blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Margaret Gibson
Conducted April 15, 2022

On April 15, 2022, Margaret Gibson participated in an email interview with Blackbird associate editor, Waverley Vesely. Four of Gibson’s poems appear in this issue of Blackbird: “Coast,” “The Harvest,” “Living History,” and “Corn Mask,” as well as a book review by Tim Seibles on Gibson’s recent book, The Glass Globe. This interview touches upon several of The Glass Globe’s recurrent concerns: grief, memory, ecological decay, and the instability of being—inside and outside of language. Gibson writes: “Certainly, part of who we are is constructed by words, language, memories, and lingering images we give words to . . . We develop concepts about ourselves; we become our theories.” Her poems are profound, tender, thoughtful, human.


Waverley Vesely: In the poem “What He Knew,” you anagram or separate words into new parts/meanings. This process is juxtaposed with the lines: “he surrendered / loss by loss / word by word // what he’d learned to construct, what he’d learned / to imagine / as a self.” Could you speak to how you conceive of identity, and how you see language—particularly the deconstruction and reconstruction of language in the act of anagramming—as being connected to selfhood and grief?

Margaret Gibson: A little background, to begin with. My late husband David McKain had Alzheimer’s for eleven years and died in late December 2017. The illness, progressive and incurable, is notable for memory loss—the loss of words, stored information, syntax, sequence—lots of language and cognitive skills diminish and go—especially poignant losses since David had been a writer of poetry and memoir. A common assumption is that the loss of language and memory leads to a loss of the sense of self—and that’s in part correct. Late in his illness, however, I was struck by a sense that David was still “there,” not necessarily speaking in words, but certainly watching, attentive. What did he, despite the loss of words, know, I wondered?

After his death, solitary, and stunned by grief, I found myself staring at words. You suggest, by your use of the word anagramming, that I re-arranged the letters within a word to make a new word. Satin becomes stain, for example, in true anagramming. And that’s not exactly what I was doing. Staring at words, my mind empty, I began to notice that within some words, there was another word. Inside beatitude, the word be; inside bless, the word less. I put the two inner words together, and “Be less,” appeared. That’s a pretty good description of the apparent consequences of having Alzheimer’s. Loss by loss, one is diminished. But in some spiritual practices, the via negativa is the way to illumination. I began to wonder if the illness bore some fruits similar to those practices.

I began to look at other words intently. An entire word might nestle, previously unnoticed, within the word; other times all the letters of the inner word were not there, but nearly so; or there was a harmonic connection, the inner word suggested by both sight and sound. Occasionally, I embellished, or I had a leap of intuition. Inside heart, there’s art, and I added, the art of listening. Much of my time with David I listened—I had to, in order to find my way to what he seemed to mean. I’d say back to him what I thought his word-salad meant: “Are you saying . . .?” and he’d reply, surprised, “Yes!”

Certainly, part of who we are is constructed by words, language, memories, and lingering images we give words to. Memory provides a sense of continuity; it winnows and sharpens, or it augments. At times, it re-defines. We develop concepts about ourselves; we become our theories. A sense of self based on word-constructs can be at times flimsy, or rigid. We can live in our heads. Alzheimer’s diminished the “historical” David, and a sense of self based on words. What remains? I kept asking myself. “Let what comes, come; let what goes, go: find out what remains,” Ramana Maharshi counsels.

In some ways, with intellect backgrounded, his basic temperament and capacity for feeling became more vivid—his playfulness, gentleness, courtesy, respect for others. And a deeper tenderness. With memory diminished, he remained more anchored to the present moment, to which he paid attention. And I sensed some other kind of “knowing” that doesn’t need words. Nor do I have a word for it. But at times, rare ones, he spoke clearly and minimally from “that place.”

David had lost words; grieving, I began gaining words, or at least I was seeing them in a new way. Finding the word within the word adds to the storehouse. It’s important that I discovered these words—that they were there, waiting to be noticed, and that I didn’t “make up” the inner word. The word inside a word is—as a part is a component of the whole—largely unseen, partly silent. But there. To discover, to make a leap, to find a new meaning—that’s what conversation with someone with Alzheimer’s is like. In a real way, grieving, I continued my conversations with David, discovering the word inside the word, reaching for meaning and connection.

