Calder Wood Press , 2013 £4.00
Reviewed by Jennifer Wong, Maria Taylor and Gill Andrews
All things considered, Jo Gibson’s latest pamphlet, Everything I Knew, exudes energy, humour and an attentiveness to sound.
Gibson’s poems are written with clarity and embrace personal emotions. Many of them are keen, close-up examinations of everyday life and inter-personal relationships. The poet deftly evokes a wide-ranging repertoire of sentiments experienced by those in and out of love relationships, often ending with a mildly surprising twist.
Her short poems come across as her stronger work. For example, ‘Drowning Man’ is a witty account of those paralysed by their inner fears (“caught by every crashing truth / then left on its shore to rot”), ending with the poet’s sensible action to avoid these types, while ‘Deleting files/love’ transforms with wry humour the bitter memories that follow a separation, tapping into creative wordplay on deleting files from one’s computer:
Remember – a protected file cannot be deleted
until you remove its protection.
Unless on closer inspection you’ve been kidding yourself
and there’s still an attachment?
Despite some clever attempts of coining new words to surprise the reader, the poetic language is somewhat hit-and-miss. ‘Hydrogen-love’ describes the laws of attraction in terms of dangerous reaction and transformation, as the protagonist waits for that volatile trigger to stir up the lover’s “flammable rage”.
The title poem, ‘Everything I thought I knew’, is resonant and energetic, and shows the poet’s keenness to experiment with light-hearted rhymes. Self-parody is evident as the poet mocks man’s inertia to delve into murky waters, despite realising that the taken-for-granted knowledge, or experience, is deceptive, like “a party trick” and “a salesman’s slick offer”.
Often, however, the poems here strike me as playing safe. They don’t take many risks and a sense of suspense is lacking. The use of form is not always effective either: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the adoption of long lines, but an extensive and indiscriminate use of them can make the poems appear cumbersome.
This is a sincerely-felt collection, dealing with themes such as love, loss, regret, and seizing the moment. Some of my favourite poems are the smaller ones. For example ‘Bounty’, written here in full:
I crack the walnuts, one against the other in my hand.
You pick out the buttery, bitter treasure within.
I watch you sparkle with concentration.
Absorbed by this small wonder.
You taste their gold like a pirate.
I wear this moment like a jewel.
I like the simplicity of the poem. We do not know who ‘you’ is, but this leaves it open to us to read the poem by reference to our own relationships. But yet I am troubled – I don’t really believe that people find walnuts quite as precious as the poem suggests (even small children – I suspect this is a small child here). And do pirates really ‘taste’ gold in the same way as a person tastes a walnut? Surely they are testing gold’s softness by biting it – something rather different from what the walnut-taster is doing here. I feel picky making this point, but I find this with much of Gibson’s collection: her images feel charming at first, but then don’t deliver as strongly as they might. In ‘Sitting’, “a waterfall / of words pitter-patter” – surely this is wrong? Waterfalls do something much more violent than “pitter patter”. From “Night with her train of stars” –
Her baby died in the night. Each expert
wrung baffled hands, blinked kind eyes
It feels like a cliché, and I am not convinced it is true, that experts ‘wring their hands’ when baffled by an unexplained death. But, in other places, Gibson gets the metaphor spot-on. From ‘Lost’ –
In bed we are spoons
feeding each other dreams
I enjoy the allusion to the common idea that people sleep together like spoons. And the act of spoon-feeding suggests a very intimate relationship, which fits the poem beautifully.
This is a neatly presented publication with an attractive front cover featuring old family photos, including some of the poet as youngster. Because of this I was expecting autobiographical poems about families and growing up, but there weren’t as many on these themes as the cover suggested. For the most part this collection deals with themes of love and longing.
It’s a relatively long pamphlet featuring nearly forty poems, although many are very short. They are pleasant, accessible and drawn from everyday subject matter and experience. I liked the way Gibson homes in on single, individual moments which may seem outwardly unimportant but which are fired with personal significance:
We sat opposite at the Italian restaurant,
our works night out, pizza and pie-eyed bonding.
Trusting myself to Venus I squeezed her hand
while passing the pepper mill.
I can still see her face, all Zeus, all Thor.
I liked the classical allusions blended with the description of the meal: it’s done in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. Here, the musical tone of those alliterative ‘p’ and assonant ‘o’ sounds helps to bind the verse. I think this poet is at her best when sound and imagery combine. It feels very natural.
There are times, however, when I would have liked images to have been more fully realised and explored. In ‘Lost’ the poem begins well with the similes building a sense of rhythmic momentum:
I keep talking at you
as if I’ll find you between the words
as if failure were a ‘full stop.’
In the second stanza the imagery moves from language to mountain climbing: “our hopefulness is a rope / our fate a cliff face.” I thought this jump too jarring, especially as the third and final stanza switches to an eating metaphor: “In bed we are spoons / feeding off each other [sic] dreams.” It’s not an unlikable poem, though. I find it’s more a case of wanting it to cohere to bring out the best in the work.
On the whole Gibson’s poetry is warm and the images are pleasing. Her poems are well-structured with some striking openings and she certainly has an ear for what works lyrically. At times I’d like to see some of those striking elements more fully developed in the poetry. The modesty and accessibility of language and intimate subject matter though would appeal to many readers and listening audiences.