They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full
reviewed by Steve Roberts
What does a poet do after proving they're good?
After the first book or two have been successes, our poet has successfully branded, we know who they are, what their voice sounds like, where they stand among contemporaries, they have successfully walked the tightrope of their poems being both profound and interesting, they can tell a joke, they're maybe a little bit sexy, the poet is established. We can now safely capital L love the poet.
What happens after that? Is it the poet or their audience that begins to get bored at that point? Suddenly a poem or a book for its own sake isn't enough, the poet has to be a philosopher now, a commentator, a sociologist. We don't need poems from them so much as we need answers. This is a tough position for any artist to be in, but with his third book Mark Bibbins conquers this next level of expectation by writing thoroughly sharp, enjoyable and modern poems, pointing a 21st century poetry audience in the right direction by way of example.
If you look closely at the insert photos, you can see the images representing Bibbins' first two books, The Dance of No Hard Feelings and Sky Lounge, the second represented by a promotional matchbook, are being set on fire. I still have one of those matchbooks, no small task for a smoker. I can't say for sure why the objects needed to be symbolically burnt, but I imagine Mark Bibbins feels more comfortable stretching out from what is expected of him, to move this third book in a more instinctual direction; he seems more than happy to, as he puts it, break all the rules even he tells his students you shouldn't break. And of course you'll never be truly good or relevant unless you break those rules.
If you'll allow me to generalize several centuries of writers in a paragraph, poetry used to be all about delving into a single subject or emotion, finding a perfect example of it, and meditating on it. Think of wading neck deep into the extended scene metaphors of Frost's poetry, or becoming the sensual embodiment of of one of Plath's emotions. They found the perfect image or analogy, or at least one appropriate, for one deep, abiding truth, and that used to be enough for us as an audience. But in 2014 we neither have the time to delve nor the desire to limit ourselves to one truth. We want all of them simultaneously. We've wanted them for a long time, actually, but now we've embraced this formerly embarrassing addiction to information.
Bibbins' admirably big book of poems spends on average one to three lines on each particular poetic revelation before moving on, and sometimes less. The reader continually has what they thought might be the main subject or image abandoned and replaced. To paraphrase a favorite quote, he doesn't pull the same trick twice, sometimes he doesn't even pull the same trick once. The headiness of such speed-of-light consideration begins to work subconsciously as collage. Though we can pull a single great one-liner or metaphor from the whole and dwell on it, such isolation seems meaningless when the poet rains them down upon you, profundity after polemic after beautiful image after lyric stanza. Bibbins' poetry seems to work on us the way modern culture does, hitting us from a thousand angles, consciously and unconsciously, all the time.
It's likely we'll put down this book and check our twitter, or skip that song we regret putting on our playlist, then go back to it. These poems seem to survive this new type of attention, even seem to flourish in it. I can't say last century's would.
Even when Bibbins seems to be tempting us to lock him down into simple political or personal opinions, there's more at play. For instance, we might be tempted to pull the “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine” poems from the pack. Just the mentioning of Pat Robertson seems to be enough for us to infer the religious or political from these poems. As Bibbins says in #2 of this series, “All you have/ to say is the magic word,/ISRAEL, and everyone goes crazy.” But a political or religious statement from Bibbins would never be so straightforward and obvious. He seems more interested in why certain words or people garner explosive responses; the terms themselves are interchangeable. And, as throughout the book, he seems more interested in bringing it up then he does brooding on it. It's as if our aesthetic and personal responses are for him a kind of portraiture. He's watching culture's watchmen. And by doing this he's helping his reader see their reflection in the computer screen. Making us conscious of this disconnect is not a criticism, but it informs our perspective, and maybe it criticizes us a little as well.
And what is the big picture, viewed from the thousand angles of all these particulars? Bibbins' view of poets, given in the final longer poem “A Small Gesture of Gratitude” seems to begrudgingly wonder about the poem in relationship to culture. Is this poem an apology or a warning? “They Don't Kill You...” is a book obsessed with the poetic and culturally significant, but it is also an incredibly self-aware and ironic book. Poetry is a ridiculous act, and Bibbins faces up to this honestly; in this final poem he writes
we take facts and/or feelings, herd them like butterflies into killing jars, then run pins through them for the aesthetic and/or ethical scrutiny of a tiny audience made mostly of other butterfly-killers.
The poems in Bibbins' collection are perfect for the 21st century reader, but he or she likely still won't want them. As cruel as it is to admit this, I believe Bibbins and others are attempting to help the tradition find its audience and not the other way around. In that process, he's pinned some tragically beautiful butterflies.