Reading poetry ought to be pleasurable. There, I said it. There's too much competition for our attention in the workaday world for it not to be. When a reader grabs a book of poems, he should expect not only to be moved but to have a little fun. (Show me a difference!) The very survival of poetry may be at stake.
Dobby Gibson, Minneapolis poet and winner of the 2004 Beatrice Hawley Award, understands this. In his second book, "Skirmish," he shakes the reader at every turn. He asks, in the first poem, "What are you waiting for? / We will never be summoned. / Close your eyes and practice / what comes next." Sure, this darkness that comes as you close your eyes could be interpreted as death, but it could also be the dark space in which you create your world; you close your eyes and the lids become the screen on which you project the images of your imagination, of your future.
Your future seems a preoccupation of this book. Gibson punctuates "Skirmish" with short poems titled "Fortune" (more than 20 in all), and you have a busy schedule. Sometime in the near future, you'll "fall asleep on the courthouse steps," "they'll need you in wardrobe" and you'll "find great happiness," but not before "the neighbors ... spread their evil potluck before you." These "neighbors" wander in and out of Gibson's poems and seem to be always plotting: Most are spies and some "pray to live / to see the day you cut down your juniper." There were moments in this collection that had me laughing aloud.
His strange yet strikingly precise metaphors are alone worth the read. In one of the first "Fortunes" in the book, Gibson writes, "To be loved, speak with your hands. / To learn how, open a magazine / and try to catch the little cards as they flutter to the floor." What a wonderful metaphor. He plays with our expectations with the second line break: Of course you'd go to a magazine to learn how to be loved. That seems like something a magazine would advertise: 215 ways to be loved! Then he flips us on our heads with the following image. How difficult it is to grab the cards as they "flutter to the floor"! What dexterity you need! What intuition and practice!
Do you remember those plastic expanding globes some of us had as children? You'd grab it with both hands and pull it apart and it would expand before you like a controlled explosion, and when you let it go it snapped shut. This is how Dobby Gibson's best poems feel. They expand and spin and take in whatever's in their path. "Something happens something happens something happens" and Gibson comes along to make some sense of it, and in a way so pleasurable that we have a hard time putting the poems down. "Confusion and ecstasy:" writes Gibson in the last poem in this fine collection, "there's not much else to go on here."
If the poems in Gibson's book are pleasurable for their torque and verve, the poems in James Cihlar's debut collection, "Undoing," are pleasurable for their drama, that inherent drama that comes with a well-crafted narrative. The book comes together (like the individual poems) largely thanks to a cast of characters and the tension their relationships create. In the first few pages we meet "Aunt Dolores," "Mrs. Ferguson" and "Grandma Carol," among others. He establishes these relationships in the poems, only to destroy them. He sets these characters up, then tears them from us.
Appealing to our darker natures, Cihlar focuses on the violence creeping here. We encounter in spare poems of only 16 lines (often the lines are only one to two words long) the breaking of the author's parents' relationship. In the unraveling we find "Pall Malls," "Seagram's 7," "Rage," "Fists," "[a] Pot of chili [my stepmother] flung on the wall / of my mother's apartment." These poems, quite intentionally, are composed of fragments. One gets the feeling that without the structure the poems provide, without these stories, the whole thing would fly apart.
It's in this unraveling, though, that Cihlar learns to ask the important questions: What do we use to survive? "What tells us where to go?" "What comes after? / I'll always be circling back." And it's in this "circling back" that the reader finds his pleasure. He's sure to stick around to see what comes next, what's next to come undone.
Ryan Vine is the author of "Distant Engines," recipient of a 2005 Weldon Kees Award. He teaches at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.