Death’s Poetic Dominion: On Sandra Gilbert

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by Susan Gilbert
Hardcover, $24.00
W.W. Norton, 2011

It may be a truism, but it is still true: death is most difficult for the survivors. When it’s expected — a parent, or someone you love who has suffered through a long illness — your mind prepares for it, easing the shock; but when it’s a spouse, child, or close friend, and it comes without warning, it is shattering. Bay Area Poet and critic Sandra M. Gilbert’s husband died in 1991 as a result of a botched post-operative procedure, and she wrote about this pain in her collection Wrongful Death. But, eventually, life goes on. Gilbert edited the 2001 anthology of elegies titled Inventions of Farewell, where two of her poems on the death of her husband appear, and then in 2006 published Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve. Years after the first devastating loss, Gilbert partnered with David Gale, an eminent mathematician — only to lose him suddenly too. Her latest collection, dedicated in part to Gale, carries the punning title Aftermath.

The poems in the first section, titled “Old Recipes,” reminisce about happier times, “. . .Fellini days of dolce vita, / when the glass was full, the margaritas sweeter!”

Now Doug is sunk under the water table,
Moneera stumbles & trips across her cane,
Bob’s seersuckers have gone to the Goodwill,
and we’ll never eat his Hoppin’ John again,

Death and food haunt these sonnets, a pairing of sustenance and loss common to many cultures. They invoke real people, and several are dedicated to Elliot, her late husband, but anyone who has lost someone dear will recognize the grief expressed in these poems that

give voice to the rock, find words for the bed of granite,

The poems in other sections (Plane, Aftermath, Drash, Lei Soup) are not all haunted, but there is a ghostly feel to many of them. A sonnet sequence on the various medical conditions we face as we grow older (if “grow” is the right word; it depends, I suppose, on the dimension we have in mind) are alive with bitter humor. There are poems on MRI, Colonoscopy, Contact Lens, Bypass, Cataract Surgery, Arthritis, and more. There is even a series on hearing aids.

Gilbert’s poems are deeply felt and intensely personal, though not confessional. Somehow, she manages to also make them universal by the way she invokes the particular — names of people, places, things (“The heaviness / of the August chestnuts / in the Place des Vosges”) touch common feelings when she ties these concrete, conscious elements to symbols and metaphors she apparently fishes from her unconscious. A poem about her mother begins:

Because she couldn’t knit she just crocheted,
alone with Johnny Carson, night after night. . .

And concludes:

until at last she drowned in her solitude
and the fallen yarn pooled at her feet like blood.

It feels sometimes like someone diving into a pool and coming up for air. Other poems begin with a deep breath and then the dive.

Sometimes the connection between unconscious and conscious is so obscure I didn’t feel as if I got back to the surface. A sequence called “Variations on an Old Issue of Woman’s Day (January 15, 1991)” presents what appear to be very private responses to various sections of the magazine. “Be Safe in a Recession” goes:

Imagine the sun in Tehuantepec.
Imagine the frilled shields
of an ornamental January
cabbage flailing outward

like skirts of an upside-down
dancer. She’s safe though
receding, receding headfirst
into the pit of a redwood planter.

Of course, we all think about death when someone we know dies, and we dwell on it when we consider our own demise. There may be more synonyms (and euphemisms) for the verb to die than for any other common word in our language: pass on, expire, check out, croak, kick the bucket, give up the ghost (shouldn’t that be: become a ghost?), meet one’s end, etc. In a mass-denial of our collective expiration, we invent afterlives where we continue to exist someplace else, and commemoratives where at least our memory is, we say, kept alive, in the form of tombstones, initials carved in trees, and works of art.

Sometimes, writing an elegy is an attempt to defy that grim reaper (“Death be not proud. . .”). That was Dylan Thomas’ approach. He would have you “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”). Gilbert’s approach is different, though no less elegaic. Hedging her agnostic bet, she writes:

O Lord, why can’t I walk toward you too,
hand in hand

. . .

& pray, remembering
what that Danish physicist

remarked almost a century ago
about the lucky horseshoe:

They say it works
even if you don’t believe in it.

Her main interest, however, is not in facing death, but in tempering the grief that builds up in one who mourns. “After the first death, there is no other” is true for the deceased; the mourner experiences it a thousand times, hands shaking, head exploding. Most people let it out by punching a wall or kicking their dog. Poets write a lament. And by sharing her own grief, she comforts others.

The risk, of course, in writing poems about death is morbidity. Gilbert’s poems for the most part avoid that, often by simply recollecting the good times, turning death into a sort of ghost that haunts the past:

She broods on the apartment back in the Marais,
the place where he wooed her, won her, where they lived
five months a year in eighty metres carre
among rugs, songs, books they bought & loved.
Now rien du tout, her bequest nothing more
than dailiness — the table where he sat,
the yellow pads, the integers — no floor,
no walls, no three-dimensional estate.

Was she merely mistress, & mistress of nothing real,
chatelaine of phantom solids, zero keys?

Or was there a theorem in the fleeting whole,
a solution in that last of Paris days
when they hung the plate with the sultan’s sigil on it
in happiness (as short-lived as a sonnet)?

In some poems a sardonic humor, as that of her title, relieves the tension. She likens scattering David Gale’s ashes to the items on a “Hospitality Cart” offered to his visitors at the hospital:

Your body that we keep on
portioning into smaller & smaller

packets some now tiny as
those little envelopes of sweetener

on the hospitality cart

There is plenty of wry humor in the medical poems as well. Gilbert is the author of nine collections of poetry, several critical works, and the editor of a few anthologies, and although her work here is as vigorous and inventive as ever, there is a feeling in some of the poems in Aftermath of having said all there is to say:

“What’s There”

to write about but the daily
walk to the beach, the look at the sky, the seals,
the black mass of the cypresses, the rocks —

and even there, in the landscape,
what’s to say?
A gust of nearly microscopic fruit flies

from the harvest down the road
fills the house with dancing others who
swim in my wine, skitter and skate

at the edge of everything:
why bother to write that down?
What else is new? What else is there to say?

Let go of this leaky pen is what I say.
Wipe your hands on your apron.
Stand in the doorway. Turn off the oven.

Regard the moon.

While there might be nothing new for the poet to write about, regarding the moon is a beginning. Again.

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About Jerome Richard

Jerome Richard is a retired professor of English now living in Seattle.