a literary review
The first thing one notices upon picking up Dobby Gibson’s It Becomes You is his understanding of the fine line between beauty and wit. Not only does the cover reveal this with an elegant tiled balcony overlooking an overcast ocean but the back cover literally invites readers to create their own blurb with a fill-in-the blank format! Of course, one must rise to the challenge: “Dobby Gibson’s third collection is a book that creates emotion with a sense of understanding of Middle America. In increasingly stirring lines, these poems pour life, sparkle, and sip at our conscious, with our ever desire to drink more of these words. In the end, this book dares to mix dry wit and beauty, and leaves you with the perfect poetic martini.”
But the book is so much more than one-liners. Gibson challenges the reader to explore how society communicates with one other while immersed within modern technological luxuries. This book is not sci-fi, a world of possible futures, rather this is the here and now, a world of smart phones, T.V. and “touchless hand-towel dispensers”. Gibson reveals a middle-class Midwest through beauty supply stores, Buicks, Pepsi, pilots, spacewalks and self-storage units. Gibson takes us on a journey of life, touching upon fatherhood, marriage, sickness, and other universal experiences with an authentic voice that challenges the reader to reevaluate themselves. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” So many poets seem to write free verse that is a little too free. Thankfully, Gibson has an ear for picking the right word, for creating sounds that make the poem lyrical, interconnecting the lines through the use of language. For example, his poetic ear can easily be heard in “Infinite Familiar”:
The crow flies in the sky.
What flies in the crow we do not know.
The woman in a black turtleneck waves her hands,
forever one sentence behind,
furiously translating the president’s speech for the deaf.
The man in a Mauer jersey waves his hands,
standing in front of the publicly financed stadium’s
touchless hand-towel dispenser,
thinking of the sounds his son’s school makes,
windows of black garbage bags rippling in the wind.
The reader, whether consciously or unconsciously, hears the repeating vowels throughout the lines like the ‘o’ in ‘row’, ‘know’, ‘woman’, ‘forever’, ‘furiously’, or even within the lines themselves as ‘flies’ and ‘sky’. Examining the poem line by line, the reader, at first, is puzzled by the opening two lines that seem almost like folksy prairie wisdom. But then the poem cleverly shifts to a woman translating the president’s words and then to a man drying his hands. By the time the reader hits upon the line: “we’re in this together, friends”, one indeed feels part of something familiar, yet something quite lonely. Here, the speaker has the opportunity, despite being to instantly connect with the President’s words. Instead, the reader is lost in minor self-absorbed thoughts while the speaker is in the restroom.
Gibson shows us the disconnection and the isolation by sliding from one scene or moment to the next. Before the reader can put this thought provoking poetic list together and see the speaker is pondering the social barriers people construct for themselves, the reader is first being swept along by the connections from the sounds of words. Gibson makes language and the theme of disconnect come together by the final line: “There’s the scent of something delicious baking, / but it’s coming from a stranger’s house.”
The first poem in the book, “From Parts Unknown,” asserts a feeling of passiveness, a contentment for doing nothing, capturing a sense of what is affecting so many Americans today: “Truancy has lost its allure. / I’m finally content to sit here / and use some of the few words / I know to mark the present / as it slides silently into the past”. Gibson’s collection is not made of youthful angst, nor is there a sense of rebellion and necessitating change, or reflective end-of-life wisdom here either. Instead, this is the understandings and musings of a poet who sees that much of our modern lives exist “From Parts Unknown.” And much later, in the penultimate poem in the collection “Postscript,” which is seen here in its entirety, Gibson continues to reveal this lure for being unmoved, this sense of stillness:
I had hoped to find the end
already here waiting for me,
like when I awoke this morning
and realized I had spent
another night asleep believing
everything I had been told.
That sense of trust is what I miss most of all.
Even as the sun rises,
the darkness approaches.
You are the monster of your own campfire story,
and the telling of it
has been your life’s noblest deed.
You can’t bear to be alone,
but this is the best evidence you have
that you’re still here.
In a charming café a thousand miles away,
a couple sits across from one another
and reads the news in silence.
It’s up to you to choose
what happens next—it always has been—
and it’s okay to choose not much.
Some ice snaps in a glass.
How still the world is.
Like Gibson says in the book, “there are no wrong numbers here, / only strangers we’re surprised to hear from”. However, there could be a few improvements with the overall structure. By removing the haiku-like “40 Fortunes” and moving the last long poem called “It Becomes You” to the midway spot where “40 Fortunes” is currently located would strengthen the book. “40 Fortunes” feels so out of place and different from these other poems, like coming across a speed bump on the sidewalk. This would have removed the frame at the beginning of the book and at the end with the use of the word “done”. The book opens with the line “What’s undone is done”, which connects a dot to the book’s end: “you emerge back into the street light / to carve your own likeness out of thin air, / one you’ll never recognize long enough / to call done.”. But is that framing technique really essential? While this last poem is quintessential Gibson, a list that transcends into a graceful lyricism layering lyric upon lyric and thus building idea upon idea, one of the strongest and most moving poems, “Postscript”, gets buried before the towering final fourteen page poem.
Where Gibson really shines is by not telling us how to live and behave and by not pointing fingers at everything that is wrong with the big picture in America. Instead, he quietly and pensively shows us relatable snippets. For example, in “Silly String Theory”, ponytails are “the very filament of the universe.” The poem journeys through universal life experiences from mustached teens to “tossing seeds” at a wedding, from driving a “buggy crisscrossing a driving range” to “hacking another skin cancer” until the poem concludes with seniors walking in a mall with “yesterday’s cinnamon buns in the air.” Often, Gibson uses this list trick in his poems, giving us a perception of ordinariness mixed with a false sense of triviality, but really Gibson is unraveling the little everyday mysteries like a philosopher or a Buddhist monk. But he does it with meditative wit and an almost lightness. For example, in “Eeny Meeny Enemy”, he begins the poem with aliens landing to “decode the Greek” letters on the “asses of our sorority sisters’ sweatpants”. How can one not want to read on?! Gibson switches from the light to a more somber tone, letting the reader know the only thing that will survive is poetry “in the sound of a strange / bird’s inconsolable philosophy” or in “the imperishable silence of a tree”. While berries remain, “lush with indifference”, the poem shifts back to the universal second person, warning us of our doom but not in the expected manner: “Footsteps approach down the hall, / and as you lie in your bed / and stare at the light streaming beneath the door, / you have no idea where / you’re going to sleep tonight.”
Some readers may be put off by this ‘hopscotch-like’ structure, but they are simply not giving it a careful read and seeing that the form echoes the theme. Only a skilled writer can move so gracefully between alien invasion and finality, as in the above example, to an image that captures the heart of the book, the theme of self and social disconnect. A lesser writer would come off as bi-polar or appear to be sewing together two different poems; however, Gibson succeeds through subtle shifts by adeptly walking a tightrope between amusing and pensive. And all the reader can do is watch with eyes wide-open, breath held.