Reviewed by Carrie Adams
“So much flesh in the world / wanders at will,” reads the epigraph from Mina Loy that introduces Mark Bibbins’s first collection of poems, Sky Lounge. Bibbins writes not only of ephemeral pleasures and passing passions, but also of their relentless pursuit and the futile search for something that might endure or suffice. These poems are fleshy in their vulnerability and incredibly dangerous because of this. The collection, as a whole, maintains a coherent, singular voice--a self preoccupied with desire and the desire to be desired. As a result, this reader cannot help but feel intimate with the speaker as the speaker seeks intimacy within the world of the poems. The poems become necessarily and inevitably personal.
While employing diction that deftly incorporates everyday speech, the contemporary idiom, and a heightened aesthetic, these poems “lean toward love.” And it is specifically the leaning that remains central. In their direction, desire, and expectation, the poems of Sky Lounge hinge on love and, often, its dearth:
indeed we were suspicious of birds, but rats, well, rats
we found charming, with their eyes so full
of sympathy, their need for warmth like our own. We also
wanted loved to suffice.
When love is achieved or found in Bibbins’s work it is provisional and fleeting: “the one he loves fills his water glass / and is gone.” Elsewhere: “the tiniest inkling of tenderness / exhumed by a blink.” This is love “that’s one-third comma, two-thirds question / mark”--it’s an uncertain and quick pause. However, for the insufficiencies and failures of love, Bibbins indicts not love itself, but us, its incapable seekers, for our resistance to openly expose ourselves to it: “We position so others cannot see / then lie and call it contact.” Our concealment is one more form of desperation: “Here is how we beg: silent, faces masked / in sheer panty hose. Some would call us thieves.” Possibly it is this tendency to protect and shield ourselves that these poems attempt to rebel against. Yet Bibbins’s sense of humor enters these poems often at the precise moment the pursuing self is at risk of being too revealed.
So why are we such desperate thieves, hiding and plotting for a piece of love? Bibbins postulates in “After the Smoke Cleared”: “Since the gods went missing / we had to amuse ourselves, alas.” Perhaps this longing for contact is our response to the default of the gods. The landscape of Bibbins’s poems is a fallen, forgotten, industrial world--the ultimate intersection of man and nature, with bleak, twisted consequences: “Later let’s go swimming down by the electrical plant / since as you know the water runs out warmest from its pipes.” In “The Ice along the Road,” the speaker pleads, “I need you to tell me / the orange smoke of the plastics / factory is / beautiful against the moon.” The idea of beauty itself has become perverse in this landscape, though desperate for love one can’t stop wanting to be beautiful. In “Groupie” the speaker is developing a line of lipsticks with less than appealing names: “Foie Gras,” “Primordial Soup,” and “Contusion.” Yet the marvel of these lipsticks is that they render anyone who wears them beautiful. Similarly, in “No Lot Lizards,” an acid rain is viewed as good facial exfoliant.
One of the strongest poems of the collection, “Fledglings” fully develops the themes Bibbins plays with throughout. A boy finds a bird in a box and begins to carry the bird on his shoulder. A connection is immediately established between boy and bird through language; as the bird makes sounds, the boy begins to articulate them into speech. However, when the bird is stolen and replaced with a replica, the boy does not seem to notice. Later, the boy gives away many of the bird’s feathers, and by the devastating conclusion he is no longer carrying the bird but a painting of the bird on someone else’s shoulders: “When it rains--and it is always raining-- / droplets form as they would / on real feathers and roll off.” We realize it was never about the relationship between the boy and the bird, but simply about having a relationship--it is not about the other but an other, any other.
In the end, Bibbins’s talent is the ability to articulate our common desires with a combined sense of understanding and humor that unites us all in this endless pursuit.