Christopher Gilbert – Turning into Dwelling
Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series 2015
Page Length: 187
“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”
This is the question Terrance Hayes asks at the beginning of and throughout his Introduction to Turning into Dwelling, the collection most recently published by Graywolf’s Poetry Re/View Series. It’s a simple question with a few answers. Most of the answers, though, only produce more and larger questions.
The question, of course, is really two questions. The first is relatively easy to answer: Christopher Gilbert was a poet born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, who then died in 2007 after a twenty-year battle with polycystic kidney disease. The only book he published during his lifetime was Across the Mutual Landscape, winner of the 1983 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. A student and then friend of Etheridge Knight, Gilbert was an active member of the American Poetry community through the late-70s and 80s, and received a number of distinctions for his work including an NEA Fellowship in 1986.
The second question, though, is probably impossible to answer. I only heard about him a couple months ago, and there’s a pretty good chance you’re hearing his name now for the first time. Why? Well, one answer to the question is that he only published one book during his lifetime. In the world of American Poetry, it is no small accomplishment to publish a book of poems, and this is especially true when that book wins a prestigious first book prize and attracts, over the years, a considerable following. Across the Mutual Landscape is as promising a debut as one could hope to find from an up-and-coming poet: a bit uneven, as first books are expected and allowed to be, but brilliant, fierce, extraordinarily intelligent, and, most importantly: wrought from an original voice packed with surprising turns of syntax, unexpected grammatical tinkering, and sharp diction stretched across the page in unique and strange constellations. Readers in the mid-80s would have been delighted with the collection and, I would imagine, anxiously anticipated Gilbert’s follow-up.
But this is where the story gets muddy, and the question of why we’d never heard of him until now becomes a bit sobering: for the remainder of his life (over twenty years) Gilbert never published another collection. Why not? Was Gilbert, like James Tate and Anthony Hecht, a bit overcome by the success of his first collection, which became something like a creative burden even as it initiated a rather promising professional trajectory? It seems plausible to me that if Christopher Gilbert had continued publishing books he would have been rendered ineligible for the extraordinary Graywolf Re/View Series that brings Turning into Dwelling back into the American Poetry mainstream.
The series, edited by Mark Doty, is four books into a noble and necessary mission to:
“Bring essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print. Each volume—chosen by series editor Mark Doty—is introduced by a poet who comes to the work with a passionate admiration. The Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series offers all-but-lost masterworks of recent American poetry to a new generation of readers.” (quoted from the Graywolf website)
Gilbert is hardly the only poet to have published a single, successful book of poems before receding into the backdrop of the poetry world. The Re/View Series is brilliantly conceived and urgently needed in an American Poetry landscape increasingly crowded by unknown up-and-comers. The multitude of voices we find in our current climate is not something to bemoan: far from it! Like other artistic forms adapting to the Internet age of inexpensive publication and decentralized avenues of promotion, American Poetry has never been more diverse in terms of whose voices get heard and how. Certainly this is something to celebrate. But it comes at a price: because the traditional “gate-keeper” roles have been radically undercut, we have more poets writing and publishing poems than ever before, which leaves the critic/reader with simply too many books to read with any reasonable degree of “authority” regarding what’s “out there.” Whether this was ever actually true or not, the perception is that, at one point in American literary history, a critic could cleanly distinguish the truly great from the rest, made possible only by that critic’s access to “the rest.” But today, “the rest” is astoundingly diverse and overwhelming in volume, and anyone who claims to have an adequate handle on the breadth of contemporary American poetry is frankly full of shit.
What makes the Graywolf Re/View Series so necessary is its response to this problem with an honest (if implied) admission: sometimes the great ones fall through the cracks. Though we tell ourselves that, with time, the cream rises to the top, the contemporary catalogue might suggest otherwise. Sometimes it takes tremendous effort to raise the cream to where it rightfully belongs: at the center of our attention.
Turning into Dwelling is an astounding book not just because of the story of its re-collection, but how it, page-by-page, sequences the DNA underlying the question of why we don’t yet know the name Christopher Gilbert. Turning into Dwelling is not one collection of poems, it is two: first, a re-issue of Across the Mutual Landscape; and then a previously unpublished manuscript compiled posthumously by Gilbert’s friends: Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell. While the poems cannot ultimately answer the biographical question regarding Gilbert’s relative obscurity, they do provide a fascinating look into the mind of a poet whose aesthetic very clearly evolved after his initial publishing success.
