Half-Drowned and Just Trying: A Re-View of Heather June Gibbons’s Her Mouth as Souvenir
by Sara Watson
I first encountered the opening poem of Heather June Gibbons’s Her Mouth as Souvenir in the winter of 2012 in The Cincinnati Review. As assistant editor for CR at that time, I wrote, “What draws me to Heather June Gibbons’s poem [‘Smell the Moxie’] is the bottomless pit of its speaker’s desperation.” Reread now in its context, I would like to revise my previous, limited assessment. What I admire in Heather June Gibbons’s debut collection, Her Mouth asSouvenir, is the speaker’s determination—“My project is plain persistence,” Gibbons writes—to continue plodding on in a world that, at her best, the poet portrays as just okay.
I suspect Heather June Gibbons would disagree with Shelly, who claims, in his “Defense of Poetry,” that “poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” Rather, what I find enamoring of Gibbons’s work is its insistence that familiar objects are familiar, that mundanity is mundane, and that this drudgery, in itself, is worth continuing. Her Mouth as Souvenir contains the following: a poem in which one does the dusting, poem in which one stifles the alarm, poem in which one attempts to dry one’s hands in a public bathroom, poem in which
...I am driving
or rinsing a dish, or picking zucchini, whatever
it is I do now that I’ve outlived my misspent youth,
confused by the hair-trigger pairing of regret
and nostalgia, ouroboros of endings that beget
other endings, memory like a waterwheel
we’re tied to, half-drowned and just trying
to make it around one more time.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Gibbons celebrates, or even elevates, the ordinary. Instead, she uses the ordinary to construct a convincing facsimile of the world in which we actually must live. “You think what you hear is a song,” Gibbons writes in “I-Beam,” “Turns out it’s just someone dusting the keys.”
“Is there hope in this poem,” I asked in 2012, unsure. Today, having read the entire collection, my answer is no. This is not a story of hope; it’s one of will. The world is hard and sad and filled with loss and grief and regret, as in “Memory is a Bull Market,” which reads:
If I were more than all I’ve left behind,
I’d have a phantom heart murmur
and perfect skin and not a twinge
at the omission of some polite gesture,
that sharp whiff of yesterday’s fried fish,
some moment I neglected in which
something crucial was hidden...
The speaker here inhabits a world in which “everything becomes a study in loss, just one more hotel soap / in a collection of hotel soaps.” She’s a realist, and beyond that, a survivalist, is “self as spatula / scraping self as burned crud off skillet.” Maybe there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe the light will be filthy; but in a carefully crafted—and, I should note, extremely fun to read—study of the troubles and boredoms of contemporary life, Heather June Gibbons’s Her Mouth as Souvenir gives readers permission keep falling down, to keep feeling sorry, to keep fumbling around in the dark.
Sara Watson's poems have appeared in BOAAT, PANK, The Southern Review, and other journals. She studied poetry at Chatham University and earned a PhD in English & Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati in 2016. She likes sentences, animals, rivers, porches, and lesbian lit. and currently lives in Pittsburgh where she teaches Women & Gender Studies.