Heather June Gibbons’s debut poetry book, Her Mouth as Souvenir, is a study of distraction, mediated reality and our humdrum efforts to avoid reflection by filling our time with activity.
Here is a poetry collection to read instead of reaching for your phone—however, it is also a poetry collection that will make you want to reach for your phone, as it reminds you quite eloquently of the fugue state of your mind as you caress your tiny screen. In either case, Her Mouth as Souvenir, out this month, precisely delineates the modern state of frayed nerves.
Here is the opening:
My project is plain persistence, self as spatula
scraping self as burned crud off skillet.
Personally, I don’t think more apt lines have been written to describe daily life in 2018. Divided into three sections, the poems in this book explore modern distraction and misperception, love and regret. Gibbons is at her best when she focuses her considerable powers on the boredom of inactivity or the strangeness of interacting with machines. In “Self-Portrait as Tongue” Gibbons writes:
A strange kind of stress
waving my hands back and forth
in front of a touch-free dispenser
waiting for its sensor to sense me
This kind of low-key anxiety runs through the whole collection. As in the excerpt above, Gibbons’s images usually carry something of the surreal in them, even though they seem quite ordinary at face value.
Gibbons is a poet who can make words turn at their heels, so that the ordinary comes to wrestle with the routine terror of the ungraspable. Those moments where the unknown darts through aren’t always triggered by technology. In “Dusting,” for example, the act of cleaning a dark room becomes something else when the light turns on and the speaker of the poem realizes:
it was filthy, there were
signs of me everywhere
footprints in the dust
chalk smears in the shape
of my hand, tracks from
my knees from where
I had been crawling—
Elsewhere in the book, Gibbons describes scanning the horizon, “weary of parallax.” Parallax is a term for native error in perception—a thing seen from different angles appears to be at a different location. When you close one eye and look at an object, it is rooted in place. But if you switch and close the other eye, the object appears to move. Many poems in this connection have parallax as a centering question. In that regard, they are all wonderful.
Is there a parallax in how we view ourselves in different scenarios? Here is Gibbons again:
I like to imagine I’m getting smarter now
that I know things like the heart is mostly water,
but I still get carded buying cigarettes after yoga.
I know, I’m trying. At night, my neighborhood
is very quiet but for the occasional lunatic
setting fire to a trashcan and a pack of girls
whose hyperbolic gestures of inebriated
affection I watch from my window.
Will my body gnarl and yellow? Silly question.
The answer seems to be yes. Yes, our bodies will gnarl and yellow. Yes, there is a parallax to everything.
Heather June Gibbons celebrates her release July 18 at the Bindery in San Francisco. Details here.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.