We Are Our Situations: The Poetry of Christopher Gilbert
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 psychologist who wrote in 1934 that “thought does not express itself in words, but rather realizes itself in them,” and Ernst Cassirer, the neo-Kantian German philosopher who wrote in 1929 that “the human spirit in astonishing delusion flees from itself while seeking itself.” The other writers, Denise Levertov, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston, also suggest a great deal about the poetics of this poet: political, lyrical, anthropological. But again part of the poem’s genius is Gilbert is also looking to learn something about himself: his poetics, his personhood. Finding he has no access he can only say how it feels to be someone like Christopher Gilbert:
I feel like some third person
locked outside the language
through which I am
the things I mean.
How can one be introduced to a poet if not through the poet’s poems? How, after encountering such strange brilliance, should one honor a poet who insists, “I am absolutely the I in the writing”? What I did was write an exasperated email to my poetry mentors, pals, and peers asking: “Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?” Nearly everyone recalled Christopher Gilbert. He’d published a book thirty years ago and vanished.
I first heard of him in 2010 during a walk with a poet beside a lake in rural Maine. “Do you know Chris Gilbert’s work,” Fran Quinn asked one night at Robert Bly’s Great Mother Conference. I was there teaching a poetry workshop, but as the name implies (officially “The Great Mother and New Father Conference”), it is far from your run of the mill poetry gathering. There had been, since its 1975 inception, more than a few occasions for its Jungians, storytellers, activists, dancers, tabla drummers, shamanic astrologers, and poets to weep at the state of the cosmos or the sound of a sitar or the great figure of Bly crossing a rustic threshold. Fran had been there since the very beginning, teaching poetry and watching his friends dazzle and age. I’m half joking when I say I might have been only the third or fourth black dude to have ever attended. We’d been talking about Etheridge Knight, who’d attended the conference in its early years and whose name I first heard from Fran when I was eighteen years old and he was a visiting poet at my small South Carolina college. After twenty years we were meeting for only the second time, and he was somehow introducing me to a second magnificent black poet.
“No,” or “I don’t know,” I said to Fran when he asked if I knew Chris Gilbert’s work. Gilbert had once driven to the conference to visit Knight. He’d been a member of Knight’s Free People’s Poetry Workshops in the eighties when Knight lived in Massachusetts. Gilbert was a great poet, Fran said with his hallmark passion. He had published one book, Across the Mutual Landscape, in the early eighties. There was a second manuscript, but Gilbert had died before it could be published. Maybe Fran wiped his nose as he spoke, cleared his throat. He said he and the poet Mary Fell, they’d also been in a workshop with Gilbert years ago, now had the book and its nine or ten different versions back in Indiana. I don’t think I asked to see the unpublished manuscript though he must have offered to send it to me. I told him I would run down Across the Mutual Landscape, the first book. I didn’t leave the conference with Gilbert in the front of my mind. I was pondering stories I’d heard about Knight’s presence at the conference and how Fran was still cheering and teaching so many poets.
I may have forgotten Gilbert had his name not floated my way again less than a week after my return home. The poet Ed Pavlic emailed me “Marking Time,” a poem by Christopher Gilbert, a poet he’d long admired. I asked if it was the same Chris Gilbert that Fran had mentioned to me. I asked if the poet was dead. “I’m pretty sure Chris Gilbert is alive and living in Providence,” Ed said, adding that he’d been thinking about inviting him down to read at the University of Georgia. After a little poking around online, Ed discovered it was indeed the same Christopher Gilbert. It so happened Ed was in Bloomington, Indiana, teaching at a writers conference. I told him Fran lived nearby in Indianapolis. Could he drive there and get the new manuscript? They set a time to meet.
Forgive me. I’ve drifted from the realm of introduction into the realm of coincidence, nostalgia, great mothers, new fathers, and, very possibly, the work of ghosts. I should simply say during the one or two weeks it took Ed to get the new manuscript back to Georgia, and to scan and share it with me, I read Across the Mutual Landscape. I was overwhelmed, awestruck, saddened. I emailed at least a dozen people passages from his long poem, “Horizontal Cosmology,” asking each time: “Who is this Christopher Gilbert and why am I only just hearing about him?” Here are a few lines from “The Facts,” part six of “Horizontal Cosmology”:
I forget the magic gourd that fit my hands,
its shake my feeling of having a heart.
My face is a mask. Everyone wears it.
When I take it off there’s another face.
I turn around to you, you this moment
I have come to empty-handed and not myself.
Across the Mutual Landscape has a dialectical quality that still seems groundbreaking. The title alone of “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso I Remember Braiding My Sisters’ Hair” announces the ways his poems synthesize family and culture, past and present. A poem like “Time with Stevie Wonder in It” reveals the ways his poems move across multiple narratives linking a single moment to all its surrounding moments:
If this were just a poem
there would be a timelessness—
the punchclock midwest would go on
ticking, the intervals between ticks
metaphor for the gap in our lives . . .
The end of his first poem in Across the Mutual Landscape, “This Bridge Across,” succinctly suggests Gilbert’s aim in his poetry: “each moment is a boundary I will throw this bridge across.”
