recent being The Unbearables Big Book of Sex. --Jim Feast Reviews