Christopher Gilbert, who died in 2007, was a chronicler of the hushed, the silenced, the gagged, the conflicted and often lying voices that make up so much of our lives in contemporary America. Now, Turning into Dwelling, a collection of his poems has been released by Graywolf Press.
His first and only book, Across the Mutual Landscape, which came out in 1983, is a coming of age tale, a collection of the things a man witnesses and experiences that make up what he is -- ham radio and fishing and gardening and jazz and R&B and basketball and baseball and panhandlers and traffic jams. It’s a book that finds scraps of solidarity and transcendence in unlikely places.
Like parallel parking
I park the car because I’m happy,
because if everyone parked we’d have a street party.
and the hand of a sleeping derelict
Today I stumble over something
resembling a dead person.
I look down at the body—
a loose skin holding it in.
I lift an arm from the ground.
The whole thing stinks….
You touch the body, the parts
gathered by a suit of clothes.
You punch it, push your knife in
because it is now your turn.
The victim, pinned to the page by those horrible words, nonetheless
finds a way to forgive
your being. As he struggles to not
be shaped by the wounds you bring
but to make something with those wounds.
Gilbert’s models were Muriel Rukeyser and Robert Hayden and Etheridge Knight: good models, great models, inspirational models. They, and his family, taught him
a kind of getting by—
an extension of living
beyond my self my people taught me,
and each moment is a boundary
I will throw this bridge across.
That’s the first part of Turning into Dwelling: the collection that Chris Gilbert published.
The second part offers a new book crafted out of the poems Chris Gilbert left behind when he died. This new Chris Gilbert – you get the sense he’s still forming himself, so it makes sense that this sequence bears the title Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation -- is rigorous and attuned to difference and unity just like the old Chris Gilbert. He’s still writing about parking and traffic jams and jazz and R&B. He’s got the same dead-pan eye for the mute violence that lurks around most things most of the time. But this Chris Gilbert has shed the soothing skin of ideals. He no longer vouches for solidarity.
In these later poems, Gilbert acknowledges that, even as we strive for it, the mutuality he heralded in his early poems is a false dawn:
The truth between us—
blood, neighborhood, words, dream—
this steadfast imaginary community
Now he, an African-American man living, for the most part, in a white world, looks dispassionately around him, at
the strip searches Boston’s finest doagainst every black male in Mattapan old enough
to have the cultural balls which signal “I’ve got
nothing to prove” and not “forgive me” to
the man who is mauling him.
He sees through the pale excuses of people not seeing each other, engaged in willful misunderstanding:
Baby is doing just what many police departments do when they set up sting operations. He romantically sees people as either victim or outlaw, struggling for dignity and self worth, but with little direction. Your voice is a type of body contact, so do talk to baby. But speak quietly with a soothing and reassuring tone of voice. Don’t move suddenly since this startle him. Remember he is as innocent as a police department.
And he X-rays his own complicity:
Who is it who is the real Public Enemy,
is it I, the professor, who would
wrest my lines into the here and now of a local lie
good for a few neighborhood blocks and this
false need for a black meanness, mean enough
to knock the game socks off those purveyors of
ironic taste who want a vision metered out
between the lines ruled by the appetites of the wrong
music, which would dress all my neighborhood’s wild right
rhymes in tennis whites and proper formalistics,
or is it simply another literal example of
life unfolding in its ugly statistics?
This Chris Gilbert gives politics no quarter
I get to the campaign rally and “fuck
there’s no mo chicken,” but the candidate,
the divine Mr. Sound Bite, stops eating his
long enough to cite some wrongs and cluck,
“there’ll be soon be beef for each and every plate.”
And about the lack of cole slaw, he promises
that more is coming with Cokes aplenty,
and music to help us all do the trendytrendy.
It was your usual day, and so forth,
with God on someone’s side. But where my man
flunked the test was thinking that I’d give a damn.
I want food, relevant tack from a bottomless source.
A meaty word to last me past the hassle
of this symbol spewing more symbols out like an asshole.
Indeed, he insists that we have all mangled our moment to set things right
Man we mess it all up! We step forward
into our urban selves all faithless and lie
as though a presence is a paint job, a fashion—
that put-on face which has its moment that
then, like an uncoded character left
in the oblivious weather, simply fades away.
In response, he creates his own Dr. Seuss doggerel for the generations teased into lassitude by the triumph of consumer culture:
I would not, could not where terror reigns.
And I will not, will not need useless things.
Not for a Porsche, nor the status quo.
They are not why I’m striving so.
Not for the gain of celebrity.
Nor to suffer more misery.
Not next year. Not quietly.
Not “over there.” You watch me be.
Well, we can’t face history by looking at a model. At some point
you have to sacrifice yourself. Coltrane’s quest was
to kill the self, then find it.
Well, we face the mysteries by living among them.
Now there’s only one way forward.
There is nothing to do but to let it happen. But you must gesture like a motherfucka because you’re involved in the change.
In Across the Mutual Landscape, Chris Gilbert steps over the smelly man in the alley, wounding him. The riffing improvisational Chris Gilbert who he is becoming in his later poems listens to the man in the alley, and realizes that his responsibility, through his life and through his poetry, is to be that man, to become him, somehow, symbolically.
a ghost hand from a man
who says he’s Lazarus,
who quotes Langston Hughes, whose black
body is so black it’s pre-
African, it’s purple, it’s bruise
set on a set of bones
as he laughs between poems
and the gaps in his teeth,
and offers me a swig from his bottle of wine choked
inside a greasy McDonald’s bag,
till, walking further on, I realize
that I, too, can, through myself, just be,
realize that a man can move beyond images
and “what ain’t so” into the great gulf
of what ain’t talked about,
realize that that man’s sudden gesture
is the “the” in this
language that doesn’t get said
and that I must name it
to have it live as part of me.
Chris Gilbert contained within him a thousand gesturing motherfuckas.
And so it has come down from the gods that all speech is a claim for transcendence, an attempt to step forward from one form—absence—into the pure plane of difference. And so it has come down that all poetry leads to more poetry. And so it has come down that one must choose between getting things as they are or getting the last word about them.
Chris Gilbert didn't seek to have the last word. He witnessed things and named them and welcomed them and got them as they are and made them part of his life.
Now do your part. Read him.