Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.
Robert Gibbons, Beyond Time: New and Selected Work, 1977-2007
(Amherst, NY: Trivium Publications, 2008)
Review by Jim Feast
After Adorno had fled Germany to escape the Nazis and spent years in Hollywood where he learned firsthand how the film industry molded audiences as surely (if less insidiously) than the fascists, he came to the conclusion that art was almost the only refuge and solace for political radicals in a time when progressivism was absent or in retreat. Such an idea is very helpful when it comes to interpreting Robert Gibbons’ new collection, Beyond Time, in which he sutures a stance similar to Adorno’s to a special feeling for temporality.
Let me underline, up front, Gibbons appraisal of the current political situation. He writes, “What I ruminated about, instead, was our own country and possibly the world at large, bereft of the will to protest at mass levels that are able to touch even the foundations of those holding insuperable-invulnerable power at the top.” Much earlier in his life, during Nixon’s presidency, he reacted to the U.S. government’s insensitivity and trampling on citizens’ rights by moving to Mexico. This story is told in his moving “London Long Beach LA Watts Compton,” in which he describes how, as a valedictory gesture before leaving California, he and his companion drive to the still smoking ruins of the houses of the SLA, the group that had kidnapped Patti Hearst. He depicts the scene:
An empty space in the middle of all these houses constructed exactly alike, little four-room boxes. … The empty space was a curious thing. How could something, a structure, a replica of all we’d seen while driving for the past three-quarters of an hour, just disappear?
Now, for any number of poems in this volume, the background is this. Having returned to the U.S. from exile, he has hunkered down in a job as a low-level functionary in a library, working on his solitary craft, unprotected by the guarding hedges and privileges offered those poets, who like members of a high-end Hollywood, celebrate America’s spirit and are well-rewarded for it. He struggles with a daily commute to a job where, as he explains to someone, “I told him how difficult it was for me … when they kept me from writing on my computer at work.”
How does one not only survive but find enriched experience in such numbing circumstances? Adorno, we’ve seen, would recommend as a consolation the immersion in high art, and this is part way to a solution for Gibbons, but the poet splices to this a more experiential dimension. With great brilliance, in Some Versions of Pastoral, William Empson has described a particular way of treating time that he noticed in some of the English Romantics and that is particularly applicable here. Empson states, “The favourite theme of Shelley and Keats [is] that the poet obtains a vision of external extrahuman beauty for an instant, by magic, at great cost, and then faints back to the normal life of the world.”
Gibbons makes such a moment of intense aesthetic/emotional bonding with a work of art or passage of nature less an esoteric and rare event, letting it become the theme of his writing, in which he captures and memorializes such key instants, “beyond time,” using the prose poem as a paint brush to set down a glowing record.
For him, only a person willing to forego normal American pleasures, one that are filled with distracting busyness and spectacle, will be able to find these deeper, exalted states, which come about in three ways. One, by the thoughtful, artless, selfless appreciation of a strong piece of music, painting (he especially favors works of Goya), poem or other creation.
In front of [artist] Anselm Keifer’s Sefer Hechaloth, made of oil, straw, metal & burned books on canvas, I was stunned that ashes had rained down from eight books onto the bottom frame jutting out for just that purpose.
Two, comes from noting beautiful confluences of water, woods, brush, atmosphere, animal life or other configurations of nature, things chanced during long walks.
On the ground by the tree trunk’s roots, two fish-shaped stones wander in the direction of the sea as resolutely quiet as this solitude
(As an aside, let me mention, how he describes the value of wandering. “The method for poets who walk, the Whitmans, the Olsons, well, we’re out there for a reason, & it’s not the shortest distance between two points, but labyrinthine meanderings, looking up down & around for nothing in particular.”)
The third way of reaching a higher-plane moment, found in the city, is through a fleeting glimpse, perhaps the vision of a lovely immigrant passing in the street, the play of light off a façade or an overheard fragment of speech.
I had a big smile going on, which brought out a certain amount of consternation from folks in the middle rows of the bus, while those in the back were too far away to get distracted over that. Two African women in their hospital blues & name tags were riding the crest of happiness, gratitude for both the end of a seven to three shift & and a chance to riff in rhythms their native language offered.
In the end, we can say he describes a paradoxical use of leisure time, ending with, chronologically, the description of a period living in Portland, Maine. Gibbons seems to have more free time to play with in this city, and so reaches many more intense apexes while, on the side, offering a stunning portrait of a place that is often chilly (meteorologically), downbeat, sometimes squalid, and frequently holds out an aching, tinselly beauty, its skirts filled with fishing boats and lobstermen.
The paradox in this use of leisure is that Gibbons only receives true emotional nourishment in off hours that are used strenuously and vigorously, that is, with constant attunement to the unexpected signals of everyday life.