blackbirdonline journalSpring 2015  v14n1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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No Distant Whir on the Hard Road:
The Lyric Acuity of Margaret Gibson

To make lyric poems, Jane Hirshfield writes, requires “a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” In collection after collection of poems spanning almost forty years—eleven books and a twelfth in process, all from Louisiana State University Press—Margaret Gibson has tapped into this awareness. She concentrates an acute attentiveness upon a world she deeply cherishes—landscapes sensual and spiritual, domesticated and wild, singular and political, natural and manmade, living and dead.

“If I identify with what stays, I am one thing; if with what flows, another,” Gibson writes in the first poem of her most recent book, Broken Cup (Louisiana State University Press, 2014), as she brings to bear her longstanding Buddhist practice—a spiritual tradition she shares with Hirshfield—upon the Alzheimer’s ravaging her husband. Gibson has described the book as autobiographical, so for the purposes of this essay, I will not make the usual necessary distinctions between poet and speaker.

She reminds her dog to “Sit. Stay,” in “Heaven,” signaling a futile desire to stop time in a pleasant moment, before the illness worsens. Perhaps also she’s reminding herself to stay rather than turn away from the losses before her—not only the loss of her husband, the poet and memoirist David McKain, but the life they built together, “stone by stone,” as scrupulously as McKain himself made and repaired the walls near their home in the woods of Preston, Connecticut.

Elegantly structured, the book divides into four sections: the first is a single poem, “Sentences, An Assay,” dedicated, like Broken Cup itself, to McKain. This long-lined, essay-like poem becomes an overture to the book’s central question of what is lost and what abides. At its root, “assay” is linked to the Old French “essayer” meaning “to try” or “to test,” and while Gibson in this poem of couplets interspersed with single-line stanzas, attempts to grasp the why and how of the loss of “one’s mind, as burst of light by burst of light, the neurons misfire,” she also asks “Is it so terrible not to have answers?” She makes no overt claim on the disease as a kind of spiritual test, for herself or her husband, here or elsewhere in the book, but she does, in the lucid poems to follow, come to honor what remains: “Eclipsed, the moon goes dark, but the moon is still there, a deep presence held in place.”

Certainly Gibson and McKain each are tested. Losses accrue in the poems, even as daily life assumes its normalcies—“You pick a flat, perfect stone for the wall you hope to live long enough / to rebuild. I prune / briars, pick burrs from the dog’s fur.” Here, the accumulation of “r” sounds positively growl in consonance, and the truncation of “to rebuild. I prune” points to what’s lost—in the process of caring for her husband, Gibson will lose her solitude, her working life—for two years, she wrote no new poems—a much anticipated trip to India with their friends, the intellectual stimulation of a beloved partner, and sometimes her patience and good humor, as she takes “the daily / reinvention of loss as my teacher.”

But there’s hope, too, in the bracing way pruning can allow something new to grow:

. . . —isn’t it all about
the heart, about accident,
appetite, repair, and original paint?
About rupture and relishing, wounded
flesh, and the joy of returning home
moment by moment, trying to know
the place, and the two of us who live here,
seeing into our true nature as if for the first time?

This poem, like so many of Gibson’s, fuses musically pleasing images, precisely wrought, with deep spiritual attunement. Sometimes she achieves an almost cool-headed regard, but not without compassion, as she refuses to turn away from the full experience of what is before her. As the Alzheimer’s progresses, she writes in “Summer”: “you, / my beloved, grow daily more quiet, your mind / a summer sky / seen by one floating face-up in the pond, / sky so distantly brilliant // one holds one’s breath, startled—chilled.”

In a similar way, Gibson fixes her unwavering gaze upon a decaying deer carcass in “To Say Nothing of God” from her 1997 new and selected collection, Earth Elegy:

I just stand there and look    I don’t know
why I do it       One hind leg torn

off the haunch socket    flung over the shorn spine
The clean cave of the belly     soft parts eaten

the waste already shunted hot from the coyote’s
anus     Wind nests in the carcass      Only a ridge

of frozen meat     pale carnelian      on ribs that curve
like the tines of a rake     These are the spoils

