More Than Just a Tussle

Reviewed By

skirmishSkirmish kneads the world’s dough through peculiarities that maintain the engagement with strangeness and the fortune of language, both as a path to richness and to predicting what will be.

Dobby Gibson’s Skirmish, his second book, is a smart, clever, pyrotechnical book that will hold your attention. It concerns speech, its idioms, clichés, and its echoes of repetitions that have become synonymous with the electronic era. Like the Mississippi River to which Gibson sometimes alludes, the poems offer ways language and the self are changing and connecting, and the possibility that communication fails.

There have been other writers on Gibson’s poetical family tree: Tony Hoagland, James Tate, Kenneth Koch, and Don DeLillo have sometimes mined similar terrain; but Gibson’s work needles the uncomfortable truth that private knowledge and public fact are each often misunderstood. The way private and public histories interact are also misunderstood, and Gibson heroically broods on this misapprehension: that being stuck in one’s own body—one’s own point-of-view—is in itself an interesting vantage point to contemplate the troubling minutiae of the world.

Skirmish kneads the world’s dough through peculiarities that maintain the engagement with strangeness and the fortune of language, both as a path to richness and to predicting what will be.

To accomplish his goals, Gibson relies on several devices. One usefully and ingeniously takes the structure of a metaphorical leap (X=Y) where the = represents the word “is” and makes it X=X. For example:

“The distance called us from the distance” (“What It Feels Like To Be This Tall”).

“The surrenders are everywhere / though surrendering isn’t what it used to be” (“Fumage”).

“Just like a jellyfish, you think you’re a bad ass, / yet you’re both comprised almost entirely of water and a T-shirt.” (“Vertical Hold”)

Rather than requiring an imaginative leap to make their connection, these metaphors require the reader to reevaluate the status of the relationship of these objects to themselves; by extension, the poems explore the self’s relation to the self. The poem’s forms are likewise organically connected to this concept and proceed from their content: most of Skirmish’s poems consist of page-length single-stanza bursts of energy which arise out of an epigrammatic observation and swirl around themselves in a tornado until they drop the reader in a new space.

Another device of this book occludes the speaker and the speaker’s authority behind a variety of opaque and semi-permeable barriers, such as windows. These both alienate the speaker from his subject and somehow make him more empathetic toward his subject because he knows he can never know their real connection to him. I am reminded of Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, in The Conversation, whose workshop has a transparent wall that partly precludes his connection to reality. Gibson delights in these transparencies:

“You buy gas from a grouch / encased in shatterproof glass. / He has a special slot for the twenties.” (“Fortune”)

“like sitting in front of an open summer window, / old guitar falling slowly out of tune.” (“Truce”).

“In the truckers’ mirrored sunglasses rises / the continental mountainry that obscures the valley / where the shadow was invented.” (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”)

The 20-odd periodic poems called “Fortune” serve as a banister along Skirmish’s escalator; their short form and more distant lens play with the syllogisms evident throughout the book. The “Fortune” series also contain some of the metaphorical tissue of the book—these are the windows, mannequins, and slippages of a self in need of guidance, though the voice (Skirmish’s version of Dante’s Virgil?) is sometimes coy, ultra-ironic, and untrustworthy. Tone is what connects each of these fortunes, though the tone sometimes is like that of the band Cake: you are never sure how seriously to take it; though the instruments are played well, the question remains—is it music or a joke?

Jokes and poems both rely on surprise to make their turns, but they’re not the same. The amusing, meringue-like poem “61 Titles Unpoemed” takes the border of jokes and poems and stretches it even though its filler-like place in the book has the role of the clown in a Shakespeare play (e.g. “Mümmenschantz Heckle” and “Where Is Mary Ruefle?”) Gibson likes winking at the reader, and he is aware that the best poems are written together by the writer and the reader.

My favorite poems in Skirmish were the ones that evoke a kind of tragicomic liminal state, between slapstick and suffering, which is the true nature of the blues. “Are We There Yet?” invokes a child transforming her parents as she transforms from a toddler into a little girl:

You only have to make her one grilled cheese / in the suffocating heat of summer / while still wearing your wet swim trunks / to know what it’s like to be in love

and later in the same poem:

forget that anything in the universe / ever existed prior to the small, pink sweater / now brushing softly against your neck

This poem, unlike “61 Titles Unpoemed”, approaches sentimentality then pulls away because of its accuracy and authority. Similarly, “Beached” uses a long sentence as its conclusion, encompassing many of the themes Skirmish uses to expose the self to the world:

dobbygibson

Dobby Gibson

…Below: lovers,
desperate for darkness, fumble for the switch,
tangling themselves in postures of pleasure
they swear they invented,
as if to fend off  the realization
they’re trapped in the same cycle of desire,
here beneath a sky of clouds
and everything that isn’t clouds,
a bay of sailboats reflecting prefect sailboats,
a beloved undressing herself right back into smoke,
right back into the world’s own wishful thinking.

Dobby Gibson tunes and refines the vanilla solipsism of a populist poet like Billy Collins, which is the voice of the white male inside his living room, observing the wheels of the world, yet Gibson takes this sensibility and evokes its nervousness. The raw knife’s edge of his syntax and his epistemological scope create a fresh lyric mode that sounds fresh in poem after poem.


Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →