on Creatures of a Day, poems by Reginald Gibbons (LSU Press)

The eleven-part poem “Fern-Texts” that completes Reginald Gibbon’s eighth book of poems, Creatures of a Day, begins with a passage from the notebooks of Coleridge. This entry from 1804 describes “two sorts of talkative fellows”:

gibbons.jpg“The first sort is of those who use five hundred words more [than] there needs to express an idea – that is not my case … The second sort is of those who use five hundred more ideas, images, reasons &c than there is any need of to arrive at their object till the only object arrived at is that the mind’s eye of the bye-stander is dazzled with colours succeeding so rapidly as to leave one vague impression that there has been a great Blaze of colours all about something. Now this is my case -- & a grievous fault it is … my illustrations swallow up my thesis.”

Nevertheless, Coleridge kept blazing with ambition. Gibbons carries Coleridge’s torch further in Creatures of a Day. In Gibbons’ case, however, there are few vague impressions and many memorable ones – but he shares an objective with Coleridge: not the illumination of a thesis but a great blaze about something. Grievous faults notwithstanding, this is the way both Coleridge and Gibbons want it, a bounty of illustrations depicting the other side of an actual world. The thing on fire is the mind devising language that can both launch and represent its churning thought and emotions.

Talkative fellows enjoy digressing, and discursiveness is their means. Commenting on Berryman’s The Dream Songs in “The Discursive Aspect of Poetry,” Robert Pinsky qualifies the preferences that Gibbons seems to share: “We find that the poet treasures the accomplishment of ‘making your mind known’: not the subject alone, and not simply the subject plus the feelings which find their ‘outlet,’ but both of those along with the mind itself, its way of moving as well as the various grounds which support it on its way.” The mind clarifies itself through an inspired wandering. If there is a “thesis,” it’s This is how you do it. But the huge ambition of Creatures of a Day is based on Gibbons’ insistence that the poet’s voice – even one as voluble as his -- isn’t sufficient context for the poem. If a lyric poem usually speaks to no one in particular, Gibbons assumes an audience that has especially demanding expectations for clarification. So, he provides the figure of the isolated speaker, sponsoring its own authority – but his digressions flow into situations, and we get a sense of a man on the move, not only from the stories set in locations, but from form that accommodates both the acute quickness and extensibility of talk.

Gibbons begins his trek with “Ode: Citizens,” a seven-part poem in which the speaker introduces himself as a Whitmanian character, striding through the American scene. Here is the first section:

In the long shadows of the Chicago mountains, I walk past a very old
woman, she’s tiny, pushing down the sidewalk in the other direction
a grocery-store basket over-filled with her homeless possessions
without price, maybe she’s

She’s the same age as Mother, at the very end, she looks very like Mother,
with the same large, startling, intense and made-up eyes, and she
stares

And stares at me with autumn clarity, and when I look back at her she is
still staring, having stopped and half-turned, but I go on -- instead
of responding to her and asking, “Auntie?”

And asking who she is, asking whom she recognizes in me, taking that
opportunity of a split second to speak to this stranger, but it passes
before I have let myself feel

Fully the impulse to speak, the need to speak, I move on, the distance

The gap between us is too great and I don’t want to turn around and see if
she is still watching me,

Maybe she is, I feel guilty – her existence is knowable but willfully not
known by people like me – yet this is not an aunt of whom I never
knew, nor is it Mother herself as I never knew her,

As I needed to know her, or rather as I needed her to be,

To be knowable to me emotionally,

To be capable of knowing me,

This is an old woman I don’t know who could use twenty dollars and a
different life

A different history

For herself and for everyone,

And for her realness I await no metaphor (they do come when the arteries of
thought are calmly open),

This is not a moment amazingly full of a conversation that has never before
been spoken, a discovery to overturn everything, finally an exchange
of revelations.

gibbons2.jpgThroughout this book, one feels that Gibbons has made a daring leap into expression. The voice is just a bit unhinged, only indirectly revealing the most personal sources of its urgency. He manages to implicate the reader so thoroughly in the speaking that our usual fascination with (envy of?) the star power of persona (flatly or energetically voiced) is set aside. Gibbons achieves this partly by creating the fabulous illusion that the work is more spoken than written, and spoken breathlessly at that. “Ode: Citizens” moves on to a coffee shop and its urban characters, even while the speaker is recalling or envisioning “some village” where a “solitary singer” plays a guitar against resignation. The final section segues to a writing class at a “literacy center.” Having abandoned irony, Gibbons maintains an earnest tone and regards the condition of the city and its citizens with a simmering displeasure for the unnamed looming forces that diminish humanity. In this way, Creatures of a Day joins Anne Winters’ The Displaced of Capital as the two most recent, ardent books of poems preoccupied with social welfare.