Her investigation reminds me of photographer Sally Mann’s 2000-01 Matter Lent pictures of decomposing human bodies at the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. Gibson encounters the dead deer in the woods near her home, visits it daily as it decomposes, even boils and scrapes the skull and hangs it “white against a white wall.” She touches her own face and imagines when “this body intricate / coracle    loosens and dissolves     borne away” and herself “a century hence” reincarnated as a deer: “I should hope / to be graced with an attention so keen / I’d miss no creak of wood     no distant whir / on the hard road.” The form of this poem differs from any I recall in Gibson’s other poems: unpunctuated lines fractured by caesura-like gaps of space, which function perhaps like the slashes of earlier Etheridge Knight poems—or perhaps like wind and air, our ephemeral lives, “these words / a temporary blaze     a dust of snow.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Gibson when she read at the Library of Virginia in October of 2014, and of speaking with her at length by telephone the following February. She told me that a friend, a fellow poet, called her voice in the Broken Cup poems “fearless.” Not “fearless” necessarily, she told me—or “unflinching” either, as I had ventured—so much as speaking completely from every aspect of her being about what deeply mattered to her. “Undistracted” was the word she used, not worrying about how or even what she wanted to say, just allowing the poems to come through. Not that they came whole, or without crafting or revision, she told me.

Gibson often combines her lyric precision with an earthy sensuality, as in “Garlic” from her 1989 Out in the Open:

and the odor! redolent,
a pungency in which pot roasts
and thick stews gather,
an aroma for eggplants and sesame
melding in a rich mystic kiss,
pure baba ganoush.
Let the feckless take it
odorless in capsules—
I simmer it in wine and tomatoes,
blend it with butter and basil,
lash the curved cloves
to a necklace I wear on my skin
cold wolf-moon nights in the woods

In Broken Cup, she writes of making love at “sixty-six, more hesitant,” addressing her seventy-two-year-old husband in “After”—“in your mind sixteen, our bed / a field of tousled Queen Anne’s lace.” This same lover in “Bed,” after “laughing now, / under the covers, / your face near / my thighs,” tells her “Margaret likes that, too,” later asking, “Have we ever done this before?”

There’s humorous self-deprecation and tenderness as well. When she murmurs “Maybe we’re entering / Nirvana . . .” in “Hard of Hearing,” a puzzled McKain replies, “Entering lasagna?” Here, I laughed in recognition—our twelve-year-old daughter, her parents well past fifty, has suffered similar moments.

Like so many people undergoing loss and tragedy, especially in progressive diseases of slow diminishment, Gibson bears the blundering comments and questions of well-meaning friends—which she transcends with grace and intimacy, both wifely and animal-like, calling up:

. . . the remembered smell
of David’s skin—something like
saffron married to a whiff of ripe
pears and worn-out
cotton undershirts. Blindfolded,
I could distinguish David
and find him in a crowd of men,
were I allowed to snuffle
each man’s neck and smell
the difference—

Gibson interrogates her own all-too-human failings as well. In “Far-Hearted”: “Hear it? I’m whining. A downward / pitch, steep and swift, / into underfoot impatience,” the assonance of short “i” sounds—the “ih” of it/pitch/swift/into/impatience—virtually huff in exasperation. Faced with “the computer, the checkbook, / the inscrutable repair of whatever / overheats or squeaks or ices over” in “Tasks”—the clackity “k’s” resounding irritation towards things mechanical—she’s a Biblical “Job / in a bathrobe,”—those long “o’s” of lamentation—“wondering where oh where / in the wrong drawer you put [the cutlery].” In “Losing It” she hints of what she may find:

And when I get frantic, when I’ve lost
my composure, my nerve,
my compassion, I have
only what little I know to save me.

And what does she know? “Nothing promises now and forever, / only now,” she reminds herself in “Working with Stone,” a tenet of the Zen Buddhism she learned as a longtime student of Peter Matthiessen at Ocean Zendo on Long Island. She knows her husband, too, and his written body of work, which she revisits in the long poem, “Respect,” that makes up Section III of the book. She writes, “he was my Whitman, my Thoreau, my Li Po and Po Chu I” who:

loved what hands and heart could make
together. Driving home, he’d shift gears
with his knee, his right arm around me,
he wouldn’t let go. He tied trout flies,
sought the right curve of blueberry branch
to carve into a bird, gardened, taught
whoever would listen.

