Review of Skirmish by Dobby Gibson
Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2009
It is not true that there is a shortage of poetry being written in America today. The stuff is all over the place, common as corn syrup, and much of it is, to say the least, inessential. Even so, sometimes a book of poems appears that immediately distinguishes itself, like a truffle in a heap of styrofoam peanuts. Such a book is Dobby Gibson’s Skirmish, one to remind weary readers why poetry is needed and to justify its proliferation.
Mind you, Skirmish isn’t for the squeamish. The title challenges readers to a bout of verbal sparring, and the book follows through. Be advised that these poems are agile, lean, and smart, and they hit hard. How will you read them without getting hurt? “To survive the blow, first lean into the impact, / then simply live as if the wound had been there all along” (“Puncture”). In addition to that advice, you’ll need stamina and alertness to keep up with Gibson’s adroit associative flights of language and thought.
Skirmish’s cover art features a deep-sea diver’s mask, which is appropriate because Gibson is like a diver who descends beneath the surface of contemporary experience and brings up submerged treasures. The poem “For an Object to Float, It Must Displace Matter Equal to Its Weight” ends with the lines, “When a dolphin dies, / it can take hours to rise to the surface, / which is where the hungry gulls / know to wait.” But readers need not wait hours for sustenance from Gibson; he’s always sending forth morsels. He has something to say, and he wants to be understood. His style is witty, brisk, and urbane. He uses standard American syntax, eschewing extremes of linguistic experimentation, focusing a reader’s attention on content before presentation.
Gibson lives in Minneapolis, where the winters get cold enough to kill. That’s probably a factor in the poet’s being forever in fighting trim. It also may partly account for the empathy and authority with which he can write, “The lost explorers and sled dogs still preserved intact / beneath sixty decades of snow know / something about this window’s transparent insistence / on framing the crippling distance” (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). It’s worth pointing out, in this context, that Gibson’s other book is entitled Polar. Reviewing that volume in this journal in 2005, Daniel Nester name-dropped Wallace Stevens, and the same comparison seems apt in the case of Skirmish. (Another name that comes up not infrequently in connection with Gibson is Frank O’Hara’s.) However, where, according to Nestor, Stevens’ final book The Rock is a predecessor to Polar, it’s the early Stevens who seems to hover over this second collection, the spare and spooky Stevens of, say, “The Snow Man.” Consider, for instance, the beginning of Skirmish’s “Limerence”:
The houses aren’t speaking
to one another and neither is that
which lives within them, the stillness,
the already spoken for,
the speechless saying nothing
like a congregation to which everything
bears repeating, every one thing known
or even merely suspected to be: the snow,
which we knew was coming,
the snow that we never thought would be gone.
The philosophical bent of that passage is characteristic. Like too few of his peers, Gibson is metaphysically fit, unafraid of ideas. Skirmish squares off against the quotidian, announcing, “Whatever you love most / is just another thing for me to bonk my head on” (“What It Feels Like to Be This Tall”).
The great philosophers agree that when the wheel of fortune makes a revolution, not everyone will wind up on top. Reminding people of this is one of poetry’s proper functions. A series of poems all entitled “Fortune” thus threads its way through Skirmish. These bursts of eloquent non-sequiturs (e.g., “The plot unfolds into mystery. / The couch unfolds into a bed”), apart from sharing a name, have little obvious connection with one another. Yet eventually, the self-contained snapshots of sinister cityscapes and suspicious neighbors accumulate obliquely to constitute something like an extended meditation upon the theme of “Fortune” and its workings, a theme that links Skirmish to literary history but does so with ironic indirection.
Speaking of fortunes, poetry has never been a way to make one. Perhaps especially now, when there’s just so much of it, as discussed above. So I suppose we readers are lucky that smart, talented, hardworking folks like Dobby Gibson choose to spend their valuable time making poems. As it is written in “Upon Turning 35,” “We weren’t born in innocence, / we were born in blood and suffering, / so every second counts. / I can barely get it all down.” Iconoclastic yet demotic, funny and profound, Gibson is the prophet in the post-industrial Midwestern wilderness that America needs now. Look, there, in the dooryard, aren’t those lilacs?