Books / Reviews

Poetry lies in wait to spring at our throats

by Steve Finbow

NONZEN POEMS, by Morgan Gibson. Printed Matter Press, 2010, 100 pp., $15 (paper)

Translator, scholar and poet Morgan Gibson’s collection “Nonzen Poems” divides into four parts concerned variously with breath, nature, Buddhism, and the author’s mentors and contemporaries — notably Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.

As a collection, the poems embed various images, poetic cliches — snow, woods, clouds, the moon — in an already/always internalized content. That is, Gibson renders anew by form the poetic content a reader often encounters. And if one takes breath as “inspiration” (or vice versa), then breath creates the form:

I am how I breathe

beech smoke in rain

Charles Olson, in his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” explained this usage in composition: “But breath is man’s special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself (in his physiology, if you like, but the life in him, for all that) then he, if he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size.”

Gibson’s poetics incorporates Olson’s theories alongside the eco-poetry of Gary Snyder, and the experiments in regulating line, enjambment and verse in the poetics of Robert Creeley’s almost asthmatic minimalism and Ginsberg’s maximalist exhalations.

Reading the first section’s “One Breath Poems,” the reader moves through comfortable territory amid the moonlight and the snow, a kind of prelapsarian world in which nature is getting on with it, regardless of humanity; where things have their own being outside the nouns we use to anchor them. Using Lao Tzu’s wu-wei (nonaction) to achieve harmony, a Heideggerian releasement- toward-things, Gibson dreams of an autochthonic return; yet humankind is here somewhere, bringing with it destruction, doubt, the language of metaphor, which makes it impossible to precisely grasp what is real, what is the real — “Among them berries glowedlike distant villages burning.”

Sometimes, the page absorbs the words, leaving the poems to resemble footprints across a snowy landscape, creating sinewy meditations on nature and the sublime.

“Breathing, Swimming, Snowing,” the second section, extends the primacy of nature in language, incorporating it within the floating world of memory and recollection, the almost animal struggle to (pro)create, and the binary surge and calm (ebb and flow) of mind/body dualism — “This is my body speaking!I am all about me.”

If the poems in Part I are abstract, mind exercises on the process of composition, then Part II focuses on the thisness of things, of food, of the corporeal — “birches bright as whitecaps,” “cold banana soup in a Chinese bowl,” “my body crawling with bugs.”

Gibson describes the world, and his language-centered perception of it, in a pared-down manner that cloaks, then exposes a vigorous complexity. Not as overtly political as Rexroth and Ginsberg, Gibson is, in a similar manner, enthusiastically expansive about his influences.

In Part III — “Shadows of Buddhaland” — he writes with candor and praise about Lao Tzu, Buddha, the Beats, D.T. Suzuki, and the Karate Kid. These poems, infused with a wry humor, examine the weight of existence yet are lightened and enlightened by an ironic viewpoint.

Buddhism and Japanese mythology/history seamlessly sit beside an almost Beckettian humorous negativity, a staring into the void, like laughing while standing beside an open grave:

After years of crossing my legs, what

do I know of nothing

The final part comprises Gibson’s “I-Thou Poem for Kenneth Rexroth’s Centenary,” a celebration of Rexroth’s life and poetry incorporating quotes from his “Complete Poems.”

An inspirational collection reminding us that poetry “long lies in waitto spring at our throats.”