Robert Gibb's fine new poetry collection World Over Water (University of Arkansas Press) is about the past. More specifically, it's largely concerned with images of the past -- the photos, paintings and relics that are, increasingly, all that remains of the industrial-age culture Gibb inherited as the son of a steelworker family in Homestead.
Gibb still lives in Homestead, and himself once worked in a mill. He's now an accomplished poet, his hometown a central subject in such previous books as The Origins of Evening and This Burning World, the first two parts of a Pittsburgh trilogy which World Over Water completes.
In "Raising the Blinds," the poet looks out his window, at weather and people, and is reminded first of photographer Alfred Stieglitz's attempts "[t]o frame withing his view-finder / Those equivalents of inner weather," and then of his own childhood: "Winters, our windows wept / Wherever my stepmother sat." The poem provides a metaphor for the collection as a whole: Homestead, and photos of it, are how Gibb frames the now that was and the past that is.
From the opening piece, "Industrial Landscapes" (about painter A.H. Gorson), a striking proportion of World Over Water is explicitly inspired by other people's renderings of now-vanished times and places: A family photo of Gibb as a boy; Margaret Byington's collection of photos of Homestead circa 1910; and "Trapper Boy, Coal Mine," a powerful evocation of a photo by Lewis Hine. Other poems are set at various Carnegie Museums ("the past's attic," Gibb calls the Hall of Architecture), the Heinz Regional History Center -- where Gibb memorably contemplates a display of salvaged steelworkers' lockers -- and at such reliquaries of heavy industry as the Bessemer Converter at Station Square.
Gibb confronts history most directly in A Strike Packet, a suite of poems revolving around the infamous Homestead Strike, which took place when his grandfather was a millworker. Indeed, the collection reaches a crescendo with "The Homestead Lockout & Strike, 1892," a narrative in which the strikers' efforts to oppose Henry Clay Frick's guns and money seem doomed even in Gibb's use of rhyming couplets to toll the end of each of the eight long stanzas.
Much of this is dark stuff; Gibb's working-class rage against Frick, for instance, flames throughout, in a controlled burn. But Gibb's touch is elegant, his moods varied: He is, after all, that rare poet who can confidently use the term "lap-weld," and perhaps the only one who's persuaded legendary tavern-owner Joe Chiodo (whose late, lamented Homestead bar Gibb frequented) to attend a poetry reading. In World Over Water, "Wood Frog, Frick Park" moves from bucolic reverie to startling finish; "Berkman in Prison: Woods Run, 1900," is a marvel of concise, ironic storytelling.
"This is what it means / To live in history," Gibb writes in "Aftermath," "as though / The past were a difficult music / To keep from your head." World Over Water will stick with you, too.
Robert Gibb reads from and signs World Over Water 7 p.m. Thu., April 19. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600