Few people writing today could successfully combine an intimate knowledge of Chicago with a poet’s eye, and capture what it’s really like to live in this remarkable city. Embracing a striking variety of human experience—a chance encounter with a veteran on Belmont Avenue, the grimy majesty of the downtown El tracks, domestic violence in a North Side brownstone, the wide-eyed wonder of new arrivals at O’Hare, and much more—these new and selected poems and stories by Reginald Gibbons celebrate the heady mix of elation and despair that is city life. With Slow Trains Overhead, he has rendered a living portrait of Chicago as luminously detailed and powerful as those of Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg.
Gibbons takes the reader from museums and neighborhood life to tense proceedings in Juvenile Court, from comically noir-tinged scenes at a store on Clark Street to midnight immigrants at a gas station on Western Avenue, and from a child’s piggybank to nature in urban spaces. For Gibbons, the city’s people, places, and historical reverberations are a compelling human array of the everyday and the extraordinary, of poverty and beauty, of the experience of being one among many. Penned by one of its most prominent writers, Slow Trains Overhead evokes and commemorates human life in a great city.
Gibbons's latest collection combines new poems and prose with selections from his previous books to create an homage to Chicago. Though he picks up where Carl Sandburg left off, both Gibbons's voice and his project are Whitmanian in scale. "From somewhere," he writes in one of the book's many odes, "a family, a village, a neighborhood, comes// The solitary singer, maybe with a guitar, who pauses with her burdens and sings, or the wayfaring man with a story that began somewhere else." Gibbons (Creatures of a Day) works best within these long, breathy lines, allowing himself to pause and wonder before resolving the thought that set him going. Unlike Whitman, Gibbons is hesitant to reach out to his subjects. At times, one wishes he would do more than pitch "his own voice... and a few coins into the cup" of the homeless he so often observes. Still, Gibbons is unafraid of asking big questions, as in the book's opening poem, in which he wonders why we "even try to list/ the kinds of places/ men and women made/ to make money."