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“Tristesse, Tendresse”: The Poetry of Reginald Gibbons

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

by Barbara Egel

“Poems are one of the ways we speak ourselves to life—our own poems and those of others” 

—R.G., “Homage to Longshot O’Leary”

The words in the title of this essay are borrowed wares taken from the love poetry of one of Reginald Gibbons’ poetic forefathers, Osip Mandelstam. Not only are they from another poet, they’re in a language native to neither Mandelstam nor Gibbons. Somehow, I think the Fuller Award honoree will not mind. He has borrowed the words himself in his own work, which is so openly and joyously colored and guided by his vast reading that his poetry collections, especially the later ones, feel like the best salon you’ve ever attended, with guests from Tu Fu to Neruda to Whitman, moderated and enriched by Gibbons’ own voice. The title words also capture the atmosphere of Gibbons’ work. He catalogs the variations in tristesse: the lingering generational byproduct of the rage and pain of global tragedies such as colonization and genocide and the hopelessness of an encounter with a homeless veteran in a doorway on Belmont whose PTSD keeps him constantly fearful of remembered attacks. But there is tendresse, too, as Gibbons, in his poems, responds to the world’s joys and tragedies with such specificity and self-awareness that to be the object of his gaze must require great courage—and yield an even greater reward. To linger awhile at Milwaukee and Division on a cold day in the company of Reg Gibbons is to be unnerved by “an avid desire to be awestruck” and to know that this poet will make a kind of miracle of even a moment this small.

To read as Gibbons reads makes writing inevitable. The volume—in the sense of both size and aural intensity—of the literary voices he has absorbed generates the gorgeous spillover that is his own poetry. In translations, dedicated homages, and responses, he engages with poets across a broad swath of time and space, ensuring that in his work, readers hear the music of ancient Greece, Stalinist Russia, and contemporary Mexico, among many others. Every good writer teaches you how to read their work, and Gibbons invites rather than demands us to embrace the intertext in his poetry. There is tremendous nourishment and satisfaction in reading Gibbons’ poetry as though he’s the first poet you’ve ever encountered, but to read a poem in concert with its influences adds richness that deepens with each rereading. This poet is a teacher, after all, and teaching us to love what he loves is one of the many gifts he gives his readers. Gibbons’ “On Argyle Street” is an atmospheric, modern poem about his adopted city:


                              Smoky, cold, broken late-afternoon clouds

                                                     mob eastward. Roaming west, I see on side-

                              walks no one I know, no one who knows me, 

                                                     yet from all our wandering at this same

                              hour come shared underthoughts that we can sense. Then

                                                     once again that which is not darkness un-

                              darkens our obscurity, slants rightly

                                                     from sky to make bleak slush-ice meekly gleam. 


But to have at hand a poem by Wang Wei (701-761), whose poetry sparks Gibbons’ work, not only introduces the source but showcases the originality of Gibbons’ homage:

                        Farewell to Hsin Chien at Hibiscus Pavilion

                        A cold rain mingled with the river
                               at evening, when I entered Wu;
                        In the clear dawn I bid you farewell,
                               lonely as Ch'u Mountain.
                        My kinsfolk in Loyang,
                               should they ask about me,
                        Tell them: "My heart is a piece of ice
                               in a jade cup!"

The T’ang Dynasty poet represents extremes of time and geography among Gibbons’ influences, but the obvious ease with which Gibbons incorporates atmosphere, subject matter, and even poetic structure is an indication of how comfortable he is in drawing on the past while living wholly in the present. There is nothing of the forced exercise of mimicry, only the intimacy of one poet whispering to another. 

Gibbons’ easy conversation with the past extends to his subject matter. The connections he makes among the deep time of the cosmos, historic human timelines, and the individual moments of ordinary days may be the most striking element of his work. In Mandelstam’s essay, “The Word & Culture,” which Gibbons included in his craft anthology, The Poet’s Work, we encounter what must be a fundamental tenet in Gibbons’s ars poetica:                                                                                                                               

                          Poetry is the plow that turns up time so that deep layers of time, the

                          black soil, appear on top. . . . One often hears: that might be good, but

                          it belongs to yesterday. But I say: yesterday hasn’t been born yet. It has

                          not yet really come to pass. I want Ovid, Pushkin, Catullus afresh, and

                          I will not be satisfied with the historical Ovid, Pushkin, Catullus.[1]

Thus inspired (instructed? commanded?) to plow up the soil of time, Gibbons does just that in poems like, “Image of a Young Man, c. 1994,” in which the title character is living an ordinary life (perhaps in Bosnia; there are clues, but we are never told) of weightlifting with friends, trysts with forbidden women, and dreaming about his future. Suddenly he’s thrust into history, locked in a prison camp and caught by a camera broadcasting to the speaker’s television a world away. The nauseating speed of his change in circumstances brings home the fact that everything is uncertain, that we could be the next ones staring into that camera, the faces in the history books of great-grandchildren we’ll never have. Or the deceptively gentler seeming “Hide from Time,” which turns a quiet Sunday with wife and daughter into a reflection on cosmic significance and interconnection.


