DRIVE AND HOPE YOU END UP SOMEPLACE ELSE: city lights presents the graywolf poetry tour with dobby gibson, d. a. powell + mary szybist
This evening, February 5th 2013, I bore witness to three gorgeous and prolific minds as they competed gently amongst themselves for the right to play captain. The audience—which spilled out from City Lights Bookstore’s poetry room down the stairs to the main store—was only too willing to be led from place to place as the three interlopers took turns steering the course. Dobby Gibson started the evening by setting the tone, reading from his book “Skirmish”. The poems from this collection take the reader and audience by the collar and gave them a good shake. Library Journal describes the book: “Like a photo whose power lies in having its focal point not in the middle of the picture but on its periphery, Gibson demonstrates that it’s not about what you’re seeing—it’s about what you’re ignoring.” And indeed the poems contained in “Skirmish” catch the reader and audience so unaware with their frankness and candor that the peripheral stuff of poems seems like some small clue into Gibson’s aleph-like work. After reading a few poems from that collection, Gibson read some unpublished fortune cookie fortunes he had drafted up. The fortunes were beautiful and profound, and included such gems as “Beware of the wolves, for they’ve been raised by wolves.” And my personal favorite, “At the necessary moment, going naked will be your only disguise.” The beauty of Gibson’s work lies in the elements that “are human but not”. His work cleverly showcases the animal parts of people—the fears and dark parts of themselves that poetry can so often abstractly distract from.
After Dobby Gibson, D.A. Powell took the stage, reading from his most recent collection, “Useless Landscape, or, A Guide for Boys”. A longtime fan of Powell’s work, I was thrilled to see him gracing the stage of his home city to read to the depraved inhabitants of San Francisco (and some of us stowaways from the East Bay). The poems he read this evening were mostly about the Central/Agriculture Valley of California—a spot near and dear to my heart, having grown up in the backwoods of Depression-era, almond-and-pecan-orchard-town of Winters). Poetry of place is a fascinating thing—through tools of poetic manipulation and skillful care, it locates you no matter what your current location to a place of the poet’s choosing. In this instance, Powell locates us immediately by beginning his reading with: “One of the things you can do in the Central Valley is drive and hope you end up someplace else.”
This is achingly true. Many of my afternoons as a teenager in Winters were spent driving in cars with friends. Past the big round rolls of hay, through the vernal pools of toads, by R. Crumb’s dilapidated hovel on Moody Slough Road, up the hills of Lake Berryessa, and past the farms of exotic animals that people kept just to remember that life was interesting. Freedom was in the moment, and the further you got from downtown, the more adult you became. D.A. Powell beautifully captured the stasis of agricultural California with such lines as “I say the land was sculpted, but it was simply held back.” He used fast food and chain restaurants as metonyms for white, consumerist, suburbia, often juxtaposing capitalism with safety; the last name White with the inhabitants of suburban tract houses; and pleasure with escape.
Last up for the evening was the beautiful and somber Mary Szybist, who had memorized the majority of the poems she read, simply so she could spend her reading time earnestly searching your face. The quietude and grace of Syzbist’s poems are unnerving, especially if she is staring you in the face while saying such lines as “If I can believe in air, I can believe in the angels of air. Come breathe with me.” Her book “Granted” contains many poems and erasures of the enunciation, mainly taking apart who and what is holy, who and what is worthy of worship. Through her poems, we see her curiosity in the way myth shapes imagination, and vice versa. She locates the reader inside her exploration of religion and women by asking the question “What do yes and no engender?” What does it mean that the Virgin Mary said yes when Eve said no? How have women shaped the beginning of the world? In one poem, she reimagines the enunciation through the words of many girls putting together a puzzle, the image of which is a painting of the enunciation. “This red is the red of the lipstick we found at the mall,” one girl says. The disembodiment of that statement is staggering—here is an image of a figure, being put back together, being likened to the alien sensation of discovering colors of lips at something as commonplace as the shopping mall. Like Dobby Gibson, Mary Szybist excels best at unveiling the things in poetry that are human, but are not.
July Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com