In the “The Breathing / in / an Emancipatory Space,” an essay Gilbert wrote for the Painted Bride Quarterly’s 1988 issue devoted to the work of Etheridge Knight, he provides the only explicit commentary I could find regarding his sense of poetry: “For the poet . . . the startling feeling is how much we—as minds—are in the world rather than apart from it. . . . We are our situations.” The remark echoes the quotes I referenced at the beginning of this introduction: Vygotsky’s notion that the mind is shaped through language and Cassirer’s notion that we paradoxically flee ourselves even when we are seeking ourselves. Gilbert often seems to walk the bridge between what’s real and what’s possible. In the title poem a speaker (one of the Chris Gilberts we meet everywhere) is out walking his dog when he says to the dog: “Let’s be simultaneous . . . because for once we both are beings . . . knowing nothing lives as a foreignness.” Later in the poem he says, seeming to merge with the consciousness of the dog: “let’s begin by being mutual, . . . I’ll be damned / if I don’t step down in my neighbors’ yards / with my mutt’s paw and my situation / whole in the world.” In Gilbert’s poems the self wanders a world that is not narrative, historical, or personal, but all of these things simultaneously: a situation.
This quality of wandering is even more pronounced in the poems of the second manuscript, titled Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There). In the new work a speaker (someone improvising what it means to be Christopher Gilbert, a philosophical flaneur with a wry, blue disposition) is often wondering and wandering. In “On the Way Back Home” he writes we “go out wandering in our various directions.” In “Tourist” he writes:
into small steps here—I total the bits of me.
I have lived in countless places, childless,
without song, and now no church of time ahead
behind whose doors one can walk and be
transformed, enormous, again, and facing the sky.
This self becomes a tourist both displaced and situated in his displacement. Selfhood becomes an act of existential improvisation. Selfhood becomes as fluid and difficult as language. These are not difficult poems, but difficulty is often their subject: the difficulty of the gaps between selves, between being and thinking, between timelessness and time. They strive “to build,” as Gilbert writes in the poem “Turning into Dwelling,” “this language house . . . this loving which lives outside time.” The new collection’s title, Turning into Dwelling, underscores the ways the self is simultaneously restless and reflective in Gilbert’s body of work. His poetry makes “turning” both a motion and an act of transformation, and “dwelling” both a shelter and an act of rumination.
I am still, despite countless readings these last years, being introduced to Christopher Gilbert and his selves. He died at the young age of fifty-seven on July 5, 2007, in Providence, Rhode Island. Graywolf Press published Across the Mutual Landscape, when Michael S. Harper selected it for the 1983 Walt Whitman Award. Harper was one of the first poets I emailed in 2010 to ask about Gilbert. He told me Gilbert had died of an “inherited kidney problem”; that as an undergraduate he’d studied with Robert Hayden at the University of Michigan. Part of me wonders how much Gilbert was shaped by his relationships with Hayden, Harper, and Knight. Gilbert, born in Alabama, was, like Knight, a southern transplant; Gilbert, like Hayden, was raised in industrial Michigan; Gilbert, like Harper, lived much of his adult life in Providence, Rhode Island.
While Gilbert melds the poetics of an austere formalist, a radical jazzman, and a restless bluesman, his work is altogether original, indeterminate, and boundless. Harper said he’d dedicated part of his 1998 Frost Medal lecture to Gilbert and read one of his poems “for remembrance.” More of us should have remembered him when he lived. We would not need, so soon, to recover him now. Though there were no other books, he maintained his links to poetry and poets, at least through the eighties. In 1986, after receiving a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, he took the year off and was poet-in-residence at the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, as well as a visiting poet at the University of Pittsburgh. “Contemporary Authors Online Biography Resource Center” cites Gilbert explaining how the time off was necessary for his poems: “I feel that my own ability to write poetry wants this; it wants its experience to be grounded in the firsthand world gained through contact with lives and people, with me—as subject—as an empathy, with a reflection toward one’s deeper and longer life, with goals, with a concept of use.”
The penultimate section of “Into the Into,” the last poem in Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation, works quite explicitly to explore or reconcile the ambitions he set for himself:
i am a passing thing
in which i am a subject—
read my lines, be my mind.
i am absolutely
the I in the writing,
the dead refuse to sing.
“Into the Into” is almost a somber presage of the next decade’s blocks or silences or refusals. When I emailed Elizabeth Alexander about Gilbert, she said she’d never met him, but she knew his work. She’d called him a few years before he died wanting to include him in an anthology: “He was quiet, said he’d been dealing with chronic illness. Not friendly but not unfriendly. Said he had new poems but never sent them.” She ended the message with a very earnest question: “Maybe he is the most original poet of his generation? Possible.”
By the early 1990s, Gilbert was a psychology professor at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts. Whatever the difficulties—illness, doubt, discouragement—Gilbert’s poems remained in the world. In the remarkable title poem “Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation,” someone so like Christopher Gilbert he calls himself Christopher Gilbert is in the hospital after one of the surgeries that, as we now know, will not ultimately save him:
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.
The poem is an indication that, yes, Christopher Gilbert was beautifully striving “to be” all through his life. I imagine him fine-tuning, dismantling, and reassembling the book as if it was a self. The poems do not seem abandoned or forgotten or disregarded. They seem to anticipate the care of his family, friends, and fans. We have the new work because of people like Fran Quinn, Ed Pavlic, Jeffrey Shotts, and Mark Doty. We have the new work because of the poet Mary Fell’s skill and instincts in shaping it. The poetry of Christopher Gilbert seems to have anticipated the moment we would be here asking, “Who is Christopher Gilbert?” Even in his absence, he continues to insist “I am.”
This essay appears in Turning Into Dwelling by Christopher Gilbert published by Graywolf Press in July 2015.