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Margaret Gibson

Snowing


Mornings are best, you wrote, before words, before appetite.

Your words put on a coat and scarf and stand with me outside
in the hushed world.

Snow is silence made visible.

Where hemlocks edge the dark pond, a fox…  intent,
its wind-ruffled russets flecked with silence. 

In an early journal you copied passages from Blake, from Sartre,
Meister Eckhardt—

so that I may listen, so that I may hear. 

Slowly the field takes on the color now of your hair, as does
the fox.  The fox

does not move, yet it grows lighter and appears to float
nearly to the height of the hemlocks,

where it hovers.  It snows harder.  And harder still.

Just down the road from us – in Preston of all places – lives a great poet named Margaret Gibson, and she has just made a new book of poems whose wisdom and courage will do us good.  The book is called Not Hearing the Wood Thrush – a book that Stephen Dunn (who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back) says is “a great book… by one of our best poets.”

The poems of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush trace the arc of a crisis in the poet’s life -- their subtext is the prospect of old age spent without a beloved husband who is in the dying throes of Alzheimer’s.  Several poems talk of facing not knowing, uncertainty.  They tell of fear – fear of loneliness and, of course, fear of death.  These are beautiful poems whose insights take your breath away.  They form a love story – love of the beloved, but also love of life.  They also contend with hope – dear old hope -- who invites us to persist and to imagine meaning – but this poet acknowledges that hope may be an illusion, a kind of biological instinct, which may have no basis in reality.  Yes, there’s a toughness to this poet and the poems of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, that enables them to look annihilation squarely in the eye.  For example, of a dear friend’s accidental death in the woods she writes:

Perhaps he was ready, perhaps not.
I think something in us knows
what we do not, and I hold
that not knowing close –
it sharpens the moment, it opens 
the heart.

To add to the depth and complexity of these ruminations, Ms. Gibson is also a spiritual pilgrim.  Many of the poems in her new book find her arguing with God, whom she addresses as “No one.”  In Rude Drift she grumbles, “You should be here with me as I suffer.”  In Sunday Morning, she remarks, “There is nothing to pray to, yet everything is prayer.”  

The luminous poems of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush are important and useful because, in grappling openly and honestly with the great questions of life and death, they suggest by example that in posing the questions we are all ennobled and gain strength to go on.

In the course of her long and distinguished career, Margaret Gibson has been acknowledged one of our foremost poets.  The great Jean Hirschfield has described Gibson as a “master poet.”  Each of her 11 previous books has been an event in the poetry world, as she kept her way steadfastly on a poetic mission that connects her work to the Biblical Psalms and the epics and myths of antiquity -- a mission to voice poetry in prayer, praise, and celebration of the mystery and majesty of life.

Ms. Gibson has brought to her mission the great gifts of a clear musical voice, a raconteur’s talent for telling the story well, and a seemingly inchoate empathy that has enabled her to convincingly connect the human day-to-day with the cycles of nature.  

Not surprisingly Ms. Gibson’s books have garnered many honors, including the Lamont Poetry Prize, Melville Kane Award, and two Pushcart Prizes. Her masterwork, The Vigil, A Poem in Four Voices was a finalist for the National Book Award and five of her books have been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Not Hearing the Wood Thrush may be the crowning glory of Margaret Gibson’s mission in poetry.

River Requiem


All day hard rain – now it’s night, raw mist
the river a surge of mud smell and omen.
In its tumult, the world of form and foment
skirls by, it builds and dissolves as clouds do,
but faster, as on the dark surface of the river
loose lariats and loops of white foam
sent downriver by the waterfall’s cascade,
braiding and unbraiding, rush along—
a kind of writing hard to read, but also
as clear as the petals and ashes on the Ganges.
It’s hard not to think of the afterlife –
which is to say, the next moment –
as whatever’s unknown overspills and floods
what now is.  And there’s joy in this,
and in the heart’s pounding out its mantra
god god god god god… Not that I live
to embrace disquiet only, but here it is.
Perhaps the opposite of peace isn’t tumult,
but either one, peace or tumult, at a standstill,
Who wouldn’t open wide to life’s rushing
through?  Each petal, each crust of ash
more precious now that I’m hearing
a deeper whisper as the river surges by,
you will die; yes, you will; you, too; you will die.  

There are even moments of elation and of loopy, laugh-out-loud humor. 

of a relentless disease.  deep contemplation and wild inspiration.  And yet, they’re rooted in the world – in the poet’s own body, in the woods, ponds, and riversides of Preston, which are her natural habitat, a habitat for body, mind, heart if you will, soul perhaps.  Ms. Gibson has walked these woods for an attentive lifetime – they form the persuasive and radiant metaphorical foundation for her poems.   

Several of its poems talk about facing not knowing, uncertainty.  They tell of fear – fear of loneliness and, of course, fear of death.  Their subtext is the prospect of old age spent without a beloved husband who is dying of a relentless disease.  These are beautiful poems whose insights take your breath away.  They form a love story – love of the beloved, love of life.  They also contend with hope – dear old hope -- who invites us to persist and to imagine meaning.  There are even moments of elation and of loopy, laugh-out-loud humor. 

All of the many great poems in this book are quotable – but here, in its brief entirety is a poem called ‘Whisper’ which gives a taste of this book of wonders:

Draw close.  Everyone you love, and everyone you don’t,
will someday die – you know this.
Resist or embrace it, either way sadness as pungent 
as jasper sooner or later fills you.  Let it settle,
let all your holy striving settle.

There’s a covert in your body where either yes or no
is the answer – and it doesn’t matter which you say.
Be there long enough, every morning 
sun streams through the original window.