We’re having a conversation now. Inside conversation is vers(e), and versa, a syllable in the word versatile, which descends from Latin versare, to turn.

WV: In “Reflection, Looking Straight Ahead,” the poem’s speaker notices a painting that has been reflected in the mirror for years but has been unseen; then the poem ends on the line, “why must I die?” The difference between looking and seeing is central to the poem’s concerns, but the poem also seems to be deeply interested in how the acts of looking and seeing are related to enacting life. How do you see the act of noticing, especially in art, as connected to being and an awareness of being?

MG: The practice of paying attention is more focused than that of simply noticing. I can easily notice something and be instantly distracted. When noticing becomes paying attention, and when you practice paying attention moment by moment, a deepening awareness develops.

Paying attention is more possible when you get yourself out of the way. In the poem, the speaker is at the site—ground zero—of ego, checking herself out in the mirror, but this time, face to face with herself, she happens to notice that there’s more in the mirror than herself, even part of a painting in the next room. Enter, the rest of the world, art, the earth, the entire context—what we’re surrounded by constantly, and usually don’t look at or see, distracted by ourselves. But there it is: we’re not separate, we’re part of this enormous creative context, related to it, sustained by it.

And that wider Earth is under pressure—the speaker’s mind goes to nuclear disaster, fears of which shadowed her childhood. That threat is still present, along with a new crisis, global and environmental.

Without saying so, the poem asks, do we have to wait until there’s a crisis to see? The speaker in the poem almost gets to that question, but then, standing at the mirror, she veers back to herself: “Why must I die?” That’s a question the ego asks. The question the poem doesn’t ask directly is why the earth must be threatened with environmental peril and we don’t see it. Nor do we see our responsibility for it.

What is beneath our notice? Unless we attend—show up—and pay attention, nearly everything is beneath our notice.

Paying attention can deepen into awareness, and with awareness, moment by moment, breath by breath, comes Being. Being is without boundaries, borders, frames, or scripts. Art—making it, responding to it—is a practice in which attention, imagination, playfulness, form and formlessness, speech and silence intermingle. But art without awareness, just as life itself without awareness, may as well be a husk.

WV: “Asides and Notations” thinks about the composition and essence of self rather explicitly. Could you speak about the choice to use section headings, and about how each of those headings—particularly “Impermanence”—are vital for the poem’s meaning?

MG: Attention can be roused by asking “What is it?” Even if you think you know what it is, what is it? “Asides and Notations” makes notes and wry asides on some pretty weighty philosophical stuff. So weighty, the Latin word quiddity shows up. Quiddity refers to the essence of a thing, or of oneself. When we look at something, including ourselves, and ask “What is it?” we consider these properties: Name, Proportion, Color & Sound, Grammar (which often provides words with gender and value), Climate, Context, Impermanence. So each of the sections takes up one of these qualities, and the tone shifts, gradually deepening as the sections continue—whimsical, ironical, intent, elegiac.

We humans, especially poets, name things; this speaker would rather have the world name her—a deliberate reversal of privilege and power. “To name things enacts our essence,” but naming can also lead to the illusions of ownership; naming, we enact our superiority. Proportion, color, sound—separated out, these qualities can lead to the illusion that the senses operate separately, rather than in concert. Ego most always chooses large size (epic) over small (lyric). For the word “you”, French grammar makes distinctions: for intimacy tu, for formality, vous; for sacredness thee. In the section called “Climate,” the speaker is concentrated on the consequences of our tendency to see ourselves as separate from others, from the earth. In “Context,” the speaker remembers how a certain artist painted made portraits of the women in Darfur who were at the time dying in the famine, painting their skin in flecks of color reminiscent of the forest floor—we are Earth, not separate—that’s what the paintbrush suggested.

