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Poetry Moment: Robert Gibb and 'Fire Poem'

Poet Robert Gibb
Poet Robert Gibb

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Shara McCallum is this year’s Penn State Laureate.

Today’s poem is “Fire Poem” by Robert Gibb.

Robert Gibb was born and raised in the steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania at a time, as he notes, “when the mills were still going strong.” After high school and a stint in the mills, he moved to the eastern end of the state, living there in farm country before returning to Pittsburgh to see, in his words, “the mills being razed at the tag end of the Industrial Revolution.” Many of his poems, including the one for today, deal with this subject matter directly. Gibb is the recipient of numerous awards for his poetry and the author of several collections, including most recently What the Heart Can Bear: Selected and Uncollected Poems. Gibb lives on New Homestead Hill above the Monongahela River.

In “Fire Poem,” Gibb offers us an elegy for a place and for a father. The poet bears witness to the “before” and “after” of his home, marked by suburban sprawl and the destruction of a way of life specific to the cultural history of western Pennsylvania. The poem also bears witness to a father’s mental illness and physical decline. Gibb’s brilliant use of analogy, association, and metaphor allows us to see how the larger forces of history become inscribed on the body of the individual and of one family. “Fire Poem” is a particular kind of elegy, a memorial for all that is lost and mourned but which cannot be extinguished, continuing to “burn” in memory and imagination.


Fire Poem

This was before the woods behind our house
Got sectioned into suburbs, before the trolleys
Stopped humming like swaying lamps.

I had yet to unfasten the pale fronts of blouses,
Or labor all night in the deafening mills.
Slag heaps were still sunsets on the far shores

Of Clairton, and railroads simply carried
Their ignitions past our home.
It would be years before ECT’s began burning

My father’s brain, and years more than that
Until he was flashed into ashes.
I had never even heard the word incineration 

Before I came along to help unload the car,
Before I stood swaying as the man slid back
The immense slab of concrete

And I saw beneath our streets that everything
I’d thought of as solid was empty instead,
And enormous, and a place of continuous flame.

That was “Fire Poem” by Robert Gibb.
Thank you for sharing this moment of poetry with me today.

Shara McCallum was the 2021-22 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.
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