'World Over Water' by Robert Gibb

Robert Gibb completes his trilogy of region's steel heritage

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Move over, John Edgar Wideman. Poet Robert Gibb's "The Homestead Trilogy," now completed, takes its place alongside "The Homewood Trilogy" in the canon of Pittsburgh literature.

"World Over Water" concludes a fiercely ambitious cycle of Pittsburgh poems -- nearly 100 in all -- in the project Gibb began 10 years ago with "The Origins Of Evening," selected by Eavan Boland as winner of the 1997 National Poetry Series and published by Norton.

"The Burning World," the trilogy's second installment, appeared in 2004 from the University of Arkansas Press.

In this new collection Gibb continues his disciplined lyricism and steady deconstruction of "the burning world" that was Pittsburgh. Setting and atmosphere dominate.

Here is the opening of "Industrial Landscapes," a poem about 19th-century painter A.H. Gorson:

"The Pittsburgh school," his colleagues called

This vision of the city, massed shapes laid

Against the light that showered up, impasto,

From their midst -- river and millyard and wharf --

The forms he dissolved or cast into relief

Or drew more massive in the general noon.

Gibb, too, limits his range to mostly still life and landscape motifs -- the detritus of industry. He writes in sepias and grays. There are poems here about mill relics as public sculpture at Station Square, about steelworkers' lockers at the Heinz History Center, about the black-and-white Pittsburgh photographs of W. Eugene Smith and Lewis Hine.

His poetic scenes are always framed and dark, yet illuminated from some hidden or elusive source. These lines are from "Dream Street," the exhibit of Smith's work:

They hold the shapes of our light

In surfaces of silver -- halides and gelatins --

Contact like the laying on of hands

Or the fossil leaf printed on the sidewalk . . .

He's at work, at home, cropping shots,

Deepening the contrasts of light and shade:

The platinum of the train tracks,

Barges seen like dark drowned wings

Being freighted down the river,

The blast-furnace sun having back-lit the hills,

That tugboat the size of a shanty

Perched above the deep rungs of its wake.

Gibb moves beyond still life and elegy, however; his is more than just poetry of place. There are people in the pictures. His is a deeply imagined, personal saga of a multigenerational, working-class family. It is the stuff of novels in verse.

Gibb was born and still lives in Homestead. A baby boomer, he worked for a time in the steel mills himself, as did his father before him.

His grandfather and namesake Robert Gibb died at 35, in an industrial accident in 1905. While "adjusting a belt in the Carnegie machine shop" in Homestead, he fell from a platform to his death.

The Gibb family history, often troubled, is offered up as testament to the human costs of industrialization.

This poet is a master as well of the more public Pittsburgh history. He writes of Kennywood and Frick Park and touring Clayton. "Khrushchev Visits Mesta Machine, 1959: A Variation on the Double-Sonnet" marks an iconic Cold War moment, and it is dead funny.

The book's third section, "A Strike Packet," is devoted entirely to the famous 1892 lockout and strike at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead works.

"World Over Water" -- teens be forewarned -- is full of history. It washes over the reader in small waves. Poem after poem details yet another small panel in Gibb's vast mural of Homestead.

In a recent interview the poet said he aimed to use the his milltown "as a kind of epicenter -- social, historical, autobiographical -- 'a world in which to hold the world' of the poems and their concerns, as MacLeish once wrote regarding Edwin Muir."

There is something a little crazy in this approach to a book of poems. Gibb's insistence on squeezing so much meaning out of Homestead is reminiscent of August Wilson's limited but intense spotlight on the Hill District in his Pittsburgh cycle of plays. Yet both, somehow, pull it off.

Gibb, unlike Wilson, can't use much dialogue as a poet. And his book oddly lacks the narrative verse one expects in such a project. For example, Haniel Long's 1935 classic "Pittsburgh Memoranda," the only poetic equivalent of Gibb's magnum opus, is laden with sprawling narrative.

Gibb's poems, by contrast, are mostly short and lyrical, revealing a careful craftsman working within traditional forms. The poems are rich with sounds. They look elegant in their lines, breaks and stanzas upon the page.

If there is a criticism here for Gibb, it is not that his stance is sweetly old-fashioned. Postmodernism and irony seem correctly inappropriate in a Robert Gibb poem, yet he offers a relentless sameness of approach and subject matter and tone.

Plowing through the book at one sitting is oppressive. A little humor, a few strokes of bright color may have opened up pockets of air for the reader in such a dense body of work.

My last observation begs the obvious: where, among these 100 fine poems, is The Waterfront? You know, 21st-century local capitalism's opening gambit -- the story of Homestead's transformation from brownfield to retail mecca?

I'll bet that any day now Gibb will be doing a book signing at a Waterfront book store, working out the rhyme scheme for that poem.

"Smoky City." 1955-57 gelatin silver print -- W. Eugene Smith, American, 1918-1978, Carnegie Museum of Art
Click photo for larger image.
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"World Over Water"

By Robert Gibb
Univesity of Arkansas Press ($16)

Peter Oresick teaches creative writing at the Pittsburgh High School For Creative and Performing Arts.


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