A skirmish over words

Dobby Gibson's new book of poems, "Skirmish," features a series of short poems, each titled "Fortune." Gibson uses the language of fortune-telling to play with the reader's perception of what is both personal and universal.
Image courtesy of Graywolf Press

Dobby Gibson says he became entranced with poetry as a distraction from a book he was writing.

Dobby Gibson
St. Paul publishing house Graywolf Press is releasing poet Dobby Gibson's second book of poems, called "Skirmish."
Photo by Kathy Gibson

"It felt like I was breaking the rules," said Gibson. "I was doing something that I shouldn't be doing. I was supposed to be working on this novel, which I did work on and finish, but poetry kind of works underground, and it still gives me that feeling that I'm doing something a little bit secret, which I like."

Gibson has since abandoned fiction and devoted himself to poetry. "Skirmish" is his second book of poems, and it contains, amongst other things, a collection of short poems, all titled "Fortune."

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We think we are little gods
yet the one thing we fear most is to be left alone
So we carve one another's names into the desktops,
drop rocks from the trestle.
We invent and overuse the long vowel.
To be loved, speak with your hands.
To learn how, open a magazine
and try to catch the little cards as they flutter to the floor.
Some numbers come with secret powers.
Some secret powers come with little power at all.

Gibson says he was inspired to write his fortunes by a pair of Chinese fortune sticks: the accompanying explanatory book contained fortunes that were so badly translated, their meaning was a complete mystery. But Gibson says they still held an attraction.

"I think there's something about the language of fortune telling," said Gibson. "If I say to you I'm going to tell you your fortune, I could say to you almost anything and that language is going to be really charged and you're going to make associations that you might ordinarily not. So that was really exciting to me as a poet."

Gibson's poems are often open-ended, leaving the reader to puzzle over the meaning. Gibson himself readily admits he finds his own poems mysterious. He says writing a poem for him can be both a monumental task, and an absolute joy.

"Words aren't actual things; they just represent things," said Gibson. "And in the space between the sign and the signified there's a lot of room for mystery and misunderstanding, and that's both the beauty and the power of poetry, and it's great frustration, I think."

Many of Gibson's poems deal with the struggle of writing and finding the right words.

Stephen Burt teaches poetry at Harvard University and just finished writing a book on reading poetry called "Close Calls with Nonsense." He became familiar with Dobby Gibson's work several years back when he taught at Macalester. Burt says he's enjoyed reading Gibson's new work.

"Dobby's poetry does several things that are hard to do together," said Burt, "each of which would be fun and sparkling and vivid done separately, but together they really give his poetry a rare set of qualities."

Burt says you never know where Gibson's next line will lead. And he writes with a strong sense of both modern dialect and the intricacies of the English language.

He likens Gibson's work to that of poet Wallace Stevens, and he admires lines of Gibson's such as "They call it falling asleep/ because discovering you have nothing to hold onto/ is how it always begins."

"This is a poet who is quirky and funny and idiosyncratic and unpredictable from line to line," said Burt, "and yet who does justice to daily experiences that we think of as normal and unremarkable. Experiences that are very widely shared and experiences that are, as his poetry shows quite remarkable and quite strange." Burt says Gibson exposes the hopes and fears contained within mundane actions, whether it's setting down a bar of soap on the sink, or . Burt quotes T.S. Eliot, who said poems are "raids on the inarticulate." Burt says Dobby Gibson's book of poetry Skirmish, does just that.

Dobby Gibson celebrates the release of "Skirmish," published by Graywolf Press, and reads some of his poetry this Friday night at Open Book in Minneapolis.