Dobby Gibson, Polar.
Alice James Books, 2005. 80 pp. $13.95.
Reviewed by L.B. Thompson
As its title suggests,
Polar comes from the long cold winters of the poet's native Minnesota;
the poems are thematically concerned with the polarities of one's
imaginative and live-action existence. Winner of the Alice James Books
Beatrice Hawley Award, Polar is a carefully crafted book, comprised
of four coherent sections, united not only in their themes of existential,
melting intransigence, but also by the strength of Gibson's undiluted voice.
Although he has more than one trick up his sleeve, there is a pleasing
consistency in the way Gibson crafts each line, as well as in the way one
plainspoken short line follows another. His signature is the craftsmanlike
progression of his clear images — the way that subtle assonance or internal
rhyme leads the reader from one image to the next.
"Gone Before," Gibson employs the words "dreams" and "dreamers" in close
succession, preparing his readers for a disjunctive progression of images.
The long single stanza weaves disparate images together, encouraging readers
to follow the music of the poem without pausing to puzzle over why one image
follows another ("A
little girl pulls her doll by its hair. /
Inside the space capsule after splashdown / no
one. / And not even a note. / The
hospitals they have built /
just for people like us to die in / are
built entirely of corridors […]"). On closer reading, the
connections between these stacked blocks of images becomes more visible, so
that the close proximity of the images reveal the poem's thematic whole.
Snowflakes appear on every page — even on the cover and on the pages that
divide the book's four sections. While there is no doubt that Minnesota snow
has many varieties of metaphorical resonance, Gibson's poem demonstrate that
there is much power in the literal stuff itself. The persistent presence of
snow hooks the readers into a music of the north: blues lyrics and love
songs full of the weather define the patterns of life. This passage from "Solstice," the thirteen-part series in the middle of the book, reveals this
need: "where what snow falls throws out backs, / where darkness is used only
to fill // our empty parking lots with sorrow…" The tenor of Gibson's snow
metaphors is often sadness. Another image playfully addresses itself to
sorrow: "Sadness, you are so Japanese: snow on just one side of the leaf /
that has not yet dropped." In these poems, Gibson employs a kind of divorced
couplet, dividing lines and images from their seemingly natural
section of Polar returns to the singular long stanza form; some of
these poems are more cohesive than earlier work in the book, without losing
the surprise of associative and musical play. This is particularly true of
"Encroachment," a poem that highlights some of the book's major themes ("It is November
again. / The leaves are
falling, / and then, as if
that weren't enough, / the rain is,
too. / True to its
mission, / the cold makes
us feel old. / Over what we
were / And never
finally are. / What we saved
and hoped for, / what we found
and whom we never will."). "Encroachment" has the
intimate feeling of a painting an artist agrees to display, but insists is
not for sale.
In the final
section, a longer poem called "Great Plain" is a paean to the Mississippi
river with its opposite banks, and the bridges we've built to cross it.
Gibson sees a struggle in that mighty river, and those currents contribute
to the polarities he articulates throughout the book: "These two coasts — /
can we call them that? — / grinding at one another over / everything we'll
never know, like one of those arguments, years after which we realize
/ both of us were right."
Throughout Polar, Gibson makes his peace with this brevity; with the
ephemera he believes our lives and our art to be. Poem VIII in the
"Solstice" series concludes: "destination rising in speech as unprovoked /
as it is delivered to the silences of the indifferent." This reader hopes
that these poems will not be delivered to the silence of the indifferent,
rather that they will become the blues riffs of the cold and snowbound, be
they shivering in their geography or with the emotional fragility of one of
Gibson's snow crystals.
L.B. Thompson's chapbook
Tendered Notes was published by the Center for Book Arts in 2003.