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Jason Irwin: A Stillness Nearly Mineral | The poetry of Robert Gibb

Sightlines by Robert Gibb

Press Americana, March 22, 2021

Artist, writer and philosopher, John Berger wrote “We never look at just one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” Robert Gibb does just that in Sightlines, his new collection of poetry (winner of the 2019 Prize Americana). He not only searches for a connection that ties him and in turn we the readers, to these artists and their works and the greater world, he immersive himself through a precise and unsparing, lyrical voice. 

We journey through an exhibit of the great whales at the Carnegie museum, where the speaker and his sons “studied scrimshaw, the stiffened bristles of baleen,” and to the Golden Circle in Stockholm, where jazz great, Ornette Coleman, wearing a top hat and space goggles, stares into the lens of a photographer from Rolling Stone. In a section that pays homage to Audubon and his Birds of America, we spy a turkey vulture “dark as the plumes on a hearse,” who crouches in a “gallows tree” looking for food. We even meet the poet as a young art student at Kutztown State College where he learns the principles of perspective, as his teacher beacons him “Don’t look. See.” as he “traces veins of crackle, fine as the sable-haired tip of your bush.” 

Having met Robert Gibb a few years back and shared beers with him on occasion, I made a word/phrase list while preparing this review that seemed appropriate for Gibb as a poet and a man, and in particular the poems of this powerful collection. Among them are Here Precision, Votive, Aperture, Brush Strokes, Articulation, Gardener, Gentleness, Truth, Love. 

In previous collections Gibb, most known for his Homestead Works Cycle, has also dealt with and delved deep into the visual arts, as well as nature. He has remained true to these themes in Sightlines, working with an almost monastic discipline like a gardener, or archeologist, sifting and pruning, until he finds the core meaning; the best possible combination of words, sounds and rhythms. Take “Cloud Chronicle,” a poem in three parts dedicated to the works of painter John Constable, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and conceptual artist Berndnuat Smilde. In the first section Gibb writes about a painting Constable did above Hampstead Heath. 

Modeled curds of cumulus, wisps
Of fleece, the cloudburst brushstrokes

Cloning rain. A world on display
From the ground up, disembodied

As our thoughts

In the poem’s third section, writing about Smilde, who applies water vapor, smoke, and lighting to conjure clouds in indoor settings, Gibb writes: 

Confectioned for only seconds on the air.
Solitary shapes “people can give

Meaning to,” he hopes, seeing
The spirit’s little airships if they like,

Of the cirrus of breath on a mirror
Ghosting the glass till our passing.

In “Homage To W. Eugene Smith,” Gibb not only surveys Smith’s Pittsburgh series, but the artist himself.  In “Umbrellas, sidewalk outside Mellon National Bank” he writes 

A common- 
Enough observation, that time stands still 
In a photograph, and yet in it the present
Always turns into the past.

Could not the same be said for Gibb’s poetry?

In part four, speaking of Smith’s photo essay “Labyrinthian Walk,” he writes “To build a city of terraces and stairs, populated by the shapes of its light. And in Smith’s own words: The infinite mistake of Pittsburgh does not take from the fact that the set of photographs is among my finest.” 

Could the poems in Sightlines, “Juxtaposed with the brushwork of a painter,” be among Gibb’s finest work? 

Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting, photograph, or sculpture, ekphrastic poem attempt to amplify and expand its meaning or the art, to put into words what dazzles the eyes. In a sense the poet acts like a kind of middleman, or a priest who interprets scripture for his followers. Without having easy and instant accessibility to the artwork itself, unless we the readers Google each piece as we read, we only receive the poet’s rendering, secondhand information at best; a rumor of something seen in a far-off land. 

In the end these poetic elegies, these “soliloquys of light,” that transform daily routines into a ceremony, are much more than exercises in ekphrasis. Through Gibb’s sublime verse we travel alongside the poet to these far-off lands. Instead of making grandiose statements he makes inquiries, like the eternal student that he is. He also surprises us, leading us down paths we may not be prepared to travel. Take “Intro to Art History” for example. In this poem we are not simply told what the poet sees as he stands before Gibb, acting as Virgil, who led Dante through the layers of hell, leads us the reader into the depth of that terrifying and surreal world of Matthias Grunewald’s Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Who but
A saint would be tempted
By a vision as gruesome as this,

With its antlered goblin
And cudgeled-wielding hawk,
The belly-up frog being flailed
By a mad half-naked rider…

And then comes the turn or surprise that puts Gibb himself, and in turn us, in Saint Anthony’s place as he asks:

What, if instead of that host,
Of grotesques, he saw lovers
In their petal-covered bed,
Almond as moonlit Jerusalem

This turn, this inclusion, this reimagining instills these poems with a power far beyond description. 

For me, three lines from “The Hoppers in the Whitney Catalogue” sum up this fine collection. 

A stillness which is very nearly mineral
Keeps insisting upon the essential
Loneliness with which this light is filled.

There is after all, something elemental and mineral about Robert Gibb’s poetry, something essential. They flicker like flames in the darkness, luring us in, seducing us with every turn of the page. In these poems Gibb is acutely aware of his own and our collective mortality, that one day all of us, the poems, paintings, photographs, and giant whales will be gone like a fistful of wind. Until then of course, we can practice “voluptuous looking,” and hopefully we’ll discover something new about ourselves and the world each time. 

Copyright 2021 Jason Irwin

The lines of poetry quoted here are from Sightlines, copyright 2021 Robert Gibb. All rights reserved.

Jason Irwin’s collections of poetry include A Blister of Stars (Low Ghost Press, 2016).

Robert Gibb

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