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Robert Gibbons (with a preface by Claire Barbetti), Body of Time (Pittsburgh: Mise Publications, 2004, $29.95, xii + 193 pages, ISBN 0-9749086-0-6)—Camelia Elias, Aalborg University


Time and time again the prose poem holds for the reader a promise of affiliation. Not only does the prose poem triangulate between relations of genre: prose, poetry, the prose poem, but also between configurations of dualities between past and present. The prose poem situates itself in a paradoxical relation to genre and time insofar as it makes claims to being at the same time affiliated to neither, yet belonging to both. At least this seems to be the case in Robert Gibbons’s latest collection of prose poems, Body of Time.

Entangled Anticipations: On Timing the Body
Gibbons’s book—which comprises six chapters: “Body of Time”, “Time on Water”, “An Abandoned Time”, “When time is no Solution”, “Painting the Length of Time” and “Closing Time”—ponders the nature of anticipating time and its potential to be affiliated with re-configurations of the present moment through the lens of things past. In Gibbons’s book time anticipates the reactions of the body to the passing of moments and events. The body in turn also anticipates time in a moment of affiliation with writing and reading. Writing time through the body means, for Gibbons, writing at the margins of inspiration. The poem “Close Reading” illustrates that much:

Bone, skin, teeth, hair, all about to fall down or out. The rest of the organs comporting themselves as if age were extraneous. Opposing someone’s gossip, or whispers of their weekly book club, I’m lining up my great ones: Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Rilke, to see the relevance they give fracture, wrinkle, ache, loss, in a larger scheme of things. It’s close to an exhumation, reading the lips of the dead, their final sighs, last articulations of life. What I’ve gotten from them so far is that ink & blood are nearly equal. [6]

Body of Time links time and the body through acts of reading and writing, and time’s relationship to the body is not just mediated through reading but reading closely. Gibbons’s prose poems are closely affiliated with ideas about the ways in which language expresses both time and the body. It is for this reason that the collection is also generous in quoting others’ words. We find an abundance of epigraphs which either accompany individual poems or mark the shift to a new chapter. For instance the epigraph from Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing reads: “Since you read with your body, your body paragraphs.” Here, what Gibbons sets out to demonstrate is that the body not only reads but also organizes writing. We thus have poems whose titles indicate a desire for structural hierarchy: “Headlines,” “Parallel Lines,” “List of References,” “The Little Phrase,” “Elliptical Cryptic Fragments Stand in for Entire Philosophical Tracts,” “Untitled.” These poems are concerned with how reading anticipates writing, writing anticipates time, and time anticipates not only the creation of the body but also the body’s creations, including writing. Body of Time revolves around writing and its relation to the metaphorical and metonymic body: the body is like time and stands for time.

The body of references to writers, literary theorists, art critics, and composers functions as a creative source for the way in which literature’s aesthetic qualities are anticipated by the reader. Gibbons’s poems represent a moment of triangulation between the past (marked by the body which reads what has been written before) and the present (marked by the time which it takes the body to go through the reading). The future is present in the dreams that the speaker of the poems often has. Dreams mediate between what is left unsaid and what is said and cover the distance between presence and absence. “Distance and Absence” is a poem which seems to anticipate an epitaph for the dream about death:

Waiting. Again, waiting. For her, again. For five days, clock, watch, enemies. Waiting, especially at night, cannot close the gaps of distance or absence. Distance: no real voice, cell phone be damned! Absence: no flesh. Until the last dawn is up: alone, waiting. Of course, one prefers to wait alone. At times, when both elements of waiting, distance & absence, so resemble death, it is as if one attends a funeral vigil. One stands, kneels, sits, lies down, waiting, akin to death. [15]

Time which is anticipated also marks a future, in Gibbons’s case, not a future that is abstract but one that is physical and tangible. The first poem presents us with such a relation. “The Physical Universe,” accompanied by an epigraph from Henry Miller which reads: “Once the sacred character of the body is recognized the cosmos wheels into line,” makes a statement about the need to reformulate paradoxes: “Wind pushing light all over the place outside. The cold another wall. Physicists now say the universe is limitless, all theory must be reformulated” [3]).

