A review of Urban Biology by Ian Gibbins

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Urban Biology
by Ian Gibbins
Wakefield Press/Friendly Street Poets
Paperback, ISBN 9781743050996, 96 pages, 19.95

Ian Gibbins makes an art out of anthropomorphism. He can submerge himself into the life any kind of biological creature to give it voice and depth. In his new collection Urban Biology, the point of view moves smoothly from alien to long dead skeleton or cadaver, photograph, ocean, a range of fish, birds, the earth, a dying shark, various body parts, and a welter of different humans present and past. However far fetched the voices, the surety never falters. The voices, because rooted in human emotion, are recognisable and profound, without losing the strong link to the innate reality of the speaker. Though many of the poems take on a simple terrain—a road trip, a single image, a recounted moment in history—there are multiple interpretations and referents that add depth and meaning.

Much of the book is intense, but throughout there’s wry humour the permeates the pieces. There’s no slow slippage into the denouement. Right from the first page the reader faces an all-too-real impending demise, shot through with an almost kitsch humour in “Space Invaders”:

Once we are here,

molecule by precious molecule,

we will infiltrate your haemopoietic stream,

until your body fluids flow as thin as solar wind.

Like bamboo beneath your fingernails,

we will reduce all communication

to compromise and distant comets,

adrift in the cloying starlight.

Gibbins’ is a renaissance man in an age of over-specialisation, and brings into play his work as a neuroscientist, his anatomical studies and his music into the work. In a literal sense, there’s an accompanying CD which combines electronic music with renditions of twelve of the forty-five pieces in this collection. The CD itself makes for interesting listening, and an alternative perspective on the pieces. The music is tuneful on its own, with a good range of soft, eerie, and provocative beats, though it helps to have the book open when listening to it since the vocals are slightly echoed and the words often hard to make out. In a more metaphorical sense, the poems are innately musical, using assonance, sibilance, rhythm, and repetition to create meaning. There’s also a strong sense of sound in many of the poems–the call of a bird (“echoes of Pacific gulls”, the pulse of sonar, the beat of a heart, a car tyres crunch on the road, or the crash of waves on the shore).

The work experiments with a range of forms and structures, such as the couplets of “Home Pharmacy” where the poem moves through different home products like Reckett’s Blue, used as a laundry whitener, Mercurochrome, Elemental Sulphur used as a garden fungicide, Iodine, Clove Oil and Gentian Violet. The vivid colours, smells, and memories that these products will call up in the reader work in conjunction with a deeper exploration of the elements themselves:

While my mouth fills with icicles, only an improbable

alignment of planets can conjure up the type of atmospheric

perturbation that would see backyards and parkways lush around

polar lava flows, anaesthetic with unseasonable

mangoes, pawpaws, lychees, and these luxuriant opiates,

these gorgeous, aromatic, barely enmorphed spectres.

The poems give voice to long forgotten memories, such as “Mary Docherty, Edinburgh, 1828”, which explores the last exhumed body of Burke and Hare:

How remarkable it is

after all this time

despite my lowly station,

my miserable and uneventful life,

you still talk about me,

you still know my name.

It is in the extended anthropomorphism of animals where Gibbins’ work really shines. My favourite poem in the collection remains “Field Guide”, where the a range of creatures are allowed to express themselves in such a poignant way that their unique essential characteristics are illuminated at the same time as they highlight something utterly relevant to the human condition. There is a haiku-like precision in these brief pieces, which move through comb jellies, spotted eagle rays, parrot fish, the Hawksbill turtle, sooty shearwater, black fruit bats, striped dolphins, and blue tiger butterflies:

Somewhere between the clouds and the earth

unaccountable corridors of attraction lure us,

tasting the eddies and wakes of falling leaves,

of the trails left by every one of us,

until we metamorphose, finally, into cool

ether streams, veiled with weeping mists.

Another poem that takes personification to new heights is “The Science of Shark Fishing” which goes deep into an imagined perspective of a shark caught on a hook, dying:

In the end, weariness utterly overwhelms you.

Surrounded by more oxygen that you ever have required,

you find yourself aching for one more breath of the sea.

You wish, perhaps, that evolution had provided you

the wherewithal not only to bite, to maul and harangue,

but simply, decisively, to get up and run away.

The shark’s death, fear and desire in and of itself is poignant, but this poem, which is also read beautifully on the CD, reminds us of our own very human conceits, our own human fear, and our own evolutionary limitations.

For a brief collection that reads easily, Urban Biology covers an extensive terrain. Richly informed by a deep understanding of science, a strong sense of current affairs, and a deeply personal, near-private sense of history, the poetry in this collection is both challenging and engaging.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.