Robert Gibb is having a hell of a year. With his poems already prominent lit-mag staples, he began 2017 with the release of After, his 11th collection and 2016 winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. He’ll end 2017 by dropping his 12th collection, the beautifully imagistic Among Ruins (Notre Dame Press), winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize.
The one-time steelworker skillfully uses Among Ruins’ 81 pages to round out his four-volume Homestead Works cycle, with its focus on the industrial past of the poet’s hometown that informs this region’s history, as well. No self-promoter, Gibb has been quietly crafting sharp-eyed work for decades. The result has been a bevy of awards, ranging from NEA grants to a Pushcart Prize, all of it well deserved. Yet what makes Among Ruins a success isn’t experimentation or shocking confessionalism, but rather a reliance on clear-sighted memory.
When Gibb quotes Sister Carrie author Theodore Dreiser saying of Pittsburgh, “What a city for a realist,” he could just as well be speaking of himself. “Light Rail” is representative, as he writes of “[a] trolley like a lantern hung by its handle, / With a stop at the top of my street. / Grooved tracks and, overhead, that grid / of electric netting, / the skirts of the fenders in winter / Running just above the snow, / Though in any weather it was magic — / Clattering, loaf-shaped, amps of the carriage, / The man a conductor as well.” The distinctly wrought images carry a collection that leans on accurate representation.
This connoisseur of jazz and roots music excels at finding inspiration in the visual. In “Double-Shot,” inspired by “the cover of Time magazine,” he writes, “My father in his cups, this his recitation — / Barney Bigard, Jimmy Yancey, Zutty Singleton — / Names like the ones of fabled cities / He loved visiting — Zoot Sims and Kid Ory — / Their lingua franca a speaking in tongues, / The raptures of scat. But Monk / I stumbled upon on my own one week / … And after that in the record bins / Where I found him featured in profile again …” He relies on precise language, a signature invoking a supple musicality.
While Among Ruins leans heavily on ekphrasis (literary descriptions of visual arts), Gibb juxtaposes his and the area’s past in relevant, beautifully rendered ways using a wide range of artists and photographers as a lens to situate the reader among the rubble of things past.