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Margaret Gibson reads from her latest collection Friday at the Arts Cafe Mystic

September 17, 2018

If one’s around long enough, poetry can take on “faithful companion” characteristics from which much wisdom, strength and comfort are gleaned — almost like a wise, elderly dog that comes with its own rhyme scheme.

That’s the sort of metaphor that, thankfully, would never occur to Margaret Gibson, the stunningly gifted Preston-based poet whose latest collection, “Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” (LSU Press), is just out. Gibson will read and discuss the book Friday as the Arts Cafe-Mystic inaugurates its 25th season. 

“Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” is a lovely, intensely personal and often heartbreaking set of poems — very much a thematic companion piece to her 2014 compilation, “Broken Cup.” Both are meditative and reactionary works that chronicle evolving perspectives from the ongoing journey Gibson shared with her husband David McKain, the late poet and head of the University of Connecticut creative writing department. Among his many books is the memoir “Spellbound,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the PEN Award and the National Book Award.

McKain was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2006 and passed away last December — on the 42nd anniversary of his and Gibson’s wedding day. Gibson was already a nationally renowned poet when McKain was stricken — her collection “The Vigil,” for example, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry — but the focus of her writing shifted with the challenges and revelations of their relationship as the disease progressed. Her new poems became meditations not just on the frailty and impermanence of life, but also served as personal therapy inasmuch as poetry provides much succor as we age and deal increasingly with loss.

“Broken Cup” and “Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” — separately or together — are incandescent in their homage to the power and depth of a romantic and intellectual partnership, and both were completed before McKain’s passing. A new collection in progress, “Wing,” will concentrate on McKain’s death as well as the potential losses produced by climate change. 

Via email, Gibson answered a few questions about the work. 

Q: “Broken Cup” and “Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” are connective and provide readers with access to a remarkable relationship and love story. How do you as a writer regard the connection between the two collections?

A: “Broken Cup,” which came out in 2014, focuses in a very straightforward way on the early to middle years of David’s disease. The poems deal with the shocks of adjustment, various kinds of loss, and the discovery that in accepting “brokenness” there emerges a possibility of unconditional love. The poems were written during the seven-year period David was at home. The poems in “Not Hearing the Wood Thrush,” which I began shortly after David entered residential care and was no longer at home with me, continue to explore that capacity for enduring love, but they focus more on my interior solitude, the questions that arise in it, the fears that occur and must be transformed.

In the absence of having David to talk things over with, I entered, via these poems, an inner condition not unlike that of prayer — but instead of addressing “God” that sequence of poems is addressed to “No one.”

Q: That’s a very personal expression of spirituality.

A: It may sound irreverent to some, but for me it’s the height of reverence and awe not to know the name of the holy. A really honest response to mystery is . . . not to know. So some of the poems speak to No one, a sort of personification of “emptiness” — when that emptiness is understood as the fullness of an undivided reality that is radiant and simple — and beyond words.

So you don’t “hear back” from No one! But if you speak to “No one” intimately enough, after a while there is indeed a kind of presence. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s not too unlike how, talking to David after he lost language, we were somehow able to keep the channels of communication open — my using words, his not using them, both of us going beyond them.

Q: At this point in our lives, do you think we measure every new day against a sort of latitude/longitude of wistfulness or even grief? If so, does your work help with that?

A: None of us wants to experience the pain of loss — even though it’s abundantly clear that impermanence, or change, is the nature of things — at any period of our lives. But now, as aging catches up with us, the loss of others, unbearable as that may be, can also foreshadow our own deaths. It will not always be someone else’s death. Mourning for one’s beloved is inclusive, in so many ways.

Each new day is, therefore, a gift, but the gratitude one feels for that gift, as deep as it is, is also indeed mixed with wistfulness — with memories of what has been and is hard to give up — and with grief.

Grief, however, brings with it a rare kind of solitude. And in that solitude, if one agrees to enter it, one may possibly expand the ability to receive and give love. Grief is an education, as so many spiritual traditions and practices show us. One finds one’s true place in the universe, so to speak.

Q: There’s a pantheist feel to this book. Do you subscribe to the idea of Nature as a connective power to which we all belong and return?

A: Everything is connected — there’s no separation. We’re not just connected to Nature — we are nature. Mind and body, spiritual and material energies, what we call “Nature” and what we call “Self,” what we call God or “No one” — all of it is one mysterious continuum. The human mind likes to break things apart — self and other, this and that, and it’s in these gaps or separations that fear and insecurity arise. Fortunately the mind also has the ability to come into a deeper knowing, where it is clear that there is a radical inclusiveness. I call that radical inclusiveness love.

Q: In the poem “Soap,” the personification of Fear almost took my breath away. It’s like a shrewd challenge. Is the poem based on an actual internal dialogue? A way to get through a bout of anxiety?

A: Well, I said that negative emotions need to be transformed! Fear gets stronger the more we resist it, the more we let the mind tell us stories to deny or evade it. (Author/teacher/Buddhist nun) Pema Chodron, among others, counsels befriending fear. So, OK! In this poem I transform fear into a suitor (Emily Dickinson did that for “Death”) and then I let ’er rip. I ended up laughing. Hard to be afraid when you’re genuinely laughing.

Q: Your descriptions in many of the poems are painterly and stunningly gorgeous. Does such imagery come unbidden?

A: Everybody’s mind “thinks” at least in part in images, and images animate dreams in very vivid ways. Imagination — the very word is rooted in image. I do have a very visual imagination — that was “given,” but over the years I’ve developed a deeper receptivity through the practice of mindfulness — which involves witness and observation. There’s always room for a trenchant bare statement — but images give the reader a chance to enter the poem at the level of dream, and to “see” and “touch.” Images offer another threshold where inner and outer worlds meet. To capture the image in words — that’s a skill that takes practice.

Q: The poems “Not to Remain Altogether Silent” and “Continuing the Story” both offer heartbreaking but irrefutable testimony as to the existence of enduring love. When you finish poems like these, do you feel strength and power and affirmation?

A: Yes.  And a great, wordless gratitude.

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