The title of Andrea Gibson’s first nationally distributed poetry book, Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns, suggests a radically unorthodox fusion of body and spirit -- a striptease to the tune of Amazing Grace, lyrical commentary on tawdry realities. The volume’s 26 poems deliver their provocative synthesis with panache. For example, Gibson’s Katrina poem, entitled “Yarrow,” consists of an initial 27 lines about a trip to New Orleans, the pre-hurricane pleasures of the city’s music, food, and easy hospitality and a year spent gardening there. Then she pays off with these four devastating final lines:
when I heard of Katrina
I thought, “The flowers, save the flowers…”
I never thought for a second
We wouldn’t save the people.
Pole Dancing includes pieces Gibson has previously performed at various campuses and poetry slams and released on CDs. Written to be staged before live audiences, sometimes competitively, the book’s longer poems display slam poetry’s tight focus on the actor/poet’s persona and the rhetorical intensity necessary to hold and inspire a crowd. The poems -- mostly emotional personal narratives and barbed social commentary delivered in staccato rhythms -- blend anger, sarcasm and humor to build a tension (and audience interest) that drives toward each piece’s dramatic closing declaration. (“She’s not asking what you’re gonna tell your daughter./ She’s asking what you’re gonna teach/ your son.”)
That theatrical style, well suited to polemical oratory, can feel more natural to the stage than the page. But Pole Dancing’s clear, colloquial language, biting (and often bitter) wit, wild metaphors and engaging narratives ensure that Gibson’s work easily survives translation from CD and video to paperback.
Gibson, who calls herself a political and opinionated queer poet/activist bent on promoting social change through a cultural revolution, writes poetry that highlights her views on war, race relations, gender roles, faith and various species of bigotry and violence. What her poems forego in subtlety, they more than offset with their energy, directness and passion.
· On the Iraq war: “Somebody pray for the soldiers./ Somebody pray for what’s lost./Somebody pray for the mailbox/ that holds the official letters/ to the mothers, fathers,/ sisters and little brothers/ of Michael 19…Steven 21…John 33./ How ironic that their deaths sound like bible verses.” (“For Eli”)
· On mental health: “Doctor, our insanity is not that we see people who aren’t there. / It’s that we ignore the ones who are./ ‘Til we find ourselves scarred and ashamed/ walking into emergency rooms at two am/ flooded with a pain we cannot name or explain,/ bleeding from the outside in.” (“When the Bough Breaks”)
· On family relations: “‘Cause I have been half a decade now/ falling slow from the hands of your letting go,/ crashing down upon the pages of our separation/ where you’ve written me into paragraphs of/ short-haired dirty-hippie man-hating queer./ And I wonder if you even remember my name.” (“Marble”)
Woven through the political and social commentary, and at the center of Gibson’s most powerful (and personal) poems, are Pole Dancing’s meta-themes: love and survival. For love (and its survival) is, arguably, the undersong of most of her rants/hymns. It’s what lasts when the anger dissipates and the pain dulls: Love’s sensuality and mystery, urgency and obstacles, loss and remembrance, a sometimes hopeless desire that never can quite be abandoned.
And if you forever choose to shred the blanket of our blood
with the knives that hold our differences
we will both forever sleep cold.
But I will never forget the perfect warmth of your soul.
Will never forget my mother knew
that fairies danced on basement walls
and her song
the way she sang it when she woke me
would take me to a place where feet could walk on ceilings
and feelings were always smarter things than thoughts. (“Marble”)
When your heart is broken you plant seeds in the cracks
and you pray for rain. And you teach your sons and daughters
there are sharks in the water
but the only way to survive
is to breathe deep
and dive. (“Dive”)
And what perhaps qualifies as the most surprising love song in the whole hymnal:
The Yoga Instructor
When the yoga instructor broke Natalie’s heart
she started hanging out at the Holocaust Museum
hoping to put her own pain in perspective.
On the phone I did not tell her
how I fell in love '
the day George Bush was elected President,
and how I fell asleep that night
wrapped in the sweetest peace
I had ever known.
Reduced to the printed page, Gibson’s work may lose the stage presence and vocal stylizing of her YouTube ouvre, but her voice is as strong as ever. Page poetry turns down the volume and freeze-frames her rhetorical fireworks in ways that allow the reader to notice the craft, savor the clever details: halos as handcuffs, bullet casings as seashells, tears strung like Christmas tree lights, and the human heart as a “Labrador Retriever/ with its head hung out the window of a car/ tongue flapping in the wind/ on a highway going 95.”
Pole Dancing is the sort of oral poetry that transforms tapestries of disaster into prayer rugs. It’s what you’d get if Sylvia Plath and Lenny Bruce had a love child that was adopted and raised by Audre Lorde: sad, bad, audacious, energetic, and wildly imaginative.
A review copy of Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns was provided by Write Bloody Publishing. You can read a preview of the book here. The book is available for purchase at Write Bloody Publishing for $15.00.
Andrea Gibson, a Boulder CO-based spoken word poet and four-time Denver Grand Slam Champion, is an independent artist and social activist who has self-released four CDs (Yellow Bird, When the Bough Breaks, Swarm, and Bullets and Windchimes). She won the 2008 Women of the World Poetry Slam and will be one of the featured poets at the Split This Rock 2010 Poetry Festival.
Bob Blair is an economist with a former English Lit major’s residual taste for modern and contemporary poetry which he satisfies by scavenging second-hand bookstores and facilitating weekly poetry workshops at Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, DC.
Read other reviews of Split This Rock poets here.