Reviewed by George Simmers, D A Prince and Ross Kightly
I should like to hear Eddie Gibbons give a reading of his poems. Many are sharp and entertaining, crackling with topical references and neat one-liners, as when he praises tantric sex as a “calmer Sutra”. The wordplay is often ingenious; in Amsterdam:
.......Down the Zuider Zee side
.......figures at the quayside
.......where canal boats cruise
.......were canal boats crews.
The surface cleverness of the poems is like the intriguing and colourful design of the cover. Calder Wood Press have done a good job at making Why She Flew to Barcelona a pamphlet you’d want to pick up from a bookshop display. Investigate deeper, though, and questions arise. In the case of the book production, you wonder why on earth they decided to print it all in an unappealing sans-serif type.
In the case of the verse, you wonder whether sometimes the poem is weakened for the sake of the joke. One of the most successful pieces in this book is ‛John Motson meets Emily Dickinson’, which gets a lot of fun from contrasting the linguistic registers of football interviewer and Amherst recluse. The smutty joke at the end would doubtless raise a good chuckle at the microphone, but lets the poem down a bit.
Eddie Gibbons likes the sound of words, and this can be a weakness. In the first poem in the book (‛I’m More Th>n’) he lists opposites: “More Lada than Prada/ More NYPL than DKNY” and so on. Fair enough, but soon he’s into pairs like “More Red Adair than Fred Astaire”, where the only link between the two terms of the comparison is the rhyme. At the microphone he might just about get away with this, but on the page this kind of writing looks weak.
I hammer this point because I think there is a much better poet inside Mr. Gibbons, and one that only finds occasional expression. A small group of poems about cancer combine ingenuity with seriousness (especially ‛Hard to Swallow’). I’d happily read a whole pamphlet full of pieces like these. And I’d definitely like to hear him reading the best of the comic verses at an open mic night.
D A Prince:
Some poets have a way with titles: try ‘Aussie Mandias’. If you wince at this, stop reading now; if your spirits lift, if you’d turn immediately to the poem to read the full glorious makeover, then Eddie Gibbons is a poet you’ll warm to. “I met a traveller from Down Underland/ Who said: Two fat and vestless Poms from Cromer/ Drove through the desert . . . ” Yes, this is good gutsy referenced fun. OK, there’s a word missing later in one line but what’s slip in scansion between friends—and I would guess that when read aloud this would jump back in place. These are poems for performance, preferably in a pub, where the rhymes, puns and punchlines carry maximum impact and the laughs roll in quickly.
In ‘I’m More Th>n’ he defines himself by brands names and styles—“More Lada than Prada”, “More Stella Artois than Stella McCartney”, ending with a rueful reality:
.......More syllable than Sellable
.......More Pub than Published
.......More Owing than Ode
Not subtle, but hearty: Gibbons’ poems are like eager terriers, all jumping up for attention—a healthy antidote to that flood of abstract sensitivity and abstruse vagueness that threatens poetry with lingering death.
But there’s more to light verse than merely lack of weight: Gibbons knows that he’s giving us a welcome flicker of warmth to lighten the darkness of disease and death. ‘In vigil, later’ tracks the progress from schoolboy milk monitor and pencil monitor until it reaches the bleaker role of heart monitor; in ‘Running out of world’ cancer enters; in ‘Hard to swallow’ two poems merge, one announcing the news of cancer, the other the lunch menu—black humour, but the setting is among poems of compassion and humanity. All human life is there. Grown-up stuff.
‘Stereotype’, mapping out a man’s life through the vocabulary of fonts and type faces— ‘A child of the Univers, a man of his Times’ —ends with the couplets
.......Now he’s sans hope, sans serif, sans breath:
.......the last full stop is the dot of death.
.......The name on his hearse was florally rolled
.......in one thousand point Bereavement Bold.
.......It’s our time on earth that Gibbons relishes, in all its tastes and sounds. If he has anything as high-flown as a ‘message’ in this pamphlet, it’s in his .......celebration of the food, drink and pleasures of ‘Amsterdram’—
.......It’s dismal in the charnel,
.......get your carnal while you can.
.......If he’s ever reading in a pub near me, I’ll turn up.
By one of those quirks of fate—you know the sort—I happened to begin reading this pamphlet at just after one-fifteen a.m. Before two a. m. I had finished reading and by a few minutes after three a.m. I had actually been impelled to put finger to keyboard with some enthusiasm and produce a response in ‘free’ verse to the entire contents of the collection.
The ride had been breathless—far too close to the white-knuckler of cliché for my devout physical coward’s liking!
I had been whirled and swung from a virtuoso manipulation of consumer iconography, via love in emoticons and clip-art, a meditation on ageing and haircuts, an Amsterdam pun-fest, a monstrously successful Australian Outback parody of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, the best combination of circus and cyber imagery I’ve ever come across in ‘Crashing Acrobats’ and finally docking in ‘Voice Boxing’ with its maximum-impact oath of fidelity: “there, there; fuck you; I do.”
If that had been all, this would still have been a magnificent experience.
But it wasn’t.
Apart from Shelley, the check-list of Proper Cultural Icons includes Chagall, Rothko, Seurat, Van Goff/Gock/Go [Vincent], Emily Dickinson, Warhol, Wagner, Prokoviev, Cruyff, MOMA, Magritte, Mozart and Gaudí. But never once did it feel that anyone was being roped in just for the heck of it.
Add the fact that the collection of a ‘mere’ 34 poems exhibits a virtuoso range of prosodic techniques and you are beginning to get the idea.
But there is more.
There are several of those ‘Oh YEAH!’ moments: ‘I’m not the only one to have looked out of a plane window in that mind-stun moment of world’s rim illumination while coming in to land on the way to a dying loved one’s hospital bedside!’
And: ‘That is what it feels like to realise that you’re not in the photo because you were taking it!’
Some poems are quite long, building their effects with zest, and fizzing from beginning to end.
Others are quite short and either very witty:
.......How silent the lambs
.......the poet chirped
.......How silent the poet
.......the podium burped.
or quite moving:
.......Every working hours the same
.......as every hour that’s passed away.
.......At home I sit and chant your name
.......and watch repeats of Groundhog Day
And finally: other poems are very moving indeed: it may not take a lot to make me cry but . . . read the sequence of hospital bedside poems themselves with dry eyes. Go on, do it . . . try . . . you Alien Semi-Humanoid Cyberdevice!
And really finally: this collection performed the impossible feat: it made me read the whole of three poems based around one of my major detestation-stations: FOOTBALL. Without throwing up.
And that still does not exhaust the delights of this collection. But this is already much too long. So BUY IT!