Poet Robert Gibb's exacting approach serves him well in a new collection | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Poet Robert Gibb's exacting approach serves him well in a new collection

Sheet Music feels like a tour through local art, jazz and other touchstones

Robert Gibb
Robert Gibb

As a grad student being mentored by Robert Gibb, I found his poetics to be clearly stated. Concrete imagery was good, abstraction was not. Make all of the words count. Line breaks can change the emotional experience. And when in doubt, remember Denise Levertov's maxim that a line should be "as long as a breath." These words were much-needed groundwork as I struggled to find my stride that first semester back in 2006.

Gibb practices what he preaches in Sheet Music, his seventh poetry collection, recently published by local Autumn House Press. A Homestead native, and winner of NEA fellowships, Gibb's writing embraces a keen nostalgia for family and friends as if he were looking back to see how much ground he has covered. None of it feels sentimental, as his poems embrace themes of nature, art and the passage of loved ones, while titles and subtitles co-opt Pittsburgh as frequent backdrop.   

In previous books, Gibb skillfully explored places and lives at the steel industry's ground zero. As a native son myself, I found it refreshing that there was little mention here of the bygone steel days that seem be peripheral to the region's artistic reputation. Instead, Sheet Music embraces Pittsburgh's cultural side, shaking off the blue-collar memories in favor of museums and jazz heritage.

In "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West," the speaker describes Giacommetti's well-known sculpture from the Carnegie Museum of Art: "A life-sized figure, clinkered and gaunt, / Strides as if from a furnace. / Here instead of endless talk are mute bodies / Pegged in place, men endlessly walking." Gibb's tightly crafted couplets point to the sculpture as postindustrial inspiration, an art worthy of different interpretations. While Giacommetti's "Walking Man" has been immortalized in Annie Dillard's memoir An American Childhood, it's interesting to think of the impressions it has made on thousands of others, as well.

Sheet Music often feels like a field trip with a sharp-eyed uncle as Gibb leads the reader throughout the city and asks us to rely on his speaker's description of places familiar, not exotic.  Reading its 97 pages is a bit like taking a tour of the city (minus the incline ride), as poems are set at the Zoo, Frick Park and Point State Park. The accessibility of these settings reminds us that culture includes shared moments with others.

The poem "At The Rollins Concert" is more a glimpse of the crowd at a free Arts Festival show than serious discourse on Sonny's music. Gibb immerses the reader in the speaker's experience as humanity and art come together among those gathered to appreciate jazz at dusk, saying as the sax legend plays "St. Thomas" that

... behind us, the lost boy

Starts to moan, softly at first as a voice

In sleep, or sleep's own troubled murmurs.

Then, growing louder,

And seemingly pitched to some infinite woe,

Comes the wrenched, misshapen solo.

click to enlarge Robert Gibb's poems find Pittsburgh's heritage in more than steel mills.
Robert Gibb's poems find Pittsburgh's heritage in more than steel mills.

There's a musical quality in his lines that brings thoughtful meditation to an uncomfortable, yet relatable moment. It's a bit reminiscent of the speaker in William Carlos Williams' Paterson seeking to understand his town's citizens before trying to make sense of the world.

Part III of the book, subtitled "Sheet Music," contains some of the book's strongest moments.  In it, Gibb explores memory, appreciation, loss and perseverance through the language of a longtime jazz devotee. The reader is taken to a '64 MJQ show, a late-night Mingus jam, and Gibb's parents' kitchen as the speaker remembers time spent as a boy, having a taste of Rolling Rock with his father, while Lester Young played in the other room. There are elegies for both Monk and Clifford Brown, the latter dying in a car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1956.

The poem "Soloing" is perhaps the best of the bunch. In it, the speaker and a friend listen to Chet Baker on vinyl, albums beautifully described as "— those red, see-through / Fantasy LP's, in which the notes / Seemed pressed in pectin ..."  The speaker's friend discusses his painful divorce, saying, "That was when she taunted him: / 'Now I won't have to listen anymore / To that horrible music of yours,' / And packing his records it occurred to him / He'd never argue with her again." It's a kind of beautiful defense for a misunderstood musical form. It also has an edgy confessional tone that Gibb seldom uses in this collection, but is a nice change of pace.

Sheet Music finds a polished poet exploring local ground in the precise way we've come to expect from him.

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