Masterfully edited by Quinn and Fell, the second manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There) is decidedly better than the first. To lean on a tired but too-perfect-to-pass-up metaphor: in the first book we see Gilbert mastering the scales of late-20th century lyric poetry; in the second, Gilbert deconstructs those scales like Charlie Parker, the result of which is a poetic texture modeled on bebop, in which the melody is often presented and then turned inside out acrobatically with odd connective tissue and explosive unpredictability.
“That that that all day the vulture overhead was
screeching at in long resignation like naming
something not happened but always here
down here where dusk has begun covering
everything is even more a mystery,
even more a place whose passages deepening
lead to a way beyond testament tonight,
tonight after all day talking those small talk
things till talk was just a loud grasping
without any reaching, till what came forth
was the risk when the tongue goes random and
finally resorts to regarding the world as ‘whatever.’” (Getting Over There)
For Gilbert, the “melody” is generally a presentation of self. While some may lump his poetry into the increasingly vague category of “identity politics,” Gilbert’s take on the question of identity is highly intellectually engaged, specifically with the question of linguistic identity. When Gilbert essentially left American Poetry during the nineties and 2000s, he worked as a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology. This expertise is clearly present in Gilbert’s poems written during that time.
“Because it is the route that is the work
you could take the world itself to mean
yourself. Into these hills you’ve taken to
like the present, you could take place and be one
with the subject of your feeling arising
before you. The way the Queen’s lace sways
could be an indication of your breath
coming and going. As if an outline for time
itself, here I am stepping forth as an instance
walking the mountain road to the hilltop where
around the bend I’ll hear someone working
on the house the frame of whose part—the material
and the aesthetic and their perishing—linked
together will stand for history.” (Tourist)
Reading this poetry requires a diligent obedience to the unfolding syntax of complicated, systematic thought. It is highly, though not prohibitively, philosophical. The figures that arise from Gilbert’s late poems are neither neat syllogisms nor clean delineations of a unified self: they are self-interrogations, not merely of the author or the “speaker” of the poem, but of the very linguistic substance out of which selves are constructed. This linguistic self-consciousness is not only radiantly postmodern, but it fuses the language-as-object conviction of Objectivists like Lorine Niedecker and George Oppen with the communal, lyrical spirit of the black community first brought into the American mainstream by the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance and the countless schools and movements that have worked in their wake. It should come as no surprise, then, to find so much jazz in Gilbert’s line.
Music in this tradition is both a means of mourning and celebration; it unites individuals who have been outcast by society—people who are themselves a cluster of fragments. For Gilbert, music is the ultimate metaphor not only for the poetic project, but, perhaps more urgently: the human self, which is a cluster of chaoses out of which certain harmonies may arise. The song is self: an ephemeral container that can, through formal repetition and sheer emotive will, produce unity and transcendence. Perhaps the most uninhibited articulation of this music is the following, which concludes the second manuscript’s title poem, the scene of which is a hospital room after receiving a kidney transplant.
“The IV unit with my name and directions for my care
taped to the top will indicate I am. The ID bracelet
I’ve been wearing since I got here will say for me,
‘I am.’ The scar the surgeon left as a signature
on my belly’s right side will say, ‘I am.’ I am
I feel a gathering possibility passing from temporary
articulation to articulation the way the horizon
arises in the sun as a series of evident illuminations
while the earth spins clockwise toward futurity.
When the time comes I’ll rise and say, ‘I am.’
I’ll gather all my questions, step into their midst
and say, ‘I am.’ I am I am.” (Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation)
“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?”
Christopher Gilbert is a breathtaking poet who, for reasons not entirely clear, most of us have never heard of. It seems that his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime, which is sad. Thank god for Terrance Hayes, Mark Doty, Graywolf Press, and the Re/View Series for bringing his work back into circulation. Thank god for Barbara Morin, Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, who recognized in Gilbert’s unpublished poems a singular poetics that lay obscurely dormant for far too long. In an increasingly crowded poetry world, it is tragically too common for a brilliant and original voice to go unheard. Thank god, in the case of Christopher Gilbert, at least, that voice is singing again.