This Time and Traveling Companion
Bridgton, Maine: Nine Point Publishing, 2011 & 2012
Hardcover. 216 pages each. ISBN 098242633X & ISBN 0982426348. $24.95 each
Reviewed by Bent Sørensen
Time, and Again
These twin volumes of prose poems by American poet, Robert Gibbons, This Time (2011) and Traveling Companion (2012) – both lovingly crafted and issued by Nine Point Publishing – form the author’s seventh and eighth full-length book, respectively. Despite his being astonishingly prolific, for instance once having imposed on himself the discipline of writing and publishing in an online log one poem a day for a period of two years and two days,(1) Gibbons is far from a household name among American or European poetry aficionados. If anything, he is better known among Europeans, for his tenacity and insistence on the importance of European thought and European art for our contemporary world, and for the incipient academic interest his work has attracted by reviewers and poetry scholars on this continent.
Gibbons does not read in public very often, but he has appeared at conferences in Scotland, Washington State and New York, where fellow poets and academics alike have had a chance to engage with his work and with the man himself, and the networks he has established around himself have served him well as fixed points in his universe of textual sparring partners. I am proud to count myself among his circle of friends and correspondents, and should say in the interest of full disclosure that I have written and published several papers on his work, as well as translated a selection of his poems into Danish, which appeared in a bi-lingual edition from EyeCorner Press under the title of Jagged Timeline in 2010.
How does it work to be a member of the circle that Gibbons loves to gather around him in the virtual space of the Internet? Simply put, Gibbons – ever a fine and diligent correspondent – reaches out to readers that have the same sensibility as he does, and invites them to respond to an image, a piece of music or a quote that strikes a note with him on the spur of the moment. Subscribing to many of the Beat ideals of spontaneity in composition and thought, Gibbons never hesitates to fire his synapses, and shortly after one receives an e-mail that often reads: “I happened to stumble over this…” – whether it be a paragraph from a book in his eclectic personal library (philosophers and writers such as Kristeva, Cixous, Charles Olson, Nietzsche and Kerouac seem to stand side by side there, along with books and catalogues on Goya, Clyfford Still, Rothko, Bacon and many other painters), or a line or photograph found on a range of Internet sites and blogs that Gibbons peruses with equal diligence and attention to detail. One cannot respond to every such outreach, nor does Gibbons want or expect one to do so, but it merits attention each and every time to follow the trail of insights and glimpses of beauty offered by such missives. At best, playing tag with Gibbons in a game of associations and influences is simultaneously aesthetically enriching and intellectually stimulating.(2)
The reader might at this point well be asking him/herself what this has to do with a review of the two volumes mentioned at the beginning, and the simple answer is: everything. If one is not willing to read Gibbons’ texts in the same manner as one reads a letter, typewritten postcard, or e-mail from him, one misses the point.(3) Every poem within these volumes, as in the ones that came before, is a portal into a realm of culture, philosophy, beauty and knowledge, and is therefore best read as an open invitation to think things through with the poem in mind, while tracing the works of music, art or literature alluded to in it. Sometimes this requires what Foucault understood as archaeology of knowledge when the textual trail becomes long and arcane; sometimes one must choose to be an interpreter of dreams in a Freudian or Jungian style, but more often one simply has to sense (it helps to be an able practitioner of synaesthesia) the beauty of an experience (of nature as often as of art), or be moved by the poignancy of an observation made, regarding the politics of the day and the visceral need that lives in the streets of America.
The poet is as present in these texts as are his textual forebears, the writers and poets that went before him, or the artists and musicians that forever accompany him. We become privy to the poet’s dreams, quarrels, dialogues, thoughts and hopes in a modern confessional mode that the prose poem genre seems particularly well suited to distil and present. In a previous review-article in this very journal, Camelia Elias read the generic situation of Gibbons’ work to perfection, and as one cannot improve on her insights or formulations, I shall simply quote her:
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.