There are five such odes in Creatures of a Day, prosy and episodic. In between them Gibbons places some thirteen other pieces that pace down the page with the determined rhythm of the city walker. “Where the moon light angles through” is a Chicago loop cityscape that considers the lives of workers. It begins:

Where moon light angles
through the east-west streets,
down among the old-
for-America
tall buildings that changed
the streets of other
cities, circulate
elevated trains
overhead shrieking
and drumming, lit by
explosions of sparks
that harm no one, and
the shadowed persons
walking underneath
the erratic waves –
not of the lake but
of noise – move through fog

These poems of observation and rue are further enhanced by poems reflecting more personally on the passage of time and recollection of youth. In the eighth part of that final piece, “Fern-Texts,” Gibbons quotes Coleridge who writes, “I feel too intensely the omnipresence of all in each, platonically speaking – or psychologically my brain fibres, or the spiritual Light which abides in the brain marrow as visible Light appears to do in sundry rotten mackerel & other smashy matters, is of too general affinity with all things – and tho’ it perceives the difference of things, yet is eternally pursuing the likenesses, or rather that which is common.” Coleridge here registers the excited doubts of a new stylist working between the pull of poles: integration and separation. Gibbons’ pins down this gesture: “But Coleridge / locates moral lapsing in / the very reverie to / which he is himself inclined, while / at the same time he grasps how / he needs such streamy thinking / to form himself as a man / with a conscience pained by his / own failings.” This is the pain Gibbons voices.

Creatures of a Day is in effect a sort of autobiography, since it covers his youth in Texas, his tutelage as a writer, his life in the city and the neighborhood, and his role as teacher. The personal memories are told with the same weight and tone of the urban tales. This allows the reader to make a surprising transit between the personal and the social.

“Celebration” finds the speaker once again in a diner or restaurant, now encountering a blind man. Streamy thinking helps him get at the moral lapses. Here are the final lines:

Our hunger feeds on wit-
ness, wants to sit down with
friends and allies. Even
while eating by myself
I feel a welcome I
had not expected, and
after he has his word
I want to give a friend
who works and comes here blind
from his hard good thought bread.

The warping of syntax at the end (the delay of "bread") is caused by the willfully freed force of a hard good thought, the filling in of a moral lapse. In tussling with language, new linkages occur, and therefore, possibility. There are sequences in Creatures of a Day where Gibbons speaks directly about the tussle, though he may do so in the middle of a reminiscence, as in “Ode: Sometimes there’s neither sun nor shadow,” where he says:

A name-word may be a changeable word and a false name, flashing like an
escaping fish – but after having struggled to find it, even sometimes
to catch it bare-handed, I am not going to give it up.

I am not going to wish that every thing in the world might be returned to its
maiden name

(There’s always an earlier one, in all languages the old new words wait in
irregular ranks to be said once more,

And not even they are capable of voicing all the relations

Of selves to themselves and to each other and to the things we hear and see.)

But I do wish for a better unforgetting.

In “My Herakleitos,” an elegy, Gibbons writes, “we labor at fine details as / though with mouse-whisker brushes, like / Persian painters long / forgotten – because / in this way we revive some- / thing old that we believe to /be always good.” This “something” in Gibbons’ world is under siege by a general social condition of crude uncaring – but as in Anne Winters’ poetry, it’s the salvaging and revival of language that matters, or at least, this is the moral act most achievable by a Gibbons or a Winters. There is in both poets the urge to shed the trappings of class in the Oppen-esque way, through a naked wrestling with words. In “Ode: I had been reading ancient Greeks” Gibbons writes, “The possible outcomes of choices already made make up the world of real conditions now // But I can’t make all the connections.” The point is actually quite banal, but this is what a man thinks and has thought since the first choice was made and recognized as such. Gibbons ventures such blurtings because when he says “We can’t connect things when we hear the news,” it sounds utterly true.

Back to “Fern-Texts” now, where Gibbons provides what amounts to an unconventional recapitulation of and gloss on everything attempted in his book. Wordsworth and Coleridge recognize “a poem needs no appeal / to divine sanction, nor to / an aristocratic nor / even a middle-class sense / of propriety, it needs / image and narration, it / needs the evocation of / another human being / in individuated / encounter, the poem needs a / conviction of uniqueness / and a tone of voice as if / whispering praise and sorrow … / that pleasingly confounds ex- / pectation.” A few sections later, Gibbons speaks of “what poetry is now / like,” a shrewd commentary. Here’s just a taste: ”(Fragmenting itself while / murmuring at a full-length / mirror, or conditioning / its hair, or failing to raise / the heavy beams of as yet / uncreated consciousness …”)

Writing this piece, I’m just barely catching up with the experience of reading Creatures of a Day. Robert Pinsky often says that when one reads a poem aloud, he or she becomes a column of air. Reading “Ode: Samaritan” silently, I virtually stopped breathing. It takes a while to recover from work this accomplished and riveting.

[Published March 2008, 88 pp., $45.00/$16.95]