Taking a cue from Edward Byrne’s wonderful blog One Poet’s Notes, which offers crackerjack analysis and recommended readings on contemporary poetry, and from Lemonhound’s ongoing guest blogger series on how poems work, I have decided to post my impressions about poems I have especially enjoyed over the years. For starters, a poem I find myself thinking about all the time is Reginald Gibbon’s “Madrid” which I found in his new and selected poems Sparrow. I first read this poem three or four years ago but I often go back to my bookshelf to seek it out as it still haunts me. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Through stone portals and under colonnades
into the old central plaza in cold December
came gypsies and outcasts with green branches.
They had broken off boughs of pine and spruce
along their minor routes to the city.
They had stripped copses and groves and plantations.
They camped on the cobbles, they lived in tents and wagons.
They sold the branches and a few small trees; some begged.
Little fires flickered in their artificial forest.
They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza
the stillness they had torn out of the woods,
as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.
Overheard, their voices sounded raw and smoky, used up.
But late, rising above the noise of cars and of children
playing at all hours, there might be a guitar and singing.
Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children
improvised intricacies of delay, so as to praise and hawk
the scent of green, so as to implore and beguile.
I was outside their thoughts, I was outside their ways.
We judged each other, I bought the wasted pine boughs.
The children stole my money, I stole their image.
Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.
- by Reginald Gibbons
What I think I like most about this poem, besides its passionate engagement with a foreign city like Madrid through visceral images like “Little fires flickered in their artificial forest”, or its fusion of sound and meaning through noteworthy alliteration like “Catching my coat sleeve, their beautiful dirty children / improvised intricacies of delay”, is its creation of a dual consciousness and its use of time.
First, we enter the poem with the speaker, as if through the speaker’s shared “I” and the shared attention of we, the listeners, the past is delivered up momentarily whole. However, midway through the poem, we become suspicious that the time-fabric of the poem is not a solid unbroken line afterall but a stitch-work of stolen moments as when Gibbons writes “They seemed to have brought with them into the plaza / the stillness they had torn out of the woods, / as if to sustain the peace the city had torn out of them.” It begins to feel as if these gypsies, and the speaker, exist outside of time’s confines.
These suspicions are confirmed in the poem’s last lines “The children stole my money, I stole their image. / Now we are all outside that time, we are all inside this language.” as it becomes clear this is only a reproduction of time and of feeling. All at once, there is the speaker experiencing the historical moment in the poem but also the mournful voice of the poet elegizing that moment which happened long, long ago. As Tess Gallagher eloquently puts it in her essay “The Poem As Time Machine” in Claims For Poetry: “This is the sadness of the photograph: knowing even as you look, it was not like this, though it was. You stand in the “was” of the present moment and you die a little with the photograph.”