Do you remember
Dripping thick sweet light
Where Canal Street saunters off by herself among quiet trees?
And the faint decayed patchouli—
Fragrance of New Orleans
Like a dead tube rose
Upheld in the warm air…
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Do you remember
the trees all planted in the same month after the same fire
each thick around
as a man’s wrist
meticulously spaced grids cutting the sunshine
into panels into planks
and crossbeams of light
A woman you do not know wants to join you for lunch. You are visiting her campus. In the café you both order the Caesar salad. This overlap is not the beginning of anything because she immediately points out that she, her father, her grandfather, and you, all
At closing time
standing outside the public library
with ID card expired,
the books remain on shelves—
Lev Vygotsky, Toni Morrison, Levertov, Cassirer,
and the Zora Neale Hurston (which probably isn’t there) . . .
“Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?” That’s what I continue to ask myself at almost every encounter with this poet. Typing the opening stanza of “The ‘The,’” for example, I lingered again on the authors named in the poem. I had to research Lev Vygotsky and Ernst Cassirer. Part of the wink in those opening lines is that the speaker (someone so like Christopher Gilbert we could call him Christopher Gilbert) is also planning to research the authors. In seeing what the seeker seeks we see something of the seeker. The poem tells us something about his eclectic intelligence as well as his eclectic curiosity. He’s after Lev Vygotsky, the Russian development
Banishment is everyone’s story. And while the words we conjure to tell that story perhaps console and sustain us, they also cast us further from the very worlds we are trying to revisit, recreate, resurrect.
In the closing sentences of “Eden and My Generation,” reprinted in his posthumous collection of essays and interviews, The Gazer Within (University of Michigan Press, 2001), Larry Levis writes about his departure from the San Joaquin Valley, where he’d grown up working in his father’s vineyards: “After I left for good,” he tells us, “all I really needed to do was to describe the place exactly as it had been. That I could not do, for that was impossible. And that is where poetry might begin.”
When I was asked recently to speak about the work of a poet I admire, my thoughts turned quickly to Levis, whose sudden death in 1996 deprived the poets of my generation of the opportunity to meet or study with him, though the proliferation of essays about him and his work by
Two years ago at Bennington College, I taught a course on the work of Sylvia Plath. I created the course in response to student requests and also because I had been thinking about Plath and talking about her with other poets and readers for years. In almost every conversation, the matter of her suicide was inevitably mentioned. I first read her poems while in college. Like many of my students, I was swept up in their drama and entranced by the persona speaking in registers I did not associate with the more measured, reasonable poems to which I had—up until that point—been drawn. In developing my class, I posed a question: Was it possible—even for a short time—to read and study her poems independent of her life story? How was it that we had come to see her creative work as a sort of extended suicide note, rather than as the work of an emerging poet whose career and output had been cut short by a tragic, early death?
I came into the classroom the first day of the term and found