As for “Impermanence,” well, we will die. The essence of anything mortal is its impermanence. We construct identities, art, cities, ingenious engines, etc. so that we can live and live in comfort (preferably). But at what cost? When what we create is rooted in illusion, or when it comes at the expense of the lives of others and the Earth which connects and sustains us, then impermanence isn’t just a quality of being here—it’s an enhanced consequence of what we do to increase our own fragility. The pointed nature of the one line in the section “Impermanence,” is intended to puncture the illusion that, sure, everyone (else) will die, but, um, not me. Impermanence makes no exceptions. When this is thoroughly understood and embodied, compassion becomes more real, and the search for the Absolute more energized, more dedicated, more humble.

A thorough understanding of impermanence not only helps us face the inevitability of death. When it’s understood that forms shift, revise, evolve, intermingle, and condition each other, a living being is understood as a dynamic process, not a “thing.” And that changes everything.

WV: While blank circles occur as section breaks throughout your book, they are most apparent when juxtaposed on either side of the title poem: “The Glass Globe.” Could you speak about the significance of this image and the juxtaposition of visual meaning with textual meaning?

MG: In fact, the first circle in the book has words inside it—the title of the book, my name, and the word poems. All the other circles, which mark the sections as the book proceeds, are empty or as you put it, “blank.” Blank, as in waiting for words? An empty circle is a paradox. Empty but also spacious, full—full of what?—also, whole or unbroken, a container that’s beyond distinctions like full/empty, heard/unheard, seen/unseen, life/death.

The circles were the ingenious choice of the book designer, by the way. They echo the shape of the glass globe (the thing itself) and suggest its essence. Thus, the book designer quietly joins the conversation.

The designer, Mandy McDonald Scallon, had a photograph of the very glass globe I describe in the poem by that title. I used words, trying for the quiddity of it, the way it holds light, how it suggests the sea in color, suggests the earth in its shape, suggests impermanence by its older imperfections and the new crack in it. “Love it, love it crazed, love it broken”—the globe and the earth, broken, still hold. But “we’re done for.” Like so many poems in this book of personal bereavement and environmental griefs, this poem is enacting a coming into consciousness of what we humans find hard to face, our own impermanence, our greed, our failure to notice, to see, to take responsibility. We break things, and to juxtapose visual and verbal forms in this book is profound, or at the very least, telling. The visual circle, unbroken, uncracked, is so like the Japanese Enso. Juxtapose that globe with the one made of glass and words, as palpably impermanent as the planet.

When we, as poets and artists and as human beings, somehow summon the mysterious whole in voice and silence, then we are more fully human and creaturely, part of the whole of creation.

WV: Many of the poems in The Glass Globe mention or embody the act of respiration. As such, they seem to be profoundly interested in the liminal, if not tenuous, space between inner and outer. How do you see the act of inhaling and exhaling as related to how you write and how you live?

MG: Respiration is what we do when we don’t notice that moment by moment, breath by breath, we are not only AT the threshold of inner and outer, life and death, but we ARE thresholds ourselves.

The first poem in The Glass Globe recounts washing David’s body just after the last, unimaginable breath has left his body. The washing takes place in a silence that is, “as it always is, ordinary and vast.” The second poem, “How It Is” offers images that suggest how the sense of time and duration changes for one who lives after witnessing the “long sigh of the outbreath, his last.” The third poem, “Moment,” begins with that moment of the last breath, my breathing it in as David was “carried back to what [he’d] never left.”

Most of my life I’ve engaged in (mindless) respiration. When I took up zazen practice—or when it took me in hand—I began to notice my breath, to be carried by it, to be rooted in it, to let words fall away. It takes more courage than you’d think. The glass globe in the poem by that title is made, so says the poem, “by a synthesis of sand and fire, air / and muscle and lung and tool—a flare of energies joined / and transformed, and because of the quality of attention / that went into it / beautiful.” Yes, we do make ourselves what we are, and our words are part of that process, but we don’t make ourselves alone. We are (as poets, artists, and human beings) sites of perception, creation, cooperation, and synthesis. Not only because we have language, but because body/mind is continually making and unmaking the world out there and in here—impermanence again—and when we notice that and pay attention, we join forces with awareness. We are awareness. Awareness lives at the liminal. When self-consciousness is replaced by awareness, then we begin to live our lives. Life becomes an art, and our art brings us into the presence of a deeper vitality.  

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