Undanceable / Selected Poems 1965-2000
To indulge for a moment in a binary: there are companionable writers, whose work can be relied on to provide familiar comforts of style and competence, and there are the inventors, who often seem to be making no point at all until suddenly you are dangling from it. Merrill Gilfillan is of both parties, a dealer in Americana and jazz naturalist somewhere on the spectrum between Kerouac and Emerson. His deepest affinities are with two British eccentrics, however: Hopkins and Clare. He has published going on twenty books of poetry and prose, three in the last two years, and though the balance tips heavily toward verse, his achievements in prose are grand:
I made a slow hibachi polenta from stone-ground meal I bought in West Virginia — strong, cows-in-the-corn, greeny-tasting meal — and doused it with parmesan and chopped scallions, ate it at sundown in the shotgun seat of the car.
And now, this daybreak in the western Virginia mountains, the dawn chorus of birdsong swells and builds until the sheer unbroken volume of the phenomenon is astounding. I end up pacing back and forth across the campsite in near disbelief at its intensity, its variety and pulse of exultation. Robins, titmice, tanagers, vireos, pewees, warblers, woodpeckers, grosbeaks — all leaning into it simultaneously at top voice as the first daylight appears. It has the implacable, insistent roar of oxygenated flame.
Or perhaps it is simply that the message is clearer, for me, this time: This is the critical imprint hour, the daily moment when the very identity and creature-form is driven home to the nestlings via the tympanum. This is the moment they receive their life-instructions and roles within the species matrix. It is a hot-blooded bio-roar, an event comparable in pitch and beauty (it extends at this instant from Florida to the tip of the Gaspé) to the great photosynthetic hymn of these mountains in their brilliant October color. An exultation of such choral grandeur and frontal plea that it must surely register on some interstellar radar-ear as a major earthly wonder and energy vortex worthy of great note.
(Burnt House to Paw Paw, Hard Press, 1997)
Apparently there are still ghostly revival meetings where the old American oracular is still preached. By comparison, his verse is recited in a chapel for an already-amused congregation:
the chiles come up,
Call to Feast:
Alamillo: a steady stream
up Rio Bravo—
a lot like Lincoln’s casket
through the East.
(piles of cheese)
cool in the head.
Mountains with their sometime
baddog hooligan look
to the west.
the little ink monkey creeps
from the cupboard,
the pencils, straightens
the desk, the faces.
jump wild, know sting
“lucky to be alive”—
True in All Places.
(from “Plenum from a Number of Places”)
Jagged indentations are often a trick to bully the reader into thinking the poet has an ear; but look at the first stanza. The first three calls are in twos, with responses in threes, and the whole thing could go doggerel at any moment. At stanza’s close, though, he plays the prosody straight — twos all the way — while throwing his regional fiesta into historical relief. From there he’s free (actually he’s been free since the chile peppers came up) to note every detail, fantasy, and association in its absurd and realist glory — try not to see mascarpone in the next snowdrift — and take the post-WCW triple-word-score on an occasional linebreak with lexical ambiguity, i.e. at the end of the second stanza, are the mountains looking to the west or do they, residing in the west, look as surly as uncontainable youths. He pulls all this together with humor and grace, with the cliffhanger sting of violence averted. You could read it to a bright child or a skeptical elder with equal chance of raising a smile. Lifer poets will know what they’re dealing with here.
Compared to the prose, though, it’s a little like knowing the raider of the lost ark only as Professor Jones. Companionable, lightning-quick even, but somehow not perfectly at liberty. So what’s the difference? Between prose and poetry, that is: In both, Gilfillan tends to suppress or minimize the presence of the first person speaker; in both a magpie genius for pastiche and quotation enlivens an already lively style; in both the motivation for any particular utterance is at once exaggerated and removed from context so that nearly everything seems to derive from the mournful slightly daffy call of gringo instinct. It may be as simple as that with his prose he clues the reader in to the pains he takes, the special sauce he forgoes, to reserve the local color some privacy and respect. At home he is absolutely not a tourist. With his poems, as with those of most poets lucky to have been knocked sideways by Williams’s homelike abstractions, the reader is expected to bring her own clues. The problem with this particular bargain, though, is that it has never been clear how much the writer of this kind of poem is obliged to deliver. Nobody knows, of course, and it feels churlish to take issue this way with good ceorl Gilfillan, whose guesses are, after all, about as good as anybody’s.
The early poems returned to print in Adventures in Poetry’s new Selected Poems hew close to Williams, wagering that the sufficient condition of minimal poetry is a sexual shock:
paused in a clearing
at the smell of new levis
and onion grass, drive on.
Collectors already in possession of Gilfillian’s ’82 book River to Rivertown and his ’97 Satin Street may note that the Selected mainly reprints those two and decide to skip out on this new offering. That would be a mistake; the selections from the early work are every bit as vital as Gilfillan’s prose, and every bit as genial as his work in toto. The uncommon quality he keeps exhibiting in book after book is sheer alert joy at living — surviving, thriving, waning, and reviving.