from The Introduction to Chris Gilbert feature section, TWR, Vol XXXIII, 2012
by Eugene McCarthy
“I ripen and am the living resolve that sweetens in the vase of death, and am the seed that leads deeper down into the play of melody.” (TWR, XXVII, 2006, 64)
Chris Gilbert is no stranger to The Worcester Review. His poems have appeared in 1974, 1976, and 1988. In 1996 James Zeigler printed his interview with Chris—Zeigler was at the time an undergraduate at Butler University (Indianapolis). In 2006 TWR published a set of eight of Chris’s new poems with a brief commentary in the special issue “Following Kunitz,” on six nationally known, Worcester area poets; six of those poems appear in the MS, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation.
It was quite natural then for the Review to devote the special section this year to Chris’s work. Our intention was to frame the treatment of his work in three parts: Chris in Worcester; his own poetry; and his place in the African American poetic tradition. The contributions to this issue have fallen neatly into these three areas.
This special issue of TWR was initially intended to coincide with the publication by Graywolf Press of Chris’s draft manuscript, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation, together with a reprint of his award winning Across the Mutual Landscape (1983). The MS volume was edited by Fran Quinn and Mary Fell, both of whom provide commentary for this issue on their editorial work. The Graywolf edition will not be out this year, but we decided to dedicate this issue to his work just the same, and all contributors had access to the manuscript poems.
What becomes apparent from the contributions to this section is that reading Chris’s verse makes one think, move, imagine, respond in fresh ways—the most distinct evidence of the power of his imagination to bring us “in it.” Many wrote poems, honoring the man and his works; others felt that improvisation was the only way in. Those who took the more customary critical stance brought a freshness that seems inevitable for a Gilbert reader.
In the opening poem, Janet Shainheit declares many of the themes here, Chris’s character, his poems, his passions, the jazz music of his voice. Fran Quinn slipped effortlessly into a metaphorical vein, talking about The Box of his manuscripts (though there are in fact several boxes) as he reminisces about Chris, seeking in the multiple versions to find Chris the man and poet. Mary Fell also, while searching those boxes for the “final intention” of many-versioned poems, recalls the emotional effort of revisiting and discovering the man and his work.
In her reminiscent and memorial poem, Catherine Reed finds Chris’s place is as much in Worcester poetry as in her own life of verse. Mary Bonina too feels him come to life again in her world and in the world of Worcester poetry, the history of which she explores so fully and warmly.
In his “improv” Terrance Hayes quotes “Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation” (in the MS of that name), as his personal memory fuses with the basic elements of elegy. Ed Pavlić calls his examination an “into,” seeking in that “modern dance for voice” Chris’s “overflowing fullness of an experience,” a true characterization of his verse. Yusef Komunyakaa’s fine and richly allusive poem blends memory and memorial.
Like many contributors, Jonathan Blake hears in poems of Across the Mutual Landscape the distinct, cadenced Gilbert voice—and overhears Etheridge Knight and Wole Soyinka. In his interview of 1996, James Zeigler quoted Chris on his passion for jazz. Zeigler here continues to hear that jazz in the context of cultural history, imbedded in its political/social environment.
While some writers touch on Chris in the African American tradition, Anthony Walton opens for us in rich detail the ways Chris’s verse “spools and accumulates into a complex meditation on the poet’s world view” as a member of “the ‘emergent,’ post-black arts generation.”
It will come as no surprise that many of these authors select the same poems as keys to Gilbert’s poetic. Yet, each seeing new features in the same “play of melody” means that his “overflowing fullness of an experience” continues to enrich us.
The fact that Chris continually composed and revised and developed—an inconvenient practice for his editors—means that he had an emerging whole vision. His earliest poems were not lost, but stored, reconstituted, and incorporated into that larger plan. Poems composed for the Denise Levertov workshop in Worcester, l975*, reveal a great deal about his genius. (All members of that workshop, it is worth saying, have become well-published poets. All of them.)
The poem Mary Fell mentions, “And the Children of the King Don’t Sing,” was composed for that workshop, and neatly typed at the bottom: “poem written 5 years after a memorial service for Martin Luther King in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.” It was published in TWR (1975, lower case title; “carried by” changed to “tacked against.”) In l974 he had published three poems in TWR, two “willie” poems, and “jazz haiku hyannis mass. may 73,” perhaps influenced by Etheridge Knight’s interest in haiku, or the thousands that Richard Wright composed late in life.
One of Levertov’s assignments was for her students to make a poem based a group of pictographs—which she had invented on the spot—images allegedly “found at a dig” and not deciphered yet. The assignment was, as Fran Quinn related to me, to “translate” these objects, try to decipher a meaning even though there was, allegedly, no set way to “read” them.