My concern in this review is less with the genre mechanics of prose poetry, although the fact that Gibbons even dares to walk a mile in the shoes of Baudelaire, Max Jacob, Hölderlin, Rilke, Poe, James Wright and Allen Ginsberg demands respect. Rather, I wish to be a reader of and a fellow traveller with Gibbons, and offer a discussion of the process of working with these two volumes as an academic and a poetry lover, over the period of slightly more than a year that first This Time, and later Traveling Companion, have followed me everywhere I have gone, physically, in dreams and in thought.(4)
As is evident from Elias’ remarks above, as well as from his preferred title element in his collections, Gibbons is preoccupied with time – lost time, dream time, the time of breath of language and rhythms in music and the body. One volume of the twin set before us explicitly references time in its title, and again and again in the individual poems. That time is cyclical in Gibbons’ work is becoming more and more evident as the poet ages and grows and looks back on his many jobs, relations, interactions and experiences. It is in dreams that responsibilities begin, to paraphrase Delmore Schwartz, but Gibbons teaches us that it is also in dream time that the great connections between past and present are made manifest. What the Greeks knew, we can also know, but not directly – only through mediations, whether via translations such as Gibbons’ admired mentor Guy Davenport’s, or through the visions that dreams allow us to have of the Greeks still living and breathing rhythmic time among us today.
A piece such as “The Geography of Dreams” (a title that pays homage to Davenport’s concept “The Geography of the Imagination”) in This Time [21-22] brings this out in its ramble through a night’s dreams of remembered sites, culminating with an invitation to his readers (and non-readers alike) to “stand here, on top of the world” with him (and yes, I am there by name, and so is Camelia Elias). Only in dream time is this possible, reasonable, inevitable. Similarly, in “My Friends & I” in Traveling Companion [136-137], the friends in question are both real and textual companions, summoned from times and places as divergent as the France of Baudelaire and Proust (as well as mentioning the physical encounter Gibbons once had in France with Marguerite Duras, where she urged him to follow her credo of “telling everything at once”), or the Gloucester of Charles Olson (cooking potatoes and cabbage in the same pot), to Rimbaud and Blaise Cendrars setting out to sea together (“embarking for Portuguese-language melodies emanating out of Rio”) charting their geography of dreams.
The telescoping of time and dream time in Gibbons’ work I knew all about, already before the two new volumes came into my hands, but what I did not fully realize is how truly important place and space are in the poet’s work. It required the reading of the volume entitled Traveling Companion for me to grasp the scope of the journey aspect of Gibbons’ work. The blind spot I had previously had concerning the role of place in his work is a direct function of and down-side to knowing the poet so well personally in terms of his biography, his economy, his burdens and responsibility that have for too long anchored him in one place, in one locality – that have literally chained him to the edge of Maine. As Gibbons does not currently travel much – indeed has only recently renewed his passport in anticipation of his next European conference in August 2013 – I blindly suffered from the fallacy of thinking that the role of place in his poetry was also limited. Rereading my introduction to Jagged Timeline, I now see how I have danced around the importance of place and journey in Gibbons’ work. I missed the hints of volume titles such as Travels Inside the Archive, and indeed poem titles such as the one cited above, “The Geography of Dreams”. It took traveling with Traveling Companion to become fully cognizant of the mistake I had made, and see that even a poem such as the tragi-comically titled “Report: Read for a Few Hours, Wrote for a Half Hour, Went Nowhere”  travels extensively through time and space (“Travel, travel, travel has me swirling around”) – from Santander, via Paris to Athens – and goes everywhere, all in the poet’s mind, egged on by his reading of Zbigniew Herbert, Davenport, Bataille and Jacques Rancière.
