You'd imagine that a poet who grew up in Homestead during steel's heyday would write about mills and soot, shift workers and blast furnaces. And indeed, Rober Gibb has done so, wonderfully well, as in his "Pittsburgh" trilogy that concluded with 2007's World Over Water.
But Gibb has long been much more than a Poet Who Worked in a Mill. Exhibit A is What the Heart Can Bear: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1979-1993, new on local imprint Autumn House Press.
The collection, edited by Rebecca Clever, is notable for running in reverse chronology. It begins with picks from 1993's Fugue for a Late Snow and ends with some from 1983's The Names of Earth in Summer, plus 14 uncollected poems. Mostly, though, it makes a case for Gibb -- who's launching a series of tandem readings at local libraries with McKeesport-born author John Hoerr -- as an exemplary poet of the natural world.
By that I mean not that Gibb's always in the woods, but rather that flora and fauna and landscapes (wild or cultivated) are his especial touchstones. So are jazz, carpentry, Melville and baseball. But in this collection, it's nature he returns to most: watching a "Blue Heron"; "Holding My Son Andrew Up to the Moon"; and telling one on himself, about a marvelous creature that wasn't ("Brown Bat").
To be sure, Gibb's narrators might also observe the world from inside a Bethlehem dive bar. And the poet's sense of wonder on a winter solstice is rather domesticated. Sitting in the cold, he observes "water / Marled thick as quartz / In the collar / of the pipe."
But Gibb is a poet who engages as well as watches. In "Fugue for a Late Snow," you feel him tramping through the powder, finding too-early robins "[l]ying out along the roads, bodies / Like small dead fires, stamped flat / And scattered." When his "Muskellunge" narrator comes across the body of this giant fish -- "A whole third of them head, there's / no mistaking what laws they live by" -- he axes its head, a memento mori.
Another narrator hunts. In "[t]he cold, explicit, November air," Gibb writes in "Dressing Pheasants," he has "lifted up the lolling body and known it / Like few others in my life ..."
Gibb is as attentive to light as the painters he references (Courbet, Munch). When he visits Sutter's grave ("Country Churchyards"), he repurposes "gold rush" to mean pollen in sunshine. In "Gooseberries," there appear "twilights / Immense and cold as metal, empty / Except for the few dark flames of / Flapping birds ..."
Presented in chronological reverse, Gibb's poems become syntactically simpler, less densely expressed, but remain rewarding. He is always looking for paths from nature to culture, and back. In a section of the older poem "Whale Song" that's set in a natural-history museum, he writes, "If there were a body / To God it would be like this -- / Resplendent, / With no need of hands."
Robert Gibb reads with John Hoerr 6 p.m. Mon., Oct. 19 (South Side Carnegie Library, 412-431-0505); 7 p.m. Tue., Oct. 20 (Whitehall Public Library, 412-882-6622); and 7 p.m. Thu., Oct. 22 (Braddock Carnegie Library, 412-351-5356). All readings are free.