                                                                         Are you coming?


                          you call to me. This universe is still creating itself

                          and like all mere matter maybe we come from

                          four billion years ago til we three


                          spin into being and braid our courses.


Perhaps the reason that this poet can step so fearlessly into the full span of history stems from his obvious comfort with dizzying changes in proportion. Reg Gibbons is a Texan by birth and upbringing, and from his poems about that time, it may be inferred that the prodigious size of that state, with its endless dome of sky and misleading promises of opportunity, has inured him to disorientation based on scale. (His other literary father, Thomas McGrath, was similarly comfortable with the agoraphobic’s nightmare that is North Dakota.) Often in the poems, we zoom from a tiny moment, a small detail, to a vertigo-inducing altitude away from the original situation, or a poem dives from the lofty to the specific with such speed it’s sure to crash, but a steady hand controlling it stops us, hovering just above the key detail that brings it together. “Refuge” begins with bigness: commercial development destroys the nature whose space it demands, but Gibbons is in on nature’s secrets. The enormity of bulldozers and inevitability of  blueprints loses to the power of a blade of grass that knows its place in the grander plan:


                                                               . . . and each grass

                                       Stem no different from

                                                               innumerable others happens

                                       To move in the soft sweet

                                                               air in such a way as

                                       To be fully itself, singular, 

                                                               it sways gracefully,

                                       Alone now, alone, unafraid, at

                                                               the center of the universal hour. 


As you can see, even the form whirls away from its solid center, tossing us left to right, perhaps inviting a vertical reading down each side to make new poems of the words we’ve been given. In his more recent books, Gibbons adopts this form frequently, and the effect can vary depending on the subject. Sometimes, as in “Swear,” the central column is solid, and it steadies the poem so that it can ricochet out from itself and still maintain its integrity. Sometimes, as in “An Aching Young Man,” the connection from line to line feels fragile, the lines overlapping by just a few letters as the lost and injured boy tries feebly to talk his way into a few dollars. 

Gibbons’ language, the vehicle for these vast and specific observations, surprises with each turn of the page. In “Afterward,” he puts us in the midst of the terrifying physicality of an undefined attack, replete with assault rifle reports, from which the speaker and his friends flee. The line “Everyone’s lungs were bleating like smoke alarms—" offers so much to unpack even as the poem resists slowing down or relaxing its vigilance. “Everyone” is breathing hard, bleating like sheep to the slaughter, screeching loudly into the night while trying to remain hushed and hidden. A few careful, hurried words ramp up the tension, complicate the imagery, and set up the devastating final lines. But the love poems are where Gibbons’ specificity of language and image sticks and leaves its mark. These are love poems for adults who understand that imperfection is one of the things that makes love interesting. “Away From You” interlaces nature imagery with flashes of the beloved, “I think of holding gently a tight fistful of your / black hair and kissing you.” The simultaneous care and fervor of “gently” and “tight” is love in a nutshell. It is also particularly in the love poems that sound takes flight. “The Story” is an episodic love poem in which “horses graze and gorse blazes, / Money argues, dogs darken, bogs bark, warps woof.” The mouthfeel of such passages when read aloud makes up so much of the mood of the poem. Rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and the glide from one syllable to the next are part of the lesson of the work.

Finally, among the love poems is the one poem that may sum up the work of Reg Gibbons, if such a poet can be represented by a single piece. “Last Lake” narrates a canoe trip the couple in the poem has made many times before, and the speaker notes the changes in the surroundings as they travel. Gibbons the lover, the nature poet, and the poet of time beyond calendars is wholly present here. The poem lulls with its meandering dailiness: sleeping bags, canned beans, the mundanities of a campsite. Then the couple makes their way to a lake off the expected path, and the context of being human in a place so loud with nature that it mutes humanity takes over the poem.


                        One of the loons

                        cries through the last of the twilight

                        with what would be grief if we, not it,

                        were to make that sound. But it’s not. 


There is no need to blazon or even address the beloved here. Simply being open to those thoughts and reaching for those words in the presence of one’s companion is paean enough. Tendresse takes many forms.

This must all sound very daunting to the uninitiated, but the reason the poems can stretch as far as they do is the voice in and of them that manages themes large and small and generates the language. Gibbons’ lyric persona—from his debut collection in 1979, Roofs, Voices, Roads, to this year’s Renditions—is observant, melancholic, and in spite of self-doubt, has been tested and proven reliable. We can trust him not only to be honest but to continually question his place as a poet and relative to the world and adjust as best he can. It’s a very American voice, one that grew up on the unromantic side of the American west, educated itself into discomfort with its birthplace, and wants at once to wander continuously and to belong absolutely. It’s a voice of late autumn and early spring when the cold penetrates without the illumination of holidays. It’s a crepuscular voice, seeing full sun mostly between the buildings in the Loop or being seared by it in a Texas summer.

