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The intercom outside Robert Gibbons’s apartment building is on the fritz, but Phoenix photographer Matt Robbins and I get him on the phone and he comes down to escort us up. He’s well dressed, with the intense gaze of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about difficult ideas. The apartment itself isn’t at all the book-strewn writer’s garret one might expect; it’s filled with light and furnished with care. Gibbons owns few books, four small shelves’ worth; years spent working in libraries have cultivated in him the habit of keeping only what he needs to have immediately at hand: largely Continental theorists, doorstop art collections, and of course poetry.
Baudelaire, William Carlos Williams, Olson, Cavafy.
The one prose writer in evidence is Ernest Hemingway, whose collected stories occupy a place of honor on a coffee table so Gibbons can cleanse his psychological palate with "A Clean Well Lighted Place." Initially that story seems an odd safe haven for a poet whose intellectual touchstones run to the European and female, but Gibbons makes himself at home in the midst of a number of paradoxes.
Not the least of which is his chosen form, the prose poem, which has a reputation as the fence-sitter of literature, unable to commit to either the narrative impulse of prose or the compressed figurative density of lyric poetry. Gibbons argues exactly the opposite, that the prose poem is the perfect expression of his poetic impulse. Poetry comes from "an erotic charge," he says, what Julia Kristeva calls cathexion, or an intense emotional investment. In an email interview with Slow Trains Literary Journal, Gibbons wrote of finding language in a "desire toward something, an angle, a color, the cut of a dress, a leg, a brick, a ray of light, a single word, a dream image, a shard of glass, an art object, an African mask, a sentence overheard, etc . . ."
Entwined with this desire is an idea of Helene Cixous: that the body doesn’t speak in lines or sentences, but in paragraphs. Voila! The intersection of Cixous’ paragraphing body and Gibbons’ centering of the poetic impulse in a physical desire can yield nothing other than prose poems.
Which makes it a little strange that one of Gibbons’s acknowledged poetic gurus is Charles Olson, the great postwar poet who rarely met a line he didn’t want to break. "I escaped," Gibbons says of Olson. "It took me a long time to get free." He still acknowledges Olson as a powerful influence, but at 58 years old Gibbons has long since assimilated his forebears (including the 19th-century godfathers of the prose poem, Baudelaire and Rimbaud) and struck out in a direction uniquely his own.
Now’s the time, too. He and his wife Kathleen have just left what he calls with undisguised loathing "the corporate world," cashing in on the hyperinflated Boston-area real-estate market to buy themselves some time in Maine with nothing to do but write — or in Kathleen’s case, pursue yoga; she’s away at a yoga retreat during our interview. Formerly a business and technical writer, she’s now boning up on her skills with an eye toward starting a series of yoga workshops for corporate clients.
"We’ve said grace over every meal since we moved to Portland, because we’re so thankful to be here," Gibbons says as we settle down to what turns out to be an excellent meal of beet soup, broiled scallops, and a salad with shiitake mushrooms. (Gibbons is a big fan of beets, placing great stock in their arsenal of brain-clearing antioxidants. All Matt and I know is that the soup is good as hell.) There’s also a fine smoky Spanish red wine; Matt takes a picture of it for future reference.
Obviously imprinted on Li Po, Gibbons is serious about his wine — he used to write columns for wine magazines, and in 1994 went to the Cannes film festival on Piper-Heidsieck’s dime. It wasn’t his first trip to France; Gibbons has been hitting the continent for 30 years, and has spent time in Mexico as well, along with time in Washington, DC, and several stops in Massachusetts. In Washington, he worked at the library of the National Gallery of Art, and after that it was Northeastern University’s library in Boston — this last employment involving a ferry commute from the South Shore that forms the backdrop for what have to be the best commuting poems in recent American literature.
After 58 years and 51 jobs, Gibbons has taken full advantage of this long-awaited opportunity to write full-time. And lest you think 58 is too late, consider what he has to say on the topic in an email after our interview.
"I’ve had a great life with lots of experiences," he writes, "which would be erased if not re-presented through the validating auspices of language, hopefully Art." He goes on to quote Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: ". . . poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life . . . For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) — they are experiences."
Experience has yielded Gibbons’s new book, Body of Time (see accompanying review), festooned with admiring blurbs from, among others, poetics scholar Marjorie Perloff and National Gallery of Art curator David Anfam. Art is another fruitful source for Gibbons. His poems abound with allusions to everything from Cambodian sculpture to Robert Rauschenberg (who designed the cover of his chapbook Of DC), revealing an ongoing engagement with art as a way to organize the sensory experience of the world. Music, too: Jazz is playing when we sit down to eat, and in Body of Time the poems move to a soundtrack of Chopin, Coltrane, Hugh Masekela, the Temptations, John Cage.
Food, wine, art, music, books: Gibbons brings formidable experience to his work, all of it gained outside the ivory tower that shelters so many poets from the world. His is a fiercely erudite poetry, but Gibbons never lapses into the too-typical rhetoric of the overeducated academy poet. This is quite a trick given the fact that in, for example, "Art, Starting at the Turn of the Century," Gibbons mentions Benjamin, Kristeva, Rilke, Stevens, Williams, Beckett, Duras, Cendrars, Oppenheim, Matisse, and Cartier-Bresson. A roster like this one in a three-paragraph prose poem is practically a recipe for pomposity, but Gibbons wears his learning with an almost proletarian matter-of-factness. The density of allusion in his poems isn’t at all off-putting; rather it spurs a desire in the reader to look again at Matisse, pick up Stevens’s uncollected essays, listen to A Love Supreme.
Put another way: Too often, obvious learning in a poem reads like glib look-ma-no-hands-ness, and it is a tribute to Gibbons’s skill and lack of pretense that he can name-check like a cultural-studies professor one minute and in the next, etch a perfectly detailed portrait-in-motion of a flower girl outside the Old South Meeting House in Boston.
His conversation is the same way. He wants the ideas that are important to him to be important to you, but he’s not an evangelist. If he talks a lot about Kristeva, that’s because he’s been thinking hard about this business of poetry for a long time, and Kristeva has shown him part of the way. And if he says that his poems, intellectual palimpsests every one, are "not conscious" — which he does, more than once — he means it. Thinking about something that John Cage once said about Robert Rauschenberg comes as naturally to Robert Gibbons as lines from Star Wars do to the rest of us. Unlike a great number of self-educated people, though, Gibbons carries the learning, if not lightly, then without self-congratulation. His is a life of the mind, but one dedicated to the exacting pursuit of emotional truth; his Kristeva and Freud and Cixous always return to his own body and the language he makes — language which, he says in an older poem called "Communicating Vessels," is the "direct descendant of the senses."
What a refreshing departure this is from the sterile, gleaming intellectual superstructure built up by run-of-the-mill academic postmodernists. Mulling the odd juxtaposition of his nonacademic background and his deep reading in the theorists who form the backbone of graduate school MA programs, Gibbons seizes on a phrase I used in posting the question. "The expression you used, ‘stars in the firmament,’ " he says. "That’s what they are," above the sublunar political winds that plague college English departments. Gibbons sees a real benefit in his background, although he’s got no axe to grind with the university setting, and he’d like to teach.
Living outside the American campus, though, has framed his reading against the day-to-day experience of life in beyond the leafy groves of academe. In conversation and in his poetry, Gibbons brings everything back to the working mind, the body through which it apprehends the world, and the language it makes in response to that world.
Alex Irvine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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