Robert Gibb’s books include The Origins of Evening (1997), which was a National Poetry Series winner. Among his other awards are two NEA Fellowships and a Pushcart Prize. His most recent books, Sheet Music (Autumn House) and The Empty Loom (Arkansas), were both published in 2012.
THE MUSES OF CHILDHOOD BEING FEMALE
A ladder of steps hammered to the side of the hill
Where Morgan’s grandmother lived alone
In what’s locally called a clinger. Its Insulbrick siding.
The spires on the sides of tumblers she filled
With Kool-Aid, rung by rung. And the cellars
We passed through, ogling at gun-racks and tackle,
Bell jars stuffed with pig’s feet like dusky chunks of chum.
Even now I can rifle through the shadows
In parents’ bedside tables, the closets of older sisters,
Their silk-filled dresser drawers. Can picture
My Aunt Sis standing on her porch one summer,
Teaching me to savor the sweet bruise of the fruit.
There was the first apartment we moved to,
Where the bed sprang shut behind its draperies.
My Aunt Hettie’s blood-red ceiling. That slant room
Under the rafters where my cousin’s body
In the louvered light was almost too startling to see.
As if all remembrance were a kind of recompense—
The limb is phantom, but not the itch.
One-half of the top taken from off a stove.
Or so it looked like, the red-coiled burner
On which my lunch was heating up:
A single serving can of clam chowder,
Which was new to me then as well.
I’d watched the bartender tap it with a flourish
Into the sauce pan, grill at a sizzle beside him,
Behind the kind of counter I’d sat at before
When ordering sodas or ice-cream floats.
Still, I’m in my element, perched on a stool
Beside my father and soaking up the exotica
Of labels and posters, brand names
In their cursive, neon, bird-of-paradise hues.
A cloistered world with its high side window
In which the dust motes swirl.
I breathe in the tang of malt and tannin,
The briny insistent smell of the clams.
We sit there together—whetted, expectant—
The way we do at the Communion rail.
“Drink this in remembrance,” said the priest.
My Uncle Arch taught me how to knot a tie,
Standing behind me in the mirror, his hands on mine,
Threading the fabric around itself,
Slipping it tight between the tabs of my collar—
An isosceles I’ve been cinching ever since.
It’s Sunday and we’re getting ready for church,
Which is why I was packed off for the weekend
With my one good suit of clothes: a rite of passage
Though the wrong way round, visiting the house
I was raised in till my widower father remarried.
The light in the room that morning is a kind
Of crisp white linen—or so it seems in memory—
The room in which I learned to dress myself
In every stitch of my clothes.
This was going to be a poem about my father,
How when I got home and told him what I’d learned,
The hurt shot across his face, binding me
With another kind of knot. I didn’t have the heart
To write it, the poem of disappointment,
With its hand always out for more.
Back before the private life went public
Like shares, they were a fixture of it, the old indoor
Wooden ones, sentinel or all in a line
With their seats and shelves and pleated fronts,
The lights coming on when they shut.
You sat in a glassed-faced closet the size of the confessional,
Dropping coins through their slots,
The clang of change tripping the circuitry open.
The dials were like the clocks back then,
Circumferenced with numbers,
The phones black-boxed to walls
On which clumsy glyphs and messages were scrawled.
So there you were, snugged in, out of earshot
And ready to have your say.
Landlines, sea-floor cables, the creosote-soaked poles—
You were connected to all of it.
Which has now turned all to cloud.
COMING OF AGE DURING THE KENNEDY ADMINISTRATION
In the woods where someone flung it:
Some meat magazine just waiting to be found.
One of the old soft-core ones, Tempo or Hit!—
Breasts in sweaters or cleaved from a blouse
(The thresh of all that nakedness, starkly lit),
Breasts in a nightie like an air-brushed cloud.
Donna liked to pretend it was a stick-shift.
This after school on her front-room couch,
Going on about hot-rods and drag strips
And making those revved-up engine sounds.
As if along for the ride, I’d sit in all that traffic.
Sheer innocence, it seems to me now.