When Robert Gibb quotes modernist master Ezra Pound saying, “The natural object / is always the adequate symbol,” in his Poundian poem “Cathay,” it’s a sign that what follows leans heavily on imagery and precise language. Gibb doesn’t disappoint as the poem unwinds in a series of painterly images (“The pleached frazzled asphalt / still splotchy with rain … / The guardrail, the river / still blue through the trees”) that add up to something emotionally evocative in his well-crafted lines.
After, Gibb’s 11th collection and 2016 winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize (chosen by the acclaimed Mark Doty), showcases a writer finding beauty in the everyday and making it relatable. Gibb, a Homestead resident (and native) and winner of numerous awards and grants, shows he’s lost nothing off his fastball as the new collection’s 96 pages descriptively explore the speaker’s daily life, often through the natural world, music, art and literature.
As a long-time reader and former pupil of Gibb’s, it’s nice to see him maintain his aesthetic principles while also approaching more intimate topics. In the sonnet “Saying Goodbye,” he writes, “Miles Davis famously gave up playing ballads / And with them that beautiful measured aching / He loved, he said, too much.” The poem ends with a turn toward the elegiac, referencing a wife’s passing by saying, “The first gift I gave you was a dress, to keep you / Safely under wraps, and only then to undress you.” The connection of the two subjects might leave a reader in awe.
The lines’ descriptiveness here offers insight into the speaker’s self, moreso than in previous books. In “Teasel,” Gibb writes, “Even the brown furze of lawn grass / Is drawing the promise of water / Into its nap, the teasel glowing / Brindle alongside the roads. / It’s time again, nearing the start / Of autumn and the birthday / I’d thought I might never reach, / to begin relearning just what I know: / That anger is a kind of sorrow …” The pastoral here takes on the more personal and philosophical.
The poems in this collection succeed in their symmetry. In “Snow Days,” it’s the shifting images of “the dead of winter.” In “Listening to Pharaoh Sanders …,” a jazz album sparks memory, as Gibb writes of an infant son whose “whole body would be jumping for joy.” After is a potent reminder of Gibb’s talents.