The cover of the book. Image Copyright 2014 by Paul Chandler,
cover design Copyright 2014 by Tracy DeOlivere Greenidge.
Barbadian Robert R. Gibson’s first poetry collection, plainly titled Erotic (128pp., pb), opens with a preface that at first seems unnecessary: declaring, “Love is…/More than moans between/Two lovers rising from/Heaving breasts/Glistening chests,” it doesn’t offer particularly fresh insight. Even the titles of the book's three movements are overly familiar: Eros, Coitus and Aphrodite. No, Erotic is far more preoccupied with physical action, far less with philosophical reaction, and almost furiously so. The late Montreal poet Irving Layton comes to mind—the virility of the man and his verse.
What Gibson’s preface does, if it offers insight in the service of the work to follow, it does by way of alerting the reader to the insistent force of his words and their indebtedness (also made clear in the Acknowledgements) to spoken-word styling. This is both advantage and disadvantage. We can see the poet performing on the stage, but will we hear him on the page?
Yes and no. There are moments. These are helped by Gibson’s sense of humour, evident in his cautionary disclaimer about not being responsible for “any population explosion” following the reading of his book. What he is responsible for, will have to answer for, is Erotic’s content.
“Heavenward” starts absurdly, and is endearing in a calypso kind of way: “I want to sink so deeply/ Into you that/ An excavation crew/Would have to be on call/To extricate me….” It is soon undone—an unfortunate pattern quickly established in the collection—by pedestrian development: “Body/Mind/Soul…/Completely/ Merging my hydrogen/With your oxygen/Creating a fusion/Producing a new creation....” The poem falls flat by the last line, when the lovers "Kiss the face of God": not even the punning can give it the intended lift or casual gravitas. In the next poem, “Galactic,” the speaker asks, “Can you feel it? I can.” He may be the only one.
“Galactic,” like too many of the poems here, is filled with clichéd imagery associated with sex (“I can’t cool down when your touch/Brings my blood to a boil,” “Our kiss fans the flames into an inferno”). The problem is the speaker, who is sometimes the poet, sometimes an adopted persona, should be showing us how this happens, not telling it all out. Instead, much of his plea sounds prosaic when it should be most lyrical: “’Cause we’ll burn together, baby/You and me—just us making love.”
Gibson can get our attention with rude word play. The speaker’s/poet’s goal: “To make your kitty purr with just my voice/Fuck you with my baritone.” Erotic is, after all, dedicated to “the love of my life.” Except he fumbles when the silly slips into the ridiculous (or vice versa): “Phallus shaped phrases fill you up/Stretch your mind as though you were on top.” The lack of strong, sustained imagery hurts the piece as we move to a “voice unsteady/Like a surfer manoevering/On swelling surf….”
A number of the poems could lose such lines. The words in Erotic need more love—more attention to line breaks, meter and rhyme. Too often, they feel as if they’re tumbling out of the poet’s head or mouth, with no real thought to how or why the next should come or connect. It’s as if the urgency of the material, or the moment, takes control, and the passion gets in the way of finer expression. This is a shame—because Gibson has heart, a sense of the genuinely sensual, and clearly seeks to evoke love in others as much as he craves it for himself.
But he may need to think further about what that evocation means to men and women, and move beyond the strictly personal. Erotica benefits as much from restraint, and the sweet unbearable tension it can cause, as from frank, honest or explicit desire.
To forget this can result in unintentionally crude opening lines, such as these from “Cooking”: “Fingers slip inside your sauce/Stirring with the fervour of a master chef….” Shouldn’t the fervour depend on what the master chef is making, or on what he’s hoping to stir up? The limitation of Gibson’s approach in Erotic is that it too often misses that identification with the other’s soul or heart. The few women given voice are not wholly convincing (see “Play Me,” for instance), because Erotic generally avoids the sharing of thoughts and feelings, of ideas and concepts, between lovers. The poems are almost always about what the speaker will do and how that makes him feel.
“Conquest” and a few others buck against this trend. The metaphor of “the explorer” and “the explored” (or to be discovered) does get muddled, here. Gibson can be frustratingly rambling and un-arousing. And yet this poem is about more than intercourse: “Seeking veiled treasure/Hidden behind the unknown./Making sojourn as musky heat rises--/Passion’s noon.” Intermittently, it is about the power dynamics prevalent among the sexes, the human instinct for supremacy, and possibly about the vestiges of colonialism still loitering in inter-personal relationships among Caribbean people. “Vulnerable” is similarly successful, though its sentiment carries the piece more so than its language. When Gibson is overwrought, with the words exhibiting very little of poetry’s necessary trappings, he can make you yearn for the simplicity of a Hallmark card. But he does better with shorter verse. “First/Last” shows promise, mainly in its use of narrative voice. “Sun Salutation,” a near sonnet, reads like a worthy dirty limerick (“Naked, I wake, stiff rod in air,/Waiting for you to place your lips there.”)
Gibson’s enthusiasm and colloquialisms are easy to appreciate. In his commitment to keep it hard, he manages to keep it real. It’s an attractive trait all on its own. What fails to enhance Erotic, despite stand-out pieces by Michelle Cox and DJ Simmons (who reminds us “That it ain’t just ’bout sex…/I want to make love with your poetry.”), is the inclusion of work by other poets. It’s a further mistake on Gibson’s part to close the collection with words other than his own, particularly when those words are weak. Instead, readers will wish Gibson’s energies and skills had been more distilled. The attempt at a collection that delivers what Bajans might call non-stop fooping could have been sharper if there had been more sexual nuance, and far keener editing. There is a narrative—and a truly fine one—that should have shaped this collection more fully. Not the one about “Locking and wrestling you to submission,” rather the one about the efforts of a poet to coax a shy or reluctant lover out of her doubtful reserve. The one that tends to get lost amid so much display of ardour.
Updated December 12, 2015.
· Robert is the critically acclaimed author of the NBM Amerotica titles Attractive Forces, Stray Moonbeams and Great Moves. His other books include the novel And Sometimes They Fly; the story collections Intimacy 101: Rooms & Suites, The Tree of Youth and Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; and the memoir Sand for Snow: A Caribbean-Canadian Chronicle.