‘The Dance of No Hard Feelings’ by Mark Bibbins

  • PUBLISHED BY: Copper Canyon Press, 2009
  • REVIEW BY: Stephen Burt


“Truly, it never gets old.”

bibbins coverIn the whirligig monologues and post-rock lyric throughout his first book, Sky Lounge (2003), Mark Bibbins sent kids with high hopes and low dreams into a glittering, punishing, shimmering dusk-to-dawn city. The kids in this second book are almost grown up, trying with very mixed success to make, and to understand, their remixed lives. The “I” and the “you” here sound almost self-assured, almost confident, but never quite: they face autonomy with all the demands of youth unmet, and since those demands are so great – sex, love, civic solidarity, promises kept – they may never be met, or not all at once. “Whatever you say sounds better with your thigh / against mine and caught in the camera-phones / of our undoing,” Bibbins writes in “There Is No You Are Everywhere,” which is either a poem of betrayal admitted, a breakup opus, or a regretful ode to averted risk: “you’re too burnt to burn,” he complains, to a lover more risk-averse than he, “or admit we wanted to try what feels almost new.”

Like Sky Lounge, The Dance is a book of subcultural scenes – “white kids giving / mad props to zombies, Jersey studs / with waxed eyebrows and brilliant / buffed nails” – but it’s also a book about feeling fake, urbane and inauthentic, too old for the makeup and too raw for anything else: “another false copy of me returns.” The real appears only through negatives, glimpses, outlines: “the best way to see a thing,” Bibbins says in a fine long poem called “The Devil You Don’t,” is to

the edge of light
that burns

around its opposite, that
which it would otherwise

The slipperiness, the unstable pronoun reference and the constantly changing scenes, that in another poet would point to a theory of language or comprise a postmodern Everyman in Bibbins are signs of a worried, anxious, too-cool-to-stay-cool personality: one who has learned to cherish, perhaps too much so, his power to offer scruples, to change his mind. “I’m not acting coy,” he protests; “I’m just terrified / of some rhetorical you.” But in Bibbins’s city every “you” is rhetorical, and rhetoric – verbal flourish, conscious construction – is not a block to strong emotion but a condition for its expression. Almost every scene and every figure seems both made-up and real, staged and genuine, disturbingly rickety and yet lovely enough that we wish it could stick around. (The devil “adores / the show, the high // tech of it, the low.”) When “an actual naked human stands / on a pedestal on the street” on West Broadway, Bibbins says, “you… don’t stop because you figure // it’s only art,” but Bibbins stopped; otherwise he could not have written the poem. He does not stop for long, though; his language keeps going, almost helplessly churning or burning through whatever phrases he finds: “I grew into a stuffed animal who wanted / only to insert itself into the fossil record…. When / it burns you move away // is good enough advice.”

For all its anxieties, The Dance is still (like Sky Lounge) an exhilarating New York book, even an I Love New York Book. It fizzes and sparkles against the sunlit buildings like O’Hara’s love poems to Vincent Warren:

They’ve hired skywriters
to compose clouds in a sky
off-color but clear; such
clever hats the chimneys

wear; so furiously they twirl.

If you hear something sour in that sparkle, something disappointed in that final iamb, so do I: the lover and his love don’t fit the poem, don’t fit the sky, can’t keep up the twirl. Rural areas give other poets ways to think about nonhuman nature, about what grows and thrives outside and beyond us, but they usually give Bibbins reasons to think about why “we” are artificial, unruly citizens, neither hardy nor solitary, and urban to the core: “a picnic in early autumn” becomes “a perfect time to resent / vegetarians, fuel-efficiency, / and ideas,” while geese overhead set “a kind of gray / fire down at our heads.” He tries, in other poems, to visit the ocean, the desert, even Germany, but he still feels like a poet of city life.

When Bibbins does not remind you of O’Hara, he might remind you of D. A. Powell: one poem is literally a collaboration with Powell (it begins “I used to have the shampoo / by the balls but the wind hurt my hair so”), and others could be. Like Powell, he makes the urbane and colloquial collide with the High Romantic; like Powell, he is inescapably sexy and unmistakably gay, and like Powell he is fond of square brackets and white space: “I want him to kiss me and another way of saying so // [he left a spark on my lip].” Sometimes Bibbins seems too fond of white space: the pages that look like erasures or ancient fragments, with two or three words to a line (“[crawl to // an end / an edge] // defer suffering // without proof”) may not play to his strengths. Even there, though, a racy, divine youth presides: “mercury / in a dirty hat // we see / ourself // but aren’t curious per se.”

Mercury presides over the whole book (as he presided over Sky Lounge): he is the god of quick changes, of youth, of speed, of thieves, of translation, of commerce and of the cities (built around marketplaces) where commerce accretes the connections it also destroys. Bibbins’s “devil” (who also rides a skateboard) is Mercury in Judeo-Christian drag; the beautiful youth who might know everything, the young man who is always running (but not always running away), makes a fit sponsor for Bibbins’s electric lines, and he sees himself, still, parties, in crowds:

Kids roll hash into
their cigarettes and spotlights
turn the smoke pink
in the trees. If he’d had

a childhood, he’d have spent it

running under sprinklers
to cool his smoldering skin.

“He” is the devil, the “abominable fancy” identified earlier in the same poem with Bush-era politicians (“the president who is not the president / trapped in a red room”). But “he” in the passage above is also the poet, always observing, and on fire, like it or not.

Those poems full of white space, their margins all over the place, look at first like failed attempts at philosophical, cod-Greek texts, but at their best they are worldlier, and more personal, and less idea-driven, than their format suggests. One of the best white-space sequences reinvigorates that hoary amateur genre, the breakup poem: “Forcefield [Ardor]” reads, in part,

take the couch

the stove you’ve seen

and even touched me somewhere near

I want more city                                           to kiss you in
[you say]….

you can leave your hand

on the empty

chair between us

Bibbins can sound almost helplessly hip, a poet who cannot help but represent his generation (which is no longer the youngest one to publish poems): a prose page entitled “Suicides of the 90s” alludes to Reagan and Bush in terms undergrads today won’t understand (“Creepy cowboy got an era, crossword lothario got years”). Another poem asks, “Why shouldn’t he let someone / else fuck him to the mixtape / I made?” That such phrases will sound dated soon, that they will need footnotes in 30 years, makes no case against them, no more than against Lunch Poems, or against “The Rape of the Lock.” Bibbins does not write an entirely new kind of poetry (it is a very rare poet who does): he writes a kind perhaps 15 years old, old enough to have prompted reductions to absurdity (as in some of the poetry now called Flarf) and worthy counterrevolutions (as in some of the poets published by Flood). Yet it is a kind that still works, whenever (as here) it takes an interest not only in words on the loose, on bits of culture in the wind, but in people who mean those words or cherish those bits, who watch their city as they watch and love and often lose one another, caught up or caught out amid the mercurial fun.