The emphatic tetrameter underscores what was—a man who made things and could fix them. If this poem is part elegy, it also heart wrenchingly lives up to its name. “Doesn’t respect mean look-again?” she asks in the poem. And in his illness, McKain remains a teacher, hers, as she asks: “What is the self? / What of the self, or the no-self, / outstays loss after loss” in “Simple.” “I forget this and that,” he replies to a hesitant question from their son, “but it doesn’t bother me. / I love Margaret, and you, and your sister— / that’s what I remember.”

By gesture alone, he offers additional clarification, as Gibson records, addressing him in “Moment.” Out walking one Thanksgiving morning they stop to watch wild geese fly overhead: “in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky your hands / flapping from the wrists, / and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going / where they must,”—as McKain himself is going—“such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child / who knows by instinct, by birthright, / just to be is a blessing.”

In the book’s epigraph, she relates a meeting with a Hindu teacher who tells her that although a cup may break, “whatever you have drunk from the cup over the years . . . remains with you.” In the title poem she takes a literal broken cup, Mexican, a gift from her husband—repaired but fragile—and uses it again, “to love what is broken.” She deliberately calls to her consciousness the moment she met and fell in love with McKain. “Who knows how love will hold, or if we will / ever be all right,” she muses, imagining not only utter loss of memory but death itself, where:

 . . . there will be nothing unspoken,
nothing forgotten or feared. Day or night,
whatever the hour, it will be all shining,
our whole and broken bodies full of light.

Gibson has leaped past the physical here and now, into something else, a leap she has taken in earlier poems, notably one from her 2007 collection One Body. “Ashes” is the final poem in the book’s first section, poems that witness and mourn the dying of Gibson’s friend and neighbor Jean Mitchell. The poem marks the burial of Mitchell’s ashes with those of her husband Hobart, ending as follows:

I knew there were, beneath my feet,
mountains and a lake, clouds,
and the moon clear and still
behind the mist and daylight,
through which two figures emerged,
an old hoe tilted at rest on his shoulder,
in her hand a basket—light green
to heighten the effect of the mountains,
the weave of the basket
rendered in strokes like the veins
of a lotus leaf, like ax cuts, raveled rope.

The image recollects the Japanese paintings that sparked the spare, ekphrastic poems in Gibson’s 2003 collection Autumn Grasses, which immediately preceded One Body. Those poems derived from a daily practice of contemplating the reproductions in a Metropolitan Museum of Art engagement book.

Gibson told me she lives in a “thin place”—which the Celts called a physical place where the boundaries between worlds, living and divine, seem porous—a place where humans feel closer to the mysteries. Surely she was speaking of the landscape in rural Connecticut where she has lived for over forty years, acres of woods and a pond, wildlife and plants she and her husband have come to know intimately. They have stayed put, as Scott Russell Sanders advocated we do in his collection of essays of that name, published in 1993. For Sanders, staying long enough in one place to truly inhabit and commit to it works as a stay against environmental degradation. And, as he writes in “Settling Down”:

In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. This condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down.

And what a lyric poet might call an inward-being still, attentive, and open enough to allow not-knowing, the “negative capability,” famously described by Keats, the “Possibility” wherein our great lyric foremother dwelled.

Seldom far from the realm of the natural world, many Gibson poems are informed by this deep intimacy with her home in Connecticut and with the wild, open spaces near her husband’s childhood home in western Pennsylvania, the “God’s Country” of McKain’s 1988 childhood memoir Spellbound. But Gibson’s kinship with nature began in Virginia during visits from her childhood home in Richmond to a family place in rural Amelia County.

In her memoir The Prodigal Daughter, Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood, she recounts growing up in segregated, class-conscious Richmond during the 1940s and 1950s. This book fascinated me when it was published in 2008, to read someone else’s account of the city where I grew up. I, too, fell under the spell of the rural landscape of my slaveholding ancestors. I, too, sensed unspoken secrets and racial tensions, within my family and the culture of mid-century Virginia.

I was in middle school, a white kid who stayed in public schools, when court-ordered buses carried reluctant black kids to our “country school” in the Richmond area, when many whites fled to private schools or moved to other jurisdictions. Gibson had grown up and left Richmond by then. She knew segregation at its most overt—separate toilets and drinking fountains, black people relegated to the back of the bus. She showed me a Richmond I hadn’t witnessed and mirrored my own feelings of separation from a culture in which I’d come of age.