The volumes have indeed also become my traveling companions through a year in the life of an itinerant academic, ploughing a strange trail of small weekly commutes across the country between home and work, and the odd sojourn at the writers’ refuge on the horn of Denmark, Klitgården (where I first read This Time one year ago, and where I now write these lines), plus the occasional longer journey to a conference site such as Ghent in Belgium or Middelburg on the margins of Holland. Serendipity and synchronicity have always been palpably present in my relationship with Gibbons and therefore it was not particularly surprising to experience incidents such as the following, which I reported back to him that very same evening:
Flying into Amsterdam on KLM today on my way to the Beat conference in Middelburg, I of course had Traveling Companion with me. As the co-pilot announced that our descent to Schiphol had begun, I read: “I woke this morning from a dream with tickets for my own desired itinerary on KLM, no less, landing in Amsterdam, to Tenerife, Madrid & Athens, the tickets blue and white like the Grecian flag”. [From “Swallowed More than Wine the Day Before” : 66]
Not particularly surprising, just worth mentioning as another instance of the Universe doing its work. It was exactly this occurrence that made me finally resolve that this review needed to integrate the text and the place I am in – at least in my thinking about them, but also to an extent in the writing of the piece itself. The travels in Traveling Companion may well be largely travels in memory, daydream and actual dream time, but my travels with Traveling Companion have been real enough at times to scar and dent the fine dust jacket with its reproduction of a Goya etching, Modo de Volar [A way of flying], showing naked humans gliding through the air on large wings eerily reminiscent of today’s hang gliders. Even a short trip has – time and again – occasioned my reading of a few pieces from the volumes, and the subsequent associations have found their way into my lectures and academic pieces in strange and new ways. Only the best of creative writing can have that effect on an academic reader.
That both volumes have fine Goya etchings reproduced on them is no coincidence. Gibbons has long desired to make a journey to Spain to witness again at first hand the work of the Spanish artist whom many consider both the last of the Old Masters and the first modern one. Gibbons’ Goya project has remained unrealized as an actual physical trip, but these volumes are in effect the fruits of his preoccupation with Goya’s work as resonant of themes that Gibbons returns to again and again: living in a world hell-bent on war and the destruction of humanity, and the consequences of this for the individual. Sequences of poems at the heart of both This Time and Traveling Companion situate Goya as our contemporary, and deliver terse ekphrases of many of his etchings, canvases and murals (for instance Murió la Verdad, Corral de Locos, Burial of the Sardine, the Tauromaquia, the Mayas, Swallow It, Dog and The Third of May); yet also place the reader in the poet’s position gazing at and pondering the meaning of these works that are both of their time and of ours:
Poor Goya, haunted Soul, bad dreams & bandits. On the off-hand chance he paints the human body whole & aglow with light, it might also find itself staged inside a dark cave, where a stonewall god at the entrance gazes on in horror at the porn of a goddess forcibly disrobed. [This Time : 103]
In his reading of Goya, Gibbons uses both prose and poetry masters such as Hemingway and Lorca, who of course have read Goya before him (after all, as he says in “Writing on Goya” [This Time : 78]: “One does not simply run head-on into Goya snorting some interpretation or other”). The richness of such layers of intertextuality deepens the pleasure of reading Gibbons’ work, and simultaneously our understanding of his Goya fascination. Despite the Guggenheim Foundation declining to give Gibbons a travel scholarship to Spain for his Goya project, we have it here before us; a success realized with only memory, thought and feeling as traveling companions on his dream itinerary.
