Graywolf Press. 96 pages. 2013

Graywolf Press. 96 pages. 2013

You could say Dobby Gibson knows how to turn a phrase. He also knows how to vivisect a phrase; make it erupt, flex, heel, or soothe; or force it to devour itself at a moment of his choosing. If you consider Gibson’s writing more panoramically, phrase is as much a meditative stance as it is a grammatical element. The accrual of aphorisms, epigrams, axioms, quips, gibes, and queries creates an intellectual pulse, a rhythm of thought, complemented by the lyrical complexities at which he is, thankfully, adept.
 
His poems are often associative but purposeful. The skinny-jeans-and-Instagram set can get behind his irreverence, irony, and energy. Prim owls of the academy will be pleased by his technical competence and wisdom, which many folks these days regard as something quaint (to their peril). Here’s an example of what I mean, from the beginning of the poem “Infinite Familiar”:
 
          The crow flies in the sky.
          What flies in the crow we do not know.
          The woman in a black turtleneck waves her hands,
          forever one sentence behind,
          furiously translating the president’s speech for the deaf.
          The man in a Mauer jersey waves his hands,
          standing in front of the publicly financed stadium’s
          touchless hand-towel dispenser,
          thinking of the sounds his son’s school makes,
          windows of black garbage bags rippling in the wind.
          The crow flies in the sky.
          Or does the sky fly the crow?
          There’s that sound a cloud makes when there’s a propeller inside.
          There’s the sound of a hedge fund manager
          cursing the broken air conditioning on his yacht.
 
There’s a lot tucked away inside those fifteen lines. Gibson’s speaker is unhurried and graceful as he moves from sentiment to sentiment, image to image, and idea to idea, while still managing to cover a good stretch of ground. The almost godlike tone initiated in the first two lines is finessed as we receive observations that are very much grounded in plain living. Part of what Gibson does so well is to create tonal complexities where omniscient proclamation and workaday awareness live side by side. This sort of ambition usually results in a speaker that comes off as fractured, schizophrenic, or simply dumb. Instead, Gibson gives us a speaker fully formed, as comfortable when talking sports as he is when ruminating on epistemology.
 
Habitual readers of Gibson’s poetry will remember the “Fortune” poems from his second book, Skirmish, when they come across “40 Fortunes,” a numbered sequence of statements trying to be pithy and playful. It’s not a bad poem, but it isn’t memorable either, and the book deflates somewhat at that section and likely wouldn’t suffer if it were excised. I felt the same way about the “Fortune” poems in Skirmish, so perhaps with “40 Fortunes” Gibson has finally gotten this out of his system.
 
Let’s circle back to turning phrases—Gibson often introduces vocabulary and ideas, immediately recasting them to broaden the scope, undermine assumptions, tap into mystery, or express wit:
 
          If you have more than you can move,
          is that the definition of having
          more than you deserve?
 
          .   .   .
 
          We can barely see the headlights
          beautiful through the snow,
          and then we can just barely see the snow.
 
          .   .   .
 
          In my latest version of the truth,
          we have to give up
          to learn what we have to give up.
 
          .   .   .
 
          Now that we’re under the influence
          of having been under the influence,
          the shadow of one blade of the ceiling fan,
          we can relax and wonder whether
          this is how the infinite begins
 
The quotes above are pulled from four different poems, and the book contains many more examples. I’m not sure how to feel about the prevalence of the device. On their own or within the context of their respective poems, such moments stand firm. But you notice how frequently the strategy is deployed throughout. Whether or not it bothers you will depend on your general mood at the time. The pity would be if Gibson starts to overuse this thing he is very good at, rather than amassing other tools and methods.
 
It would be neglectful to comment on the book without mentioning the title poem, “It Becomes You,” a longer piece that takes up the final section. In his debut collection, Polar, Gibson included two poems that spread themselves out a bit–the sequence “Solstice” and the closing poem “Great Plain.” Neither is as compelling, alluring, well wrought, entertaining, or attuned to the present as “It Becomes You,” and those were pretty decent poems, especially “Solstice.” “It Becomes You” wrestles with the various versions of self we construct and pokes at their authenticity. It isn’t a witch hunt; the speaker is genuinely invested in making sense of our personal and social guises. The speaker also takes on the social constructs we inhabit. He knows the culture that spawned him. I honestly can’t name many poets, besides Gibson, who can approach the topics of bureaucracy, economy, and cultural identity without sounding like he’s drafting rally cries for a sit-in. This is due in part to how we’re allowed into the speaker’s consciousness, a product of the poet’s style, multifaceted intelligence, and generosity. His speaker is charming, mischievous, and humorous, and remains profound without getting over-serious.
 
While listening to a talk radio program once, I heard a featured guest, a priest I think, make the point that we live in the “information age,” not the “wisdom age.” It’s an important distinction, one which Gibson tackles with mirthful ferocity. With It Becomes You, Gibson has emerged as an astute chronicler of the American ethos. He also remains a versatile translator of our existential mysteries. If you aren’t already reading his poems, you should be.
 
 
 
 
 
PETER B. HYLAND is the author of the poetry collection Out Loud, to be be published by Sheep Meadow Press in the fall of 2013. He is also the author of the chapbook Elegy to the Idea of a Child (Trilobite Press), and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Literary Review, Conduit, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and other fine journals and magazines. He and his family live in Houston, Texas, where he earns a living as a director of development at the Menil Collection.

Peter B. Hyland

Peter B. Hyland is director of the Jo Ann (Jody) & Dr. Charles O. Onstead Institute for Education in the Visual Arts & Design at the University of North Texas, and he serves as an assistant editor for the literary magazine upstreet. He is the author of the poetry collection Out Loud (Sheep Meadow Press), and his poems have also appeared in various journals—including Green Mountains Review, New England Review, and Ploughshares—with new work forthcoming in The McNeese Review.