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Christopher Gilbert

1949–2007

Christopher Gilbert was born on August 1, 1949, in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. The fourth of six children, he worked in General Motors assembly plants during summer vacations, where his parents and several of his sibling worked. Gilbert received a BA in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1972 and an MA in psychology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1975.

His first poetry collection, Across the Mutual Landscape, was chosen by Michael S. Harper for the Walt Whitman Award in 1983 and published by Graywolf Press the next year. Turning into Dwelling, a collection that includes both Gilbert's debut and a second manuscript, was posthumously published in 2015 as part of the Graywolf Poetry Re/View Series, edited by Mark Doty.

Of his poetry, Doty writes: “No one else sounds quite like Christopher Gilbert... His voice feels timeless in its immediacy, and the poems startle in their almost uncanny ability to grant readers access to a mind at work.”

Gilbert received fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also served as Poet in Residence at the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, in 1986. He taught writing classes at Goddard College, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Pittsburgh, Trinity College, and Clark University.

During his life, Gilbert worked as a psychotherapist in a variety of settings in Massachusetts, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School Counseling Center, the Judge Baker Guidance Center, and Cambridge Family and Children's Service. He also taught psychology at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts, from 1993 until his death on July 5, 2007.


Bibliography

Turning into Dwelling (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984)

Christopher Gilbert
Photo credit: Karen Durlach

By This Poet

5

Muriel Rukeyser as Energy

She knows the resonant dark
and she won’t be bound.

She goes into. 
A darkness has to touch,
and she wants to be exact.

She knows about the burning.
Her history is binary—
one of her hands is ash.

She’s always being born. 
She doesn’t look away;
her sex is coming forward.

Ask her if there’s laughter.
The frog in her head is jumping.
Myths arise where it sets.

She rides a flying horse.
It’s red; she’s stroking its neck.
She praises where it sweats

because the horse is available,
because it is required;
she loves its rascal mouth.

She wants to celebrate.
You know her reaching for words
and arranging them as fruit

knowing there is war, 
and cities rising and falling, and
a river flowing with at least one shore.

She is the speed of darkness—
witness her mystery, not her gown.
As she tries, as she dies,

Aphrodite is getting smaller
but she’s also burning hotter.
She is the dark one
and she won’t be bound.

Time with Stevie Wonder in It

Winter, the empty air, outside
cold shaking its rigid tongue
announcing itself like something stone,
spit out, which is still a story
and a voice to be embraced.
Januaried movements but I hear a tune
carries me home to Lansing. 

Always waiting for signs of thaw, 
dark nomads getting covered by snow,
our parents would group in the long night—
tune frequencies to the Black stations
blasting out of Memphis, Nashville, 
still playing what was played down south—
Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Ruth Brown, Muddy and Wolf. 

The tribal families driven north 
to neighborhoods stacked like boxes—
to work the auto plants was progress, 
to pour steel would buy a car
to drive hope further on down the road. 
How could you touch, hear
or be alive; how could anybody

wearing our habits, quiet Protestant 
heads aimed up to some future?
This was our rule following—
buy at J.C. Penney and Woolworth’s,
work at Diamond Reo, Oldsmobile, Fisher Body.
On Fridays drink, dance, and try to forget
the perverse comfort of huddling in

what was done to survive (the buffering, 
the forgetting). How could we not
“turn the head/pretend not to see?”
This is what we saw: hope screwed
to steel flesh, this was machine city
and the wind through it—neutral
to an extent, private, and above all

perfectly European language
in which we could not touch, hear
or be alive. How could anybody
be singing “Fingertips?” Little Stevie
Wonder on my crystal, 1963.
Blind boy comes to go to school, 
the air waves politely segregated
    *
If this were just a poem
there would be a timelessness—
the punchclock Midwest would go on
ticking, the intervals between ticks
metaphor for the gap in our lives
and in that language which would not 
carry itself beyond indifferent

consequences. The beauty of the word, 
though, is the difference between language
and the telling made through use. 
Dance Motown on his lip, he lays
these radio tracks across the synapse 
of snow. The crystals show
a future happening with you in it. 
 

Fire Gotten Brighter

Remember that memory.
In this dimness when the sounds I make
are foreign, my home is not my own.
when I think of another winter
and the distant whiteness of its walls—
when even the sun seems set
outside the world. In this dimness
the edge of things removed
to thought the numb call touch,
remember that memory—
the young black self
the whole black body painted hot
by the fresh orange scene in the basement
of our old house when I was nine.
When it was my turn
to keep the fire going while my family slept —
my father off divorced somewhere, my older brother resting
after work, and what shadows hovered at the fringe of light
spilt from the furnace’s mouth—
I stuck my shovel in the flame,
had its intensity
its heat travel through a vein in the handle
to a part of my head.
The coals gotten smaller, brighter.
Out of that fire, my frightened shovelling in the night
now a framed power, that young effort
made a little orange scene
kept the whole world excited—
gathered near its center.

In this dimness where I can’t tell
if my longing is my own, it is gotten winter.
Above me I watch a jet
that be’s perfectly still, yet gets so distant,
goes so pointless. I could take a plane,
fly from here to somewhere small
till I’m ashes of myself—
but everything burns repeatedly
or keeps burning. Remember that memory.
I am dark with effort, back at my mother’s house
someone’s thinking of me, and old and smothered flame
gets waked, and it warms the gap
between image and real light.

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