This poet-observer plies his varied skills with particular poignance in portraits of individuals, mostly unnamed, whose inner and outer lives are sometimes in sharp contrast, but Gibbons builds the bridge between them to show a whole, complex character. “A Meeting,” from Homage to Longshot O’Leary, tells of a tribute to a “hero,” an elderly woman being lauded at an event. But Gibbons also gives us her sharply contrasting thoughts.


        thirty or so are gathered to honor the undaunted

        long-lived hero

        (while she thinks of her secret despair from time to time, of retreats she did not let others see, of

                    rising again and again in the teeth of cold winds, of the campaign that is about to begin)


The idea that someone—a woman, in particular—who has reached the age of veneration also still harbors regrets, ambitions, even perhaps destructive impulses, invites continual rereading because we sense that Gibbons has planted more for us to find each time. Such portraits turn into comprehensive scenes in Gibbons’ odes, which appear primarily in Creatures of a Day (2008). These are long poems that wander on the page but not in the speaker’s attention. No detail goes unnoticed, and few go unconnected. “Ode: Citizens” pulls the random people on downtown streets and in Uptown diners into a larger cohort: street musicians, construction workers, laborers on the other side of oceans. The merciless waiting to be told what to do next, to be known enough to be told specifically, to hatch a plan to make things different, draws them into this poem together where the speaker is certainly one of them—but with the power to make art from the missed opportunities. 

The voice also takes us masterfully through persona poems, such as “The Blue Dress,” in which a woman whose husband beats her, who is “not good / at telling a story”—her perspective, limited by terror and confusion—explains patiently to her now dead husband how she continually tried and failed to preempt his anger, and it is all the more affecting for its prosaic directness. Gibbons doesn’t ventriloquize or preach through her. She is real and whole and heartbreaking. There’s something of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts here and in the rest of Saints, the collection in which it appears: characters stuck in anticipation of something they don’t know how to ask for. 

In spite of this poetic power to bring others to life, the voice of these poems continually questions itself. In Homage to Longshot O’Leary (1999), a book in tribute to Thomas McGrath, these questions are most urgent as Gibbons occupies the older poet’s orbit. “Poetry After the Recent War” questions whether it is complete folly to spend one’s time on verse technique as the world falls apart, and “In a Bar with CNN on TV” ends a shabbily macabre scene with the line, “I watch myself watching myself thinking about writing something down.” This doubt about the usefulness of poetry, of writing, adds complexity to a poetic voice that also confidently incorporates enormous pieces of literary history. This persona is doubtful of individual moments, certain of eternity. In the end, Gibbons is a Chicagoan with a job to do, like every other Grabowski on the L. That job, though, is “to make, / to make speech whole, to heal,” (“At the Temple of Asklepios on Kos”) and in chronicling those crucial moments, he does just that.

And how do Gibbons’ poems capture the people, history, alleys, and taverns of his adopted hometown? With a Sandburg-like fascination at its ability to create and destroy communities, feed ambition, and generate money, but also with respect for the odd little spaces it makes for those who live in the canyons of downtown streets, only rarely seeing the sun. The concentration-wrecking din of the Loop is the background for the eavesdropped music of “Elsewhere Children,” with its scuttled potential for connection, and “On Belmont,” a prose poem, brings us into contact with a PTSD-cursed veteran who is so certain of the danger of imaginary machine guns that the speaker of the poem is overwhelmed by the man’s concern for him. “Maybe to him, still squatting and leaning there, not ready to stand up, or able, it seemed like he was the one who would get to where things made sense and were safe, and I was walking foolishly in a place of danger.” 

But the quiet Chicago, the two-flats with back gardens scratched out of the dust in neighborhoods far from Michigan Avenue, is part of Gibbons’ purview, too. “A Neighborhood in Chicago” lauds the creatures that survive the city, noting there’s “no escape—but / there’s luck, grace.” “Rich, Pale Pink” captures the moment when at dawn and dusk the clouds put on a show of color, and the citizens of a busy street are all inside, so the quiet, abandoned things of the day can get the undistracted celebration they are due.

                                                    I praise this

                                      spectacle that

                                                    makes me small

                                      at our two back-

                                                    of the house

                                      upstairs windows 

Chicago is a city that almost never stops talking, so when it does, the tenderness is breathtaking. That we have it so perfectly captured here is a gift. 

The legacy of Reginald Gibbons—poet, fiction writer, translator, editor, critic, teacher, and now Fuller Award winner—has yet to be determined because he is still writing, still hungry to bring his rich, vast, multilingual world into ours through his words. We readers of poetry and of Chicago literature eagerly anticipate the next place he will take us, the next complex conversation we will have with his tender, singular voice. 



[1] Mandelstam, Osip. “The Word and Culture,” in The Poet’s Work: 29 Poets on the origins and practice of their art, edited by Reginald Gibbons. University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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