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Flirting with relevance.

Sky Lounge by Mark Bibbins Graywolf. 72 pages, $14.

POET Mark Bibbins is delicately attuned to tenderness, warmth. Really, he is. At first glance, his verse seems more interested in teasing out the cold possibilities of language, recalculating syntax, and shuffling images about to echo a postmodern disconnect. But look deeper into the poems of his first full collection, Sky Lounge, and you'll find a poet who's as capable of producing the simple, tender moment as he is the profound statement.

In a poem titled "Slutty," as the speaker walks through a sexually charged evening, a question seems submerged in the poem's murk: is lust all that's left? By the poem's end, though, a final admission must suffice: "I'd like something too/ to tear at me." Even so, there's a sense that desire at its highest pitch can veer off into tenderness at any moment. Lost among come-ons and a "third party" who wants to join in, Bibbins reminds us, "Caress can still be the right word...," a provocative double acknowledgment that both the act and the word that describes it can still figure into our jaded, relativistic vocabulary.

In one of his strongest lyrics, another night of the body's possibilities ends, Bibbins writes, "with our making believe sleep:/ the genius of your blowing on/my heart to slow it down." The poet's project is certainly about the disjointed, the oblique, a verse hammered by the blunt intrusions: ghostly references, "the dusty little tongues," and the submerged: the "black fins/ of whales as they go under."

In "Now, As Ever," Bibbins gives voice to the moon and opens a window on his own poetic mind, hinting at the postmodern futility of qualification, modification, naming: "Cunning and flirting/ with relevance, the moon intones:/ Why bother, bothered, with description--/ it has always been this way." At the same time he lovingly pokes fun at his own philosophizing: "Oh, bent moon, how you/do go on."

His most challenging poems trade in landscapes (mindscapes?) of altered reality, built upon a drugged-out lyricism. In his most musical moment, in a poem that contains booze, drugs, "dreamboats," and bodybuilders, he riffs: "Disbelief becomes delirium when/darling buds blossom in the deep blue day." A nine-page prose poem squatting in the center of the book, however, is so profligate with hyper-imaginative threads, images, and symbols that the tangle hardly lends itself to evoking emotion, much less meaning.

Many of Bibbins' poems are so demanding that one wishes he would let down his guard more often, admit desire outright--as he does, for instance, in a touching "Truncated Elegy" to the late singer Jeff Buckley. "We wait by the delta for a drunken boy to return/ leaving our doors unlocked in case his longing exceeds us." The poem ends with a heartbreaking image of Buckley, "Flower in his teeth love sung to his own end and the dark/ he drifted through like the moon burning up a merlot sky."

Strangely, in one of the rare straightforward moments, Bibbins' normally frenetic verse becomes flat and uninspired. The poem, "After the Smoke Cleared," can easily be read as a post-plague-years poem beginning with the line, "we emerged nostalgic for the various fruits/ of youth,/ for nostalgia." One line, while thought-provoking, verges on bland speech-making: "We take fear less seriously now,/ having passed into a lull of cautious optimism."

Bibbins encourages readers to contemplate his muse, namely music. His website ( lists several audio clips as musical accompaniment, "songs that go with Sky Lounge." And at the book's end, on a page titled "Overheard," he simply lists groups like The Breeders, Stereolab, Underworld, and musicians like Brian Eno. Perhaps what sets Bibbins apart is his unrestrained use of an idiomatic language that moves fluidly from love song lyric to Kierkegaardian inquiry. Yet the moments that seem to resonate most are those when he eschews any affect and plumbs the depths of his own schizoid voice, a lyric that seems elusive even to him: "Surely/ he must know something/ of the icy language we're in?"

This debut collection contains moments as natural and romantic as "your arm fell across/ my shoulder and you asked how long you could stay." But Bibbins can just as easily put forth the dizzying declaration: "the martyr's/ a murderer locked in a room/ till the saint slips him the key." In a sea of prosaic poets, Bibbins' range, reach, and refusal to be easily categorized make him deliciously relevant.
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Title Annotation:Sky Lounge
Author:Hennessy, Christopher
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
Previous Article:A Life in 'The building'.
Next Article:Here is elsewhere.

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