In Sheet Music, Robert Gibb considers the natural world as well as the man-made one via the gaze of music—with an emphasis on classical, but also jazz—creating via language what otherwise might be drawn on score paper as musical notation. Two things strike you about Gibb and his poetry no matter what page you might flip to or how many poems you read: one, the daring-yet-consummate way he works with poetic form in his poems—never afraid to mold the form to the topic, yet never in a way that is too experimental or difficult. Second, Gibb approaches all manner of topics from trees to jazz to animals in a zoo with a steadfast sense of awe and wonder. An everyday thing—any everyday thing—are all fair game to Gibb, who seems more a journalist at heart, though one with a poet’s great gifts for detail and word-craft.
Gibb is at his best when he approaches the very personal, such as a poem to his infant son, in which he conjures an ocean, and beside it finds a nocturnal beach, then himself.
I lay dreaming of hawksbill hatchlings,
returning to sea
What more could his son have asked for? Newborn turtles slowly making their way down the moon-white sand to their mother ocean. This is as good a place as any to begin discussing how Gibb works his magic: he brings in nature on a personal level, often providing the type of images we’d expect from our finest nature poets, but just as often in the service of extended goals. That said, the presence of nature on its own never feels truncated or forced into meeting the more expansive goals Gibb has in mind. At nearly one hundred pages of actual poems, Gibb’s new collection is hefty, yet there is no sense of waste here. Every poem has a unique purpose and direction, and the book as a whole is so cohesive (despite its variety of topics) that were we to remove even one poem, there stands a fair chance its absence would be quickly noticed.
Umber and gray, in the welter of the thicket,
Wet light streaking the trees,
In the stillness of the dream they inhabit
Four deer forage among the fallen leaves,
White tails flashing, undergrowth now gone
From the half-lit rooms.
With these words, Gibb starts off his poem “The Weather in December”. It is with such fine choice of words and also such plain economy that Gibb explores most of his subjects in these poems. A reviewer on the back of Sheet Music compares Gibb to a modern-day Wordsworth concerned with the heart of America instead of pastoral England. In fact, there is a high acuity for the pastoral in many of these poems. Even those dealing with urban topics—such as several focused on jazz musicians—seem to evolve out of the modalities of detailed craft and wide-eyed adoration we can locate in the works of Wordsworth or John Clare. There is—in the way Gibb considers jazz or the deer in a mist-engulfed winter woods—a sense of reverent homage. Never attempting to be faultless, hip, or pithy, Gibb’s application of emotion is grounded in both wonder and respect. Absent of any bitterness or any ungainly nostalgia, there’s something very Zen at work in his poems, but any direct Eastern basis is easily coated over in a thick but constantly powerful sense of Western word-craft. The lines quoted above demonstrate this, and due to Gibb’s skill, they’re just as much about winter as the deer or human observation. He casts a winter in which nothing as obvious as snow or Christmas is mentioned, but once he provides the “umber and gray” we’re right where we need to be.
It is difficult to pick a favorite poem from a work as well-crafted & diverse as this one, yet one of the early poems has stayed in my mind more than any others. Entitled “Kites,” it concerns exactly what you’d imagine it would concern. Describing kites as found wound up tight in bins of the five-and-dime, Gibb introduces us to this childhood toy with a perfect example of how to write a poem that is rooted in an idealized past without making its glaze of nostalgia too apparent. The directness, detail, and slim word-count of the poem are all a tutorial of how it’s done:
In an undertow above us
Like weather on the maps.
We’d play out lines
Of kite string.
I quote this for its beauty, but feel bad quoting it out of context, since the removal of these words from their environment deprives them of their true depth and scope. Much of the allure of this poem about the humble kite is the lack of immediate metaphor and the ability Gibb has to focus on the kite itself. He does this throughout the collection—instead of calling a thing by the name of another, Gibb will signal the other thing to come center stage for a minute, say its lines, then leave, and at that point he’ll return to the original star of his poem. Thus, the baby hawksbill turtle is allowed to stand on its own and not as a stand-in for Gibb’s son. Thus, the deer meet us in their winter woods for a short moment before being on their way in a silent hurry of a trot the way deer most often leave. Everything is fully real, made tangible to the eyes reading the words, so to speak. In Gibb we find a poet sculpting out images of the thing right before him via words fit to do that thing justice.
Sheet Music is truly an exceptional book. It is example of a contemporary poet placing a gathering of poems that focus on a vast variety of topical matters into a cohesive collection, and there’s not a bad or even lacking poem in the whole book. With this collection, Gibbs sustains his reputation as one of today’s finest American poets. And this collection feels distinctly American. It is poetry of and about the current-day United States and Gibb pulls off his compelling descriptions of Pittsburgh and its environs with the even grace of another Steel City poet, Judith Vollmer. Like Volmer, he takes the Midwestern, blue-collar, ethos of Pittsburgh, couples it with the rich natural history and outdoors bounty of the region, and places all of this in the context of external influences such as the music that sweetens our everyday lives. Sheet Music is not a tourist tract, but instead a true, encompassing, view of not just a geography, but a sociology of places—one that extends beyond Pittsburgh into an entire cultural sphere.