Just as the images of Goya and many others run through the volumes as a moving set of illustrations to the poems (the poems in turn interpreting the paintings in an ekphrastic manner), the built-in aural ‘soundtrack’ to the volumes is rich and varied, but always rhythmic. The appreciation of jazz, modernist classical music, and the work of the greatest master of them all – Bach – is deep in Gibbons’ poetry. Two years ago to the day of my writing this piece, I translated a tender love poem of his, entitled “No Less Passionate” which appears in This Time. The poem is appropriate for the season, situated as it is temporally in “the middle of Advent”, but all cold and bleak thoughts of mid-winter are dispelled as the poem moves rhythmically (with “Bach in mind & bones”) to paralleling the poet’s situation with that of Bach and his young wife Anna Magdalena, for whom he wrote a little notebook of musical exercises, “in a light-hearted manner of joy […] a love note slipped from desk to desk in elementary school, yet no less passionate” . When I reminded Gibbons of the anniversary of my translation of the poem, he simply responded “Kathleen [his Anna Magdalena] just sat on me lap here in the kitchen, & reread it aloud!!” Thus poetry and life unite in correspondences across time and place, and should anyone wonder about the uses of poetry, the above anecdote, to me, answers that query in full.
A discussion of the title poem in Traveling Companion may serve as a coda to this kinetic, open, and projective review. I translated this piece for Jagged Timeline, and it plots one of the most complex time-space compressions/telescopings of Gibbons’ entire oeuvre. It was written at a time when Gibbons’ beloved snow had temporarily turned against him and he acquired a severe case of frostbite in both knees while trying to shovel tons of the white but heavy stuff off his sun-porch roof before it collapsed under the weight of such a mass. The poem finds him bandaged, unable to genuflect, as he would have liked to in front of the angelic women (“wife & nurse”) who have offered him succor and who have just sent him back out into the world of the living. The white page (upon which he offers in another poem to write with snow – “white letters on a white page” [Traveling Companion : 63]) waits for him to return to his practice as a poet. The events and the pain he is still in make him reflect upon the stage he has reached in his life where, as he says “I carry equal parts life lived to life remembered to death as integral & inevitable” .
The poem proper begins with the poet’s stance (“by the waterfront, beloved waterfront, where within yards’ reach of the port I can name six or seven friends”) on his home ground, a place that may well bind him (with friendships as well as hardships), but which is also the starting point for his flights of fancy into a time-space continuum that reaches far beyond the Portland docks. As is often the case in Gibbons’ poetry, it is seeing a ship from a far-off place that triggers the projection of the poet into a foreign place – in this case the Rio Genoa, which sends him back to the Italian port it was named after, where a forty years younger poet also experienced the grace of women caring for his needs. The memory is so powerful that the mature poet’s eyes “well up”, and time briefly becomes a vortex as his vision blurs, and he glimpses his impending death – before he is forcefully flung back to the present day, remembering this “current traveling companion,” waiting for him patiently in the guise of the white page.
Here we have an American transliteration of Keats’ nightingale in the shape of a bulky oil tanker, painted red and black, and crude in every sense of the word. Yet there is nothing pathetic or Romantic about Gibbons’ poem. Rather it is sober and objective in its weighing of the poet’s circumstance, naming his place, his time, his companion. It is this quality, springing out of the kinetics of the poet’s language as Olson would have put it, that makes these two volumes of prose poetry contemporary and relevant for today’s readers, yet able to project us with Gibbons into the past when necessary for our learning, and also what makes them durable and readable – time, and again.
(1) The first year’s worth of these poems was released as Travels Inside the Archive by Edge of Maine Publications in 2009.
(2) No sooner had I written the paragraph above than an e-mail from Gibbons hit my inbox, urging me to listen to Robert Johnson sing the blues about The Crossroads – which of course sent me right back to his poem “At a Crossroad” in Traveling Companion, beginning “If lost, hope it’s at a crossroad” .
(3) As Gibbons quickly pointed out upon first reading the sentence above, Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems began as a sequence of letters, too – and kept that epistolary character throughout.
(4) It is crucial here to remember that these poems do not pander to the reader as some contemporary poetry does, with cheap tricks employed to manipulate his or her emotions. Rather, as Gibbons states: “My correspondent is my friend, the blank page, who/which always, knock on wood, seems to come through. As what? Gentle listener, or brave patient enduring the rapid needles of tattoos I lay down upon his/her/its arm or thigh, or again etch across his/her/its chest.”
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