- The Burning World, and: Lives of the Animals
Some books are "slow reads." Not because there is anything wrong with them. Quite the reverse. Sometimes – especially when they are collections of poetry – these books are simply so richly wrought and so densely musical that it is impossible to read through them without permitting ourselves to proceed at a leisurely, attentive pace we hardly ever allow ourselves in "normal" reading. On such occasions, we can indulge our poetic sensibilities, let them be stroked and seduced by the poet's carefully nuanced language, by the rich texture of sound devices, by the resonant imagery, and by the sheer collective aesthetic impact of the poet's work. In a poetry market filled with often shrill, hasty-seeming, and insufficiently gestated writing, these rarest of reading experiences remind the reader who is paying attention to such things that there is still such a thing as careful, deliberate artistry in contemporary poetry, and that at its best it unites beautifully wrought language and imagery with an engaged and committed world-view in a poetry that is as intellectually profound as it is aesthetically satisfying. This is precisely the sort of writing to be found in the latest books by Robert Gibb and Robert Wrigley. Both are accomplished, widely published, and much-awarded poets whose previous books have always promised even finer things to come. Now, in Gibb's The Burning World and Wrigley's Lives of the Animals, each has delivered on that promise with a collection that is carefully unified and remarkably accomplished.
The Burning World is Gibb's intensely personal poetic memoir of the history of his western Pennsylvania family that extends back through three generations of mill workers in the now defunct Homestead steel mills. From his grandfather, who died in a fiery fall at the mill, through his parents, dead before their time, and on to himself as a young mill hand working the night shift and then as husband, father, and poet, Gibb presents the millworkers' lives from the inside, as lived history. He does so with remarkable sensitivity, blending minutely observed details like artists and paintings, the old aviary, the Homestead strike and the Pinkerton thugs called in by management, the documents for his parents' cemetery plots, the old buildings and the familiar figures who [End Page 179] peopled them, gone now like "the Syria Mosque Razed to Make Space for Parking":
. . . I remember the scallop Of lines, seats red as fezzes On which the curved swords glowed, How outside, snug against the eaves, Tiles patterned the walls in a fret – A little band of color, beadwork Against that naked expanse. And the bare breasts of the sphinxes flanking The stairs, as though the dark bronze Of honey poured in their forms.(p. 35)
This is the sort of careful imaging that informs every line, every image, every poem. The effect over some seventy pages is riveting, not the least because it communicates to its reader such a compelling particularity of place and interiority of experience. This is a history that is at once personal to the poet and his family and yet common to all of us.
Indeed, this shared experience – this appeal to what in the eighteenth century was called "sympathy" or fellow-feeling – is evident everywhere in the collection, and perhaps no more so than in the following passages from the title poem:
The great slabbed stairways mounting To the dead level of the lot, It looks almost Toltec, pyramidal And squared by its block of streets. I have to imagine the high school, Gone now for decades, the dingy brickAnd masonry, and a boredom so immense Even the hours seemed made of stone. . . . Even the aluminum siding is sun-struck And worn on the house on Sixteenth Avenue, where I was born, and my fatherBefore me. The faded white of the dish- Cloth his mother flung across his face The year before he brought my motherHome. The nominal white of the bone, Or the pickets in this fence, ghosting...