In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines a poet’s elegiac eleventh book.
After by Robert Gibb
Marsh Hawk Press
$15, 98 pages
published March 2017
In “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones,” one of his last great poems, the oft-neglected master Robinson Jeffers shows an uncharacteristic vulnerability. Reeling from the death of his beloved wife and muse Una, Jeffers yearns for the “dense green laurel” and “sweet wind” that make a sanctuary for deer where their hunting wounds slowly claim them. Lyrical and intimate, Jeffers’s engagement with nature’s ancient pulse—its amorality, its indifference to human suffering, its sublime beauty and ability to comfort—render the poem haunting yet tender. Robert Gibb’s After, selected by Mark Doty as winner of the 2016 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize, inhabits this same emotional space, where the poet confronts the powerlessness that death and nature both magnify. Tracing the arc of a mourning year from one spring to the next, After catalogs a widower’s private journey through grief, the changing seasons, and the lessons of naturalism, and the result is one of this year’s most moving books.
Though some of Gibb’s poems directly engage the confessional urge to write of memory and loss, most express an understated loneliness that grays the book’s weather. Among the former, the devastating couplets of “On Not Telling Anyone at the Bar” remain most compelling upon successive readings, as the speaker ponders the solace and pang found at a local tavern after his wife’s passing. Since he “could not find a place for her death there/In the auspices of gossip, small talk, and jokes,” the bereaved husband, upon each visit, does nothing to dissuade friends from assuming his ill spouse has stayed home. This fibbing-by-omission takes on greater resonance when the reader learns, near the end of the poem, that this same bar was the speaker’s immediate retreat the very day his wife died, where, burdened with his own crushing sorrow, he weighed how to break the news to his children:
I sat there, Ash Wednesday, after saying goodbye,
Wondering how to tell our children, trying to shake
My way free of the vision of her bleeding away,
Head strapped in the halo of the aspirator’s brace.
At the bar a forehead with its thumb-smudged cross.
Ashes like the urn-full I’d bring home in a box.
It is a testament to Gibb’s poetic restraint that this sort of direct engagement with heartbrokenness, poignant and explosive as it is, doesn’t overwhelm. More common are poems like “Endgame in August,” a subdued reflection that details August’s requisite melancholy (“ruin is what awaits us soon enough”) and the widower’s task of maintaining a home and garden alone. Fascinatingly, the poem morphs into a meditation on poison ivy—particularly its violent potential to awaken the body—and how one of the speaker’s noble marital duties was to spare his wife from contact with the dreaded plant. Its closing couplets echo Robert Hayden’s famous line about “love’s austere and lonely offices,” where lament crescendos into a bald question’s sting:
In Zionsville I was brought to this through love,
The flashpoint of my wife’s allergies.
I knelt before the raspberries and lilac tree,
The scrawled, naked stalks of the privet,
Hoping to keep her from such ravishment,
My cuffed wrists prickling with sweat.
Days I spent, yanking out the mangy vines,
Trying to avoid the touch of that caustic
Which touches off eruptions from the skin.
Just as I’m doing now at another house,
Though what else will ravish it?
Wary of self-absorption, After reveals a widening gaze, where the poet casts the self’s smallness against the mystic grandeur of nature. Majestic and vivid, the two pseudo-sonnets that comprise “Arboretum” verge on pure music in their rapturous descriptions of a sweet bay and flowering dogwood. The lengthy narrative “Snow Days,” which treks through the “powder/on top of pack and nowhere to put it” during a Pennsylvania winter, takes on the force of a solemn allegory as the speaker digs out “beneath the hard frost of the stars.” One of the strongest poems in the collection, “Teasel” explores “the understory of the leaves” that, through the power of metaphor, becomes “the little grotto of light/which looks cool and sheltered/as the inside of a jewel.” Studying this vibrant plant during “the exhaustions of August” leads the speaker to contemplate a recent birthday, the inevitable self-pity of growing older, and the mysterious way beauty sustains us in our darkest hours. The teasel’s “stiff burst on a stem” not only graces the book’s cover as a totem of endurance, but by the poem’s closing tercets, becomes a potent symbol of surviving loss:
Seeing it then I might even repeat
My prayer for the burning earth,
The dust in rising columns
And light like gusts of heat.
I might even walk out again
Around these streets,
Remembering the way the dry sky
Flashed and darkened, rain
Stripped me of that feeling
Of standing there squandered,
Futureless in the drought.
Throughout, Gibb’s sonorous consonance and muscular lines remain notable strengths. Take, for example, this opening couplet from the third and final section of “Specimen Days” describing hornworms on cemetery leaves: “Plush upholstered hungers slung along/The undersides of stems on which they slung.” In “Late Hours,” a quiet poem about re-reading Moby Dick, Gibb describes the sea as “that furnace darkness cut” and famed Ishmael as “tiller of the midnight helm.” Ebullient and bright, “Spring Sequence” ends the book on a hopeful note, and maintains richness and fluidity despite its long lines, such as these in the poem’s second section:
March thaw—the vultures on the updrafts like flakes of ash,
The forsythia in their little haze of yellows by the road.
Daffodils and lilacs. And just this morning, along the creek,
I saw skunk cabbage, the dark mottled flames of their spathes.
Few poems in After lack command and refinement. “Joining the Debate” meditates on the naming of flowers, but each of its three short sections ends abruptly, feeling more like notebook sketches than realized segments in a sequence. A similar fragmentation hinders “April Journal,” a prosaic and at times aphoristic poem where brief flashes of brilliance remain more interesting than the larger work itself. “Larry,” a folksy narrative about a neighbor’s penchant for wild mushrooms, stalls at mere quaintness, stopping short of exploring the two intriguing tensions that arise: Larry’s wife finds mushrooms repulsive, and though he doesn’t hunt, he enjoys the gifts of venison that result from granting land privileges to those who do. These concerns aside, After endures as a stirring testament, where the erratic tumult of grief slowly dissipates, giving way to renewed purpose and the larger miracle found in turning one’s hands to the earth. In these pages, Robert Gibb’s extraordinary gifts bloom wonder from an impossible ache.