Gibson has told me she couldn’t have written the memoir any earlier; she needed the distance of time to process complicated feelings about a family and culture that she very consciously left while still in her twenties. She went to Hollins, to the University of Virginia, to Yaddo, where she met McKain, moved to Connecticut, came back to Richmond for teaching gigs in VCU’s MFA program, landed a job at the University of Connecticut, and became involved in social justice issues, not necessarily in that order. She writes in the memoir:

I could no longer, not without an angry struggle, talk to my family or my friends about politics—the war in Vietnam, the continuing Civil Rights movement. I was fed up with manners, with the politeness Thomas Jefferson called “artificial good humor.” Manners my mother called breeding. In the eyes of most of the people I grew up with, manners were equivalent to virtue, and it was hard to convince Richmonders that manners and custom offered poor substitutes for right thought and right action.

But an early poem, the first poem in Gibson’s 1982 collection, Long Walks in the Afternoon, suggests she was already reckoning with the legacy of her upbringing. In “Inheritance,” a long, stanzaic poem in three sections, loose pentameter and hexameter lines, the speaker finds herself haunted by images of “the house that burned, the old country place in my mother’s family.” She recalls rummaging among its foundations and finding “one china cup, white, intact”—a scene she also described near the end of her memoir. She imagines her grandmother, “long white / bolt of hair brushed out silk to her knees” and hears voices:

I heard women in long white dresses, with puffed
sleeves, reading aloud from books with blank pages.
Quietly their voices crossed over each other
like braids, telling the arts of dust and milk, larder
and closet. The fire begins at the hems of their skirts,
so long they brush over the stairs, the floor, even
the chicken yard but never get soiled—

So much whiteness, this way of life, quietly invoked with whispering “s” and “r” sounds, already burning; and once burned, mythologized, with all the romance of a lost cause: “Oh everything was / simple then, my mother said.” This speaker will never inherit the family Bible, “descended / through the men in the family.” Scathing as fire, she indicts the southern scrim of civility: “There was no dark side, no disobedience, / no willfulness, lust or adultery, no questions, / no pitfalls, no ambition, no greater knowledge.”

Other poems in this early collection point to Gibson’s individuation and to the growing political consciousness that led to her masterful 1986 collection, Memories of the Future, The Daybooks of Tina Modotti, the imagined daybooks of the legendary modernist photographer. Spanning her last year, the poems look back over Modotti’s turbulent life as lover and muse to photographer Edward Weston; as passionate supporter of workers’ and peasants’ rights who was moved to serve in the Spanish Civil War and become a Communist agent, who counted among her friends Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Neruda, and Dorothea Lange.

The resulting poems are so acutely rendered they seem indigenous to the times, the cultures, and the places of Modotti’s life; the voice even seems to be that of a non-native English speaker, as Modotti was. She immigrated to San Francisco from Italy in her teens and spent much of her adult life in Mexico. Here, from “Doors, Opening as They Do . . . ,” Modotti takes in a Mexican scene soon after her arrival:

I stood on the street at a doorway, looking in.
I let doorjamb, threshold, and lintel frame
a woman on her knees patting tortillas.
Like butterflies her hands moved soft, her courtyard
savory with earth and lime, soaked maiz and woodfire.
Between one maguey and a loop-eared cactus
chickens scratched. Her man stacked ollas
for the market. It was all there:
one moment shining, impersonal.
I wanted to hold each detail. I wanted time
to stand still. I wanted soul to be sun
as only the sun can be, warm in the murmur
of doves, fresh in the folds of a just washed, pale
yellow coverlet. The moment passed.
She stirred a pot of beans, he finished work
and sank into siesta against a wall, his serape
wrapped about him like a wave from the sea.

The poem records the moment Modotti recognizes her vocation, her passion to see and render the ordinary, lowly intensity of a moment’s particularity. That kind of deep looking stops time; and by rendering that vision into photographs, paintings, or poems, the artist makes something that transcends time. No matter what subject Gibson has taken up in her body of work she brings a combination of vision and stillness and clarity of thought to what is before her—and she does not turn away.  end  

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