Review – Robert Gibbons, Body of Time


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 109 in 2004.

Near the end of Robert Gibbons' noteworthy new book of prose poems, Body of Time, he makes the avowal, "I knew early on I wouldn't write until I could live in the moment." On the surface, this simply says he taught himself to be observant, but read in the context of his accomplishments, it signals his belief (embodied in his poetry) that each of his days contains a hidden collage, an imbrication of geographical, situational, dream-imaged, literary-artistic elements that, if properly apprehended, fit together in a neat and unexpected package.

Since he lives near the ocean and makes a daily commute on the Boston Harbor ferry, much of his writing touches on the ocean. As I'm suggesting, his poetry is not the epiphanic notation of nature in the manner of William Carlos Williams, but the coordination of a glimpse of the sea or sky with a spontaneously arising link to a cultural marker. For instance, in "Today I Want to Shape It a Bit Differently," the poet is wandering along a newly reconstructed shore barrier where two cranes have been "Shoring up the wall with huge glacial erratics," when he comes upon a lone, nicked indentation in the stone, which reminds him of a "'mihrab,' the single alcove built into the walls of churches in Byzantium," and this leads into some pregnant reflections on art in general and his bricolaged style of verse in particular.

As one moves through the book, the reader finds that Gibbons' reach for these interlaced moments is not to be confused with the exercises of an aesthete; but, rather, are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to canceling an unpleasant mood or situation. In "The Boat in the Sky Sailed Past," to take one example, the author is worried by a dilemma. He notes, "I'd wrestled with the problem for hours to no avail." A surprise, timely linkage to an image of Dionysos gives him surcease.

Those familiar with the Confucian strands of classical Chinese verse will see nothing unusual in Gibbons' procedures, for these older writers, too, sought for imaginative correspondences in everyday life, though for quite different reasons. The Confucian perspective turned upon a belief that "tien" (heaven) made sure all realms, from human to vegetable, moved in harmony, and the enlightened writer would be able to highlight these flows. Such beliefs are not available to Westerners. However, in Body of Time – and this is what makes the book a major advance over Gibbons' two previous collections, in which he merely presented his exquisite collages without explanation -- here he fills in an intellectual background.

Something of the reason for his devotion to this art is established in powerful and demanding, "London Long Beach LA Watts Compton." This poem describes a visit he and a girlfriend made in 1974 to the site where the Symbionese Liberation Army (a small revolutionary group that had kidnapped the socialite Patty Hearst) was cornered in the Compton ghetto; its last remnants burned alive by the LAPD. Gibbons' sad, sharp notes on this misguided (on both sides) carnage makes it easy to see why he and his friend are fleeing the U.S. In those days, "you could see the stink coming from the fish running the ship of state... one did well to leave." It is also easy to imagine why he has embarked on this lonely crusade to chisel an edifice of moments. For, something I haven't revealed, most of the unpleasant moods or situations his poems help him endure are not interpersonal troubles but those caused by the constants slights of a life-denying system. In one poem, he describes how his family had "just left the theater where the shallows of the B-movie script played out as badly as it could." In others, he is touched by homelessness, poverty, war or and the lack of civility in quotidian life.

In his verse, Gibbons sees things others miss, extracting gains from the ruins of powerlessness in which the average citizen lives, offering, then, a therapeutics for the public sphere.