The voodoo verse of Mark Gibbons' The Imitation Blues 

You know that feeling you get when you buy something local to support the community, then you discover it's actually something you need, something you want, and it's damn good to boot? I felt that pleasure times 10 when I picked up Mark Gibbons' latest poetry collection, The Imitation Blues.

I'd heard Gibbons read a time or two before, most recently and most notably at Charlie B's on a Sunday afternoon with a few other local poets. What struck me hearing his work out loud is the lyrical nature of his verse. He has the beat of the Beats, the loose, come-and-go rhyme of an early Bob Dylan dream song and the authenticity of someone who decided long ago to honor truth and vulnerability and tell the ego to take a hike.

Gibbons makes poetry look easy. I'm enough of a part-time poet myself to know that poetry is, in fact, pretty far from easy. Many of the poets I grew up reading in school show how hard it is to write something true. Gibbons grew up stumped by these poets as well. In "I Should Have Played the Piccolo" he writes, "For years / I never thought / Myself a poet/ I didn't understand / Most of the poetry I'd read / Or care to decode it."

This is why, I believe, poetry collections tend to sell about as well as snow boots in Belize.

The Imitation Blues, on the other hand, is to pedantic poetry what a freshly severed animal heart is to a love emoji: the raw and real versus a copy of a copy of a thing long forgotten.

There's irony in what makes this collection tick. By riffing on those who have influenced him, Gibbons amplifies his own unmistakable voice—the voice that hooked me before I saw his words on the printed page. These poems pay homage to musicians including Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles and the Beatles, among others, in one of the collection's final poems, "Turn the Radio On." You can feel Gibbons harvesting the world around him for inspiration, and delivering to the page an entirely fresh beast: his own sound.

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"Carnal" is the word that describes that sound, and the images it conveys. What a delight to read about "forty years of steamy / bed vapors" in the poem "Ablaze"dedicated to the late poet Jack Gilbert and the great Pam Gibbons (Gibbons' wife). These poems are made of curse words, insights, daddy-o and Old Glory and Jesus and cobalt-blue skies. To turn the pages is to follow a guide who reminds you to look for the beauty beyond your beer can.

I admit I'm a demanding reader. I do not want to feel like the words in a poem were grown under fluorescent lights, in some college office, collected between classes. I do want to be charmed, sung to, and then? Punched in the gut.

There are a good dozen poems in this collection that would make me ugly cry if I tried to tell you about them now, in person. "Spaghetti Matador" tells the harrowing tale of a son railing against his drunk father and making peace. "Digging the Dark," for the late poet Ed Lahey, had me so mesmerized that I read the final line five times over: "the joy in despair is what I'm digging for." A poem about a mother's sewing basket and another about her last bath worked some kind of drill-and-tap voodoo into my bones. The poem "Smelly Business" captures the death of a beloved cat—a cat the narrator's wife believes is his dead father returned. I won't spoil it for you, but it gutted me in a way that brings to mind "The Dog" by Gerald Stern, or "Traveling Through the Dark" by William Stafford. Only pure Gibbons. Pure magic.

The book itself is the kind of beautiful artifact you don't much see on the shelves these days. Local artist Susan Carlson created the cover image, and Chris La Tray designed it. What a treat to find so much local talent conspiring to create a collection of poems. The pages are stitched together at the spine with black thread, like a wound healed, or healing.

Stifling my urge to recite each poem aloud was the only difficult thing about reading this collection. The rollicking cadence and natural sounds beg to be born as you read, the words piling up in your throat, pushing their way past teeth, tongue and lips into the world from which they came.

I would read them out loud to you, if you'd like, though why settle for my imitation when you can witness the real deal?

Mark Gibbons reads from Imitation Blues at Fact & Fiction Fri., April 28, and at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., May 3, at 7 PM each night.

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