by Wendy Galgan
THE GIBSON POEMS
BY SIMON PERCHIK
CHOLLA NEEDLES ARTS & LITERATURE, 2019
In his newest collection of poetry, The Gibson Poems, Simon Perchik uses the photographs in Ralph Gibson’s Deus ex Machina as the starting point for an extraordinary series of poems.
From the very first work, “G1,” the reader is drawn into a world first rendered into being through detailed imagery, then complicated by surrealist twists and turns. This is not to say these poems are disjointed. Far from it. Each one bears the unmistakable craftsmanship of Perchik’s work – craftsmanship in all the best meanings of the word. As with all Perchik’s poetry, this collection brings forth an emotional depth seemingly with ease, but actually that depth is accomplished through careful observation, an exemplary command of language, and – perhaps most importantly – a deep understanding of, and tremendous sympathy for, the human condition.
The poems draw details from Gibson’s works so evocatively that, even if a reader has not seen the photograph on which Perchik is basing a poem, she feels as if she could almost see the work through the lens of the poem. Yet she also holds the uncertainty of not knowing if the image she “sees” is truly from the photograph or is one created by the poet out of bits and pieces drawn from Gibson’s work. The poem “G3” begins, “Again The Times, spread-eagle / the way these subway doors / once were waves opening out” and you can see the open newspaper, the doors of the subway car; without Gibson’s collection in front of you, however, you cannot be sure that what Perchik is having you imagine is what actually appears in the photograph that is the basis for the poem or is, instead, what Perchik himself sees in the images before him. This is a strength, not a weakness, of the collection; it helps the work embody the uncertainty of human life and human experience.
Each poem in this collection, while in some way part of a series, is in another way its own individual moment of epiphany, of enlightenment, of mingled joy and sorrow, or of a quiet grief that comes from a profound loss. Take, for example, these ending lines from “G30”: “. . . only rain / as necessary as bending down // comes this close and your voice / more and more feeble, bathes you / lowers you, covers you.” This is Perchik at his finest. He gives us the unexpected description of rain. (Have you, Gentle Reader, ever thought about how necessary bending down is?) He then moves to the voice that, like the rain, “bathes you” even as it weakens. . .with age, with illness, with what the same poem describes as “. . . the whispers / not needed anymore . . .”? It is not a coincidence that a poet, confronting the emotions in this particular work, would turn to “words,” “whispers,” and “voice” as something fading, something in danger of being lost. Yet the imagery at the end of being bathed, lowered, and covered by one’s voice – while certainly death imagery – also evokes images of childhood, of being bathed (rather than bathing oneself), being put into bed, and being lovingly tucked in. While still a sorrowful poem, then, “G30” also offers at least a fleeting image of peaceful rest at the end of the day or at the end of a life.
One theme that runs throughout much of Simon Perchik’s work is the importance of human connections, of how people see and experience (or don’t) each other, how they listen (or don’t) to each other, how they care (or don’t) for each other. He brings a tremendous sympathy to his depiction of human isolation and loneliness, and shows the reader how even the smallest moment of connection has tremendous value. In “G70,” Perchik begins with an imagery of un-fulfillment: “You sit along its rim, count / the way this well returns / wishes and seawater . . .” With the first two lines, the poem sets up the image of the well, the giver of water, the sustainer of life, only to upend that image when we learn that this well is full of water that cannot be drunk and, perhaps worse, returns heartfelt wishes unfulfilled. The next stanza gives us the same type of juxtaposition, with a “damp breeze” – which brings the air we need to breath – that “suffocates its prey”; even more so than the well, this sustainer of life ends up taking life instead. The “you” of the poem doesn’t “escape,” but rather gives in to the well and the breeze and the sand (“- you don’t escape”). Yet just as the poem seems to be saying all is hopeless, it ends with how one “. . . celebrates the catch / where a small stone / was asking for you.” While this image is not enough to erase the sorrow in the poem’s preceding lines, it is enough to offer just a brief moment of connection, of something outside the “you” in the poem reaching out. Even here, though, the imagery is not necessarily without sorrow – it is, after all, “a small stone” that is asking – but rather it provides that instant of feeling sought out, of being recognized, that is vital to human life.
Of course, many of the works in this collection deal with missed or broken connections, ones that cannot be repaired or renewed. There is the lost caress (“G93”). There is the “makeshift prison / filling with mists and shovels” (“G97”). And there is the imagery in “G102” of how “. . . your cheeks will sour / and the fragrance taste from salt” and where the poem ends with “you dry a little at a time.” In this poem, as there is throughout The Gibson Poems, there is the sense of things ending, of possibilities fading, of time winding down. Life is loss and longing, and these poems reflect that. But life is also learning to ride the changes, to see them for what they are and to recognize that there is still more living to do. That living may be hard – it is no coincidence that the final line of the final poem in the collection is “infected with despair and falling” (“G216”) – but live we do and live we must until we can no longer do so. This is the final lesson Simon Perchik has for us in this powerful new collection.