What I take to be Chris’s first effort is a two-part narrative:
From the ‘pictograph’ exercise:
In our village, though we were poor
we had the fire’s life, the peace
of the lotus pool
But the overlord,
brilliant in his riches,
demanded our labor,
took away our harvest.
At last we took up arms.
To win the battle against him
was like scaling the steepest, highest mountain.
But together we did it.
In comradeship we returned to our fields,
Replanted then in the light rain
when the moon was propitious
The village on fire! No lotus pool
can quench it.
No more full bowls.
The sun beat down on us
like a cruel overlord.
Instead of our harvest sickles
we must take up our swords
and become bandits in the mountains
or else beggars,
out in the desolate rains of autumn,
sleeping under the moon month in, month out.
Such a straight narrative must have seemed unsatisfactory to Gilbert, for he then wrote what is titled in pencil “hieroglyphic” (“C Gilbert” is penciled at the end):
there is always change
the sun transforms
a bit of grain into luscious harvest days
and the tiny fire of our village is later
a brilliance of budding lotus in a pool
no wonder that the rain must fall,
the moon rushes toward the mountain
and our hands are seeking unity
with the power of the tools
One can see the traces of images from the original in this entirely re-imagined poem. The theme remains, but all is condensed, narrative abandoned. The Africa-ness of the original is lessened but remains as do African references throughout his poetry: “The seeing is enclosed the way the world is enclosed within the lid of the African god’s eye.” (“The Plum,” TWR, XXVII, 64; revised in Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation into “My skin is the dark lid covering the note of an African’s eye….”)
Another workshop poem, “and you see we learned,” is dedicated, at the end “to stevie wonder.” It is the seed for “Time with Stevie Wonder in It” (AML, 14-15). While he retains imagery and language, the poem is entirely reimagined with more on family, radio-and-music, locale, and of course on Stevie himself. Here is the original:
frozen, the ground covered;
your coal color gone years ago
and its environment snuffed
so out of touch
how can you touch, hear, or
be alive, how can anybody
packed in brief case history of social science
in the basement of white houses, tall mansions
of misunderstanding and perverse comforts,
where slick separations live
huddled against the wind
against the mind—
it is a crime. you live
in casket framed huts so tight
against detroit’s streets
each brother a car parked in quick garages
that will go no where
each a foot of ice a metaphor
of the world
where things don’t move
but bein blind
you go to lansing to school
where the wind blows blows
untutored and naked, uptight
you suck this column of cold air
till the lungs warm; the heart
fills, you force it back
thru harmoniked lips hot
as equatorial fingertips
feelin our ears, bendin
notes around our heads
miles later, in my memory
of vibration on the radio streets
of lansing where i counted time
i see you, now
The “januaried movements” is retained as is the cold of Detroit and Lansing; the “casket framed huts so tight” becomes “neighborhoods stacked like boxes,” a similar image but reconsidered. Chris’s slangy idiom is already present.
These examples of revision suggest how Gilbert had a vision he sought to articulate, so that even early efforts were not practice pieces but parts toward the final whole. Thus he preserved old pieces and revised them into what we now have as his Improvisation, subtitled by him “(Music of the Striving That was There).”
We can see now how prescient Chris was of his work as poet. He told James Zeigler (TWR, XVII, 1996), “When I began writing, …I was really just writing out of the necessity to make a statement. …
“[My brother] listened to neo-boppish people like Stanley Turntine and Wes Montgomery, and neo-bop and bop is the jazz I identify with. …The collective improvisation fits well with the kind of poems I write. Sometimes they seem linear. For some of them, I didn’t mean for them to happen all at once. …There is something at issue in the [bop] music and it’s critical. For poems, I like a sort of reflective, deliberate, laid back attitude but I like poems that have a critical issue, something at stake.”
Special thanks are due many people for making this Chris Gilbert issue come to print. Rodger Martin, former editor of The Worcester Review, has been as always invaluable and wise, as is the enthusiasm of the new editor, Diane Mulligan. In our early planning, Rodger, Fran Quinn, Mary Fell, John Hodgen were crucial advisors, as were many others whose works are featured here. Obviously none of the journal you hold in your hand could have happened without the contribution of all our authors; they brought dedication, thoughtful reflection, and carefully refined work that will be the grounding for further studies.
Barbara Morin, Chris’s widow, deserves particular credit here. She has been most responsive and generous in searching through Chris’s papers, enduring the emotional burden to provide photographs and correspondence.
It was an honor for me to be involved in this tribute to one who was not only our friend but one whose stature rises before us every day.
* Rodger Martin Papers (MS 27); Modern Poetry Collection. Keene State College [NH] Archives & Special Collections. Copies of many workshop participants’ poems are kept here. There is also the letter of invitation from Mike True (Worcester Country Poetry Assn., Education Director) , May 23, l974, to the Levertov workshop.