The first chapter of Gibbons’s book is thus concerned with measuring distances between mechanical time and body time. The first is a notion which emphasizes exactitude and rigidity while the latter is more flimsy, fluent, and fabulous. The body is anthropomorphized, given agency, endowed with intelligence and wit, manipulated, and put into submission. Gibbons’s body first listens and then learns, and these two processes make the body a body of time. Time teaches the body about entanglement with seasons—time is not just something that bodies pass—and the body influences time. Each measures the other in each other’s reflections in the past and in each other’s considerations of cultural and seasonal perception. Time wheels in line and proves to have different values for different people, yet this difference, which time itself perceives and lets itself be measured by, is what reveals the sacred element in the character of the body. The poem “Events Where They Should Be” is an example. Writes Gibbons:

You’ll find few events where they should be: in books. It’s snowing. I go out of the library without coat, hat, gloves, & stand there watching it cut through a minor stand of city pines, envelop rhododendrons underneath. Crowds pass by without a second glance. Most expressions bear this look: snow’s a nuisance. Suddenly a tall African man stands right in front of me. It’s Oyetokunbo, a young man I know from Nigeria, asking what I’m doing. “Enjoying the snow”, is something he says he’s never heard of before, walking off shaking his kerchiefed head incredulously like a an oak dancing against a Northeast wind.

The idea that events should be in books works as time’s duplicitous conspiracy against the body. The abstract perception of snow as joy is linked here with the specific reference to Oyetokunbo for whom the winter season is something out of time. There is a strong sense of locality in the poem which the body perceives through standing, as time enters a dialectical relationship with the body. Even Oyetokunbo’s name points to standing facts: the Nigerians use the suffix “tokunbo” in male children’s names to indicate the fact that the parents were out of Nigeria when the child was born. Being out of Nigeria physically, for Nigerians, also means being out of time.

The event of perception, or rather events where they should be, invites a reading that is challenged by what Walter Benjamin calls "dialectics at a standstill." To write dialectically about the body of time is necessarily to point to its paradox. The physical universe, at least in quantum physics, is similar to what in Gibbons’s collection amounts to a notion of what is completed outside time and the body, namely a dream of affiliation which makes time and the body belong to each other. The body is time entangled with realism, locality, and completion. Time is surpassed by reality, locality and potential for completion in dreams. The closing poem in the collection, “Diving through the Other Side of Time,” posits variations of how time is measured and influenced by the body. Those familiar with physics will have made a correlation to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. This paradox draws on a phenomenon anticipated by quantum mechanics, namely entanglement, to show that measurements performed on spatially separated parts of a quantum system can apparently have an instantaneous influence on one another. The fact that this effect is also known as “quantum weirdness” may not go unnoticed by those who see a strong relationship between the poetics of poetry and the poetics of physics. What makes this paradox a paradox is the possibility of taking quantum mechanics and adding to it the conditions of “locality,” “realism,” and “completeness.” The result is a necessary contradiction. Yet the paradox does not contradict relativity, nor is it inconsistent in itself. It is merely weird. It is a similar kind of weirdness that preoccupies Gibbons in his contentions about time and the body. His poems follow the logic of contradiction in which time negates the body’s perceptions of time and the body negates time’s linear unfolding upon it. He shows that there is nothing inconsistent about that relation. Yet the body is also capable of dreams and dreams display an internal inconsistence that is hard to grasp. Dreams however become a body of links between time and the physical body.

Throughout the volume Gibbons dreams of Bach, Bach’s ability to think and create paradoxes and entanglements and he shows that time is affiliated with making variations upon the body. If, as Gibbons contends “the present is the roof of time,” the past—Bach’s time—cannot be anything else other than a variation on illusions. Einstein allegedly said: “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” If time completes the present, then, it also terminates it.

Gibbons’s choice to write a body of poems in the prose poem genre is an attempt at entangling anticipations about the coming of time. The prose poem, which is also a genre that borders weirdness insofar as it partakes of both prose and poetry, yet is inconsistent with either, invests itself in anticipations of the standstill kind. Hence what Gibbons leaves unsaid by saying a lot becomes a verbal representation of time’s graphics. In other words, Gibbons’s book is a premeditated meditation on how time assesses its own affiliation with physical bodies and how the body ultimately phrases its own ekphrasis.

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