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This is how it happens: I arrive early at the airport in Greenville-Spartanburg only to learn my flight is delayed. This small, homey airport feels like someone’s living room–with plush carpet and tall windows and lots of cushy chairs for semi-private conversations and prime storm viewing. I am traveling alone and haven’t eaten since breakfast, so I take a seat on a high bar-stool at Windows Restaurant–the diner side. A seasoned waitress, named Sandy, with a fabulous, frosted perm recommends the mushroom-swiss burger with all the trimmings. We get to talking. She grew up in south Florida near where I live now. “Sometimes I miss it,” she says, pouring my refills from waterfall heights. “But then of course, sometimes I don’t.” She seems like a very balanced person.
Before I left Converse College, a friend slipped a book into my bag. “It’s poetry on Copper Canyon Press,” she said. “I thought you might like it.” I lay the book on the counter now and smile to myself. Good diner reading, I think—They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full. Then, I open the book and devour it while Sandy keeps my coffee warm and cartoon purple lightning strikes outside the glass. “You writing that book or reading it?” Sandy asks after a while. I do tend to make a lot of notations. “Actually, I’m making a list,” I say:
Ten Reasons You Should Read Mark Bibbins’ Newest Book:
1. You aren’t embarrassed to be seen laughing by yourself in public.
This isn’t linguistic slapstick. It isn’t funny ha-ha. It’s read-read-pause-GUFFAW. For everyone who has ever studied abroad or gone backpacking after graduation: “Europe: you swear it exists/ because you once had sex in it, and ideas.” For everyone who has ever been perilously honest with herself: “Sometimes I feel like/ a stopped clock, except//one of us/ is right twice a day.” For everyone who enjoys pithy insights into human nature: “Even the boys check their hands when/ someone says GIRL HOLDING A SNAKE, / to make sure they aren’t the girl.”
2. You like riddles better than knock-knock jokes.
Bibbins writes, “What/ makes an island: too few canoes.” Though, after reading this book, I’m convinced Bibbins is capable of writing some extraordinary knock-knock jokes unlike anything we’ve ever heard before.
3. You find the first-person plural an enticing form of address, even if you didn’t realize it until now.
It isn’t a “royal we” that appears in Bibbins’ poems. It’s a pedestrian we, a possible we, the hopeful and preposterous and desperate and ponderous we to which all of us belong: “We lived in a puddle before the wave.” Didn’t we? “We hurtle down the Grand Canyon.” Don’t we? And this indisputable little gem: “Certainly we all need// a visit from the Perpsective/ Fairy now and then but you// have to be careful because/ not just anyone/ / can play him.” Mark Bibbins can.
4. You’re a sucker for a snazzy poem title.
Of course, it’s very disappointing when poems have stand-out titles like pop-up books or neon marquees, but then the bodies of the poems turn out to be as two-dimensional as Flat Stanley. Rest assured; such disappointments don’t apply here: “You’ll Get Better Attention When You Die,” “In Which the Pathetic Fallacy Wants to Even More,” “Desire Loves Disaster,” “Spring, or, I Don’t Know Everything Is Wrong With Me,” “What Are Predators but Parasites That Kill You Faster,” “The Year is Always Two Years Ago,” and “Better than Okay, with Androgyny.” When I got back to south Florida, I wrote these titles on little strips of paper and passed them out in class. Helen’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but Bibbins’ titles launched twenty of the best forays into poem my intro students have made this sweltering, summer term. You tell me which feat is more impressive. “It’s like they make you feel less self-conscious and more open about what you really want to say,” one of the young poets said. Exactly.
5. You’re a sucker for a poem that knows it’s a poem and is willing to talk about it.
For instance: “Poem That Wants to Know If We Need Anything from the Store,” “Poem That Wants to Know When You’re Taking Out the Trash,” “Poem That Wants to Serve You Comfort and Despair,” “Poem That Wants to Be Something Rather Worse,” and my personal favorite, “Poem That Wants to Use Revelation 3:16 as an Epigraph.” Since Revelation 3:16 doesn’t appear in the poem itself, allow me to putty this gap: “So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” This verse makes a surprisingly natural segue to “A guy who was a regular/ at the bar where I used to work//we called Peckerhead because/ he looked sort of like a balder//Ginsberg, who looks like a pecker.”
6. You’re a sucker for poems that address “THE BIG ISSUES,” including AIDS, 9/11, the failures of capitalism, and the failures of Pat Robertson, while also leaving room for “The Little Things” that often mean so much: umlauts and Vespas, candygrams and the number 3, et al.
Bibbins’ poems, with their inspired scope, also touch upon Godzilla and “plain old longing,” subjects which clearly fit both categories.
7. You’re a sucker for inventive language and eponyms.
Bibbins’ poems, with their lexical diligence, which is also to say their lexical playfulness, remind us of words we learned long ago and wish we remembered to use more often. Think of “surfeit.” Think of “elsewise.” Think of “cajole.” Then, think of “duress/ duress/ duress” three times for emphasis. And of course there are also the words we never use because we have never heard them before. How trippingly they topple from the tongue: “weddingful” and “wetforever.” And these: “nontroversy” and “Taintgate.” You have to read the book to find out what they mean. Even “Bibbins” is awfully fun to say.
8. You’re a sucker for any poet who writes well about the moon.
I had a creative writing teacher once—a very profound guy—who said, “No writer is worth his salt until he has something new to say about the moon.” How ‘bout this?
I say this/ as though you were not everyone
as though the moon had only a stump
and nothing better to sketch
than its bleached and bloated self
Bibbins is pretty salty, if you ask me.
9. You’re a sucker for any poet who puts you in mind of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Hilda Morley, and others of the projective verse school.
Olson’s vision for projective verse, sometimes called “open verse,” was the poem-space as a “field of action,” free-wheeling lines which closely followed the breath. One goal of projective verse, as Olson described it, was “to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” Bibbins’ poems are neither careless nor logical. Put another way, they are among the most carefully rendered examples of illogic I have read, and thus they make perfect poetic sense. For instance:
He called me
Dear. I had, two days before,
dreamed he called me Darling.
See how I settle for less.
And here, see how he inhabits the compositional field completely. There are lists and caesuras, slashes and cross-outs—an approximation of the always assessing-and-revising nature of the poet’s own consciousness at work:
you can put “mimesis”
and “blinking when forbidden” please
love the desert
take it home
put it in a cage
with what’s left of the ghost—
—even you should admit it’s sweeter
than the pet leech
you used to keep
1o. You appreciate any poet who knows that we’re all suckers for something “far too beautiful to bear.”
These words appear in a poem called “Almost as Good as What We Destroyed.” Early on, Bibbins’ speaker says, “if it helps to grip my hand/ as we plummet, you can.” I think about this line as I am reading. I think about the ways poems plummet into beauty the same way they plummet into despair. I think about another poem where Bibbins writes, “If you write ‘ironic detachment’/ in your orange notebook again/ I’m going to throw it into a fire/ even if I have to make a fire.” I think he would, too. I’d like to warm my hands by that fire except it’s hot as all hell in South Carolina in late May. Then, that voice again: “I offered you my hand before—maybe you should take it.” So I do—and you can, too. I hope very much that you will.
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full
By Mark Bibbins
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 978155654588, 105 pp.