David Gilbey’s poems are often stories full of wit and tenderness. He writes of family matters with humour, irony and delicacy. He is always original, sweetly relishing the world , its absurdities and its richness. A poet of the people, never pretentious or obscure, he has a clear voice which goes straight to the heart of the matter.
– Kate Llewellyn
David Gilbey's poetry mines a rich seam of wit—something increasingly rare in Australian verse. His works are postcards from a glittering tourist destination in the mind, and they record the lively contradictions of art and desire, the shock of the familiar within the exotic.
– Peter Kirkpatrick
As an academic, reviewer and organiser, David Gilbey has been involved with Australian poetry for more than a couple of decades. He was a founder of Wagga Wagga Writers Writers, has been extensively involved with the life of his provincial city and has also travelled widely, particularly in Japan where he has also taught. Death and the Motorway is his first complete collection as a poet.
The book's subject matter ranges widely, from the sexual and domestic through to art, music, literature and travel. Like not a few other writers, Gilbey has used poetry to record and intensify key moments in his life as well as to elaborate his intuitions of it. Some of the poems are baldly autobiographical. A few, e.g. "Waltzing Mathilde" movingly and cleverly recreate moments or characters from history. Many more embody Gilbey's often ironic thoughts as he travels in places as diverse as Wales, Ireland, London, Paris, China (even Canberra).
As Kate Llewellyn says on the book's back cover, Gilbey is a "poet of the people, never pretentious or obscure". Occasionally, this can be almost too much the case when he employs some rather flat lines — such as, for instance, "On study leave in Brisbane / we heard she was flying from Cairns / for an operation" or succumbs too much to the temptation of the short line, as in "Mother / standing on a beach /facing the camera / laughing ... " though in this case the technique does build towards an interesting and significant revelation.
More often however, as with his poem, "Phil", about an eponymous and schizophrenic brother, Gilbey is able to let plain detail do its work and so come up with a moving poem. Robert Lowell set the standard for this kind of writing fifty years ago in Life Studies — and it's not nearly as easy as it may seem.
In a few other poems such as "L.A. Law" and "Wollundry Lagoon " Gilbey can also reveal himself as something of a political poet. The former is based on a much-replayed video showing L.A. police bashing an African-American, done as if it were a macabre dance sequence. In "Wollundary Lagoon" he meditates fragmentarily on the fate of the Wiradjuri people in his own area.
Gilbey is also interesting on our Australian tentativeness with ritual. We feel the need for it but (unlike Americans) we don't want to take it too seriously, partly because we more than half-know we don't all agree with its basis. As he says at the end of "Ceremony", "We just can't help our agnosticism / and singing the national anthem is uncertain".
Perhaps the strongest impression left by the book, however, is of Gilbey's low-key wit. More than a little self-deprecating and with a firm sense of occasion, it quietly adjusts itself to the matter in hand. We see it in "Anniversary", a poem for a fiftieth birthday in which he pretends to summarise a poem already written and lost. We see it in "Hay Fever" where the narrator playfully complains of not getting enough of what used to be called "conjugal rights". It's there, too, rather poignantly in the poem, "Dog Days", where one of the narrator's children is seen putting dog food on the grave of the recently-dead pet "to help her on her way".
Death on the Motorway is a very human document. It remains entertaining, in the best sense of that word, throughout.
– Geoff Page, Poet