Grasped by What We Cannot Grasp: The Elemental Poems of Dan Gerber




DAN GERBER AND I bounced down the riffle waters of the Madison River in Montana, talking about his new poem, “Particles.” It was September 2016 and the clouds were high and the winds light and cool across the grizzly-yellow hills and there was a minor hatch of baetis mayflies, or blue-winged olives.

Dan had already landed six or seven nice trout and I’d pulled in one. Our guide, Mike Pollack, was making excuses for me, like how the person standing in the back of the boat never caught as many fish. “Dan and I have made this same run with Jim Harrison in the back, and Harrison was pretty grumpy about it,” said Mike, leaning on his oars.

But we all knew Dan was catching more because he could think like a fish or, even better, he could think like a river with fish in it, which is a fine thing to discuss on a river trip with a poet. Besides being the author of 10 volumes of poetry — including the new Particles: New and Selected Poems which came out in September 2017 — three novels, a book of short stories, and two books of nonfiction, Gerber was also an English teacher and a top race-car driver in the 1960s. Like the great modernist Wallace Stevens, who was the president of The Hartford insurance company, Gerber also helped run the baby food company that bears his name, which was started by his grandfather and turned into a major corporation by his dad.

Dan had read me his new poem, which was ostensibly about quantum physics but that really turned out to be about memory and, finally, mortality, as it spun into a discussion of the animating force or forces that permeate matter.

Matter appears to be jealous of light —
every particle mad to escape its mass
to be just the light by which we
see our world — without self —
without the distractions of a you
and me, apparently eternal
like an electron — to have
no substance in which to decay.

This raised the question of awareness: Can a particle yearn for transformation into light, to have no substance, to become eternal? If we consider love or attraction or even the laws of physics as an agreement between atomic bits, how explicit is the agreement? I had excitedly produced a book I was reading on this trip, Freya Mathews’s 2003 work For Love of Matter, which sets out to reanimate a world of rocks and rivers via a project she called “panpsychism,” which she saw as any approach that “attributes a psychic dimension to all physicality.”

“I was thinking about that Freya Mathews book,” said Dan from the front of the boat, expertly fishing the cutbank all the while, “and it reminds me of Wordsworth.” He then launched into a recitation from memory of the relevant parts of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” which is something that Gerber does constantly. That is, recite from memory, not always Wordsworth.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

“Dean, I cannot guarantee to my clients that every trip will include a recitation from Wordsworth,” said Mike, who has fished with Dan since 1994 and often on this river. “But it has happened before.”

It is, in fact, how Gerber interacts with the world: he confronts it with poetry. He recites all kinds of stuff, even old radio ads from the 1950s. This penchant for committing pieces to memory started as a strategy for dealing with profound dyslexia. But like his four-decade study of Zen Buddhism, it is also a way to order a life of intense and seemingly disparate passions.

“The idea is there,” Gerber continued from up front: “‘A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.’ What is that? Consciousness? Or what Mathews called it, subjectivity?”

“Is that the jealousy?” I said, watching my line get sucked under the boat. “Is that the madness of particles wanting to be light?”

“It’s more than just fishing, Dean!” yelled Mike, pulling us over to the bank so we could eat some lunch.

¤

Any book with New and Selected in the title is a terrible and awesome thing to review, because it’s really reviewing a life.

I have known much of Gerber’s later work and even so, this book, Particles, is a revelation in its quiet and resolute pursuit of the shape of our actual condition here on Earth. And when I say “our,” I mean everything — trees, owls, rocks, wind, the orb itself, all the stuff we have to call “us” if we’re talking about living on a planet.

His poems are pastoral in setting and rooted in nature and farm life and waters and are mostly about very ordinary living, but the lives described in them since his first collection, 1971’s The Revenant, are animated by wonder and beauty.

As you’d guess from a guy who writes poems about atomic particles, Gerber is fascinated by the actual stuff of lived experience, but he always reaches for a more extended relatedness between the players, where the lines blur, as in “The Man Who Doesn’t Change,” from the 1986 book Snow on the Backs of Animals:

The wind abides nowhere.
Or it isn’t the wind;
it is the motion of the mind
through pine boughs.

What a raft of questions this raises. What is moving the trees? Is wind actually a kind of thought? If so, who or what is thinking it? And who is the “man” who doesn’t change?

All that matters, but you can tell by the feel of the poem as it whooshes you through the pine boughs that the question — as elemental and essential as it is — doesn’t matter as much as what it feels like to live the whooshing itself.

The project is to distill the beauty in that lived moment, but also to give voice to our questions about how much the world out there is really the world within, and vice versa. As in this part of “Tracking the Moment,” from the 2007 book A Primer on Parallel Lives, which seems to have everything to do with why Dan and I are fishing together:

I am always returning to the edge of water,
lapping at the loam of a bank under pine needles,
and slapping at the bellies of dock planks.
Or I’m looking into one of those still, black ponds,
which seems to me like a pupil of the planet,
through which it watches the other stars
and finally our own silent faces,
gazing down into its ever-intensified heart.

The art and the goal of some of these poems is to capture our relatedness to that water, that tree, that living, and every so often, Dan achieves what we yearn for most in our reading, a line or two to hang on to, to tape to the wall, to memorize, because they explain everything without trying, swooping down on the ineffable while it’s not looking. As in “A Tree on the Prairie in Mid-October,” from 1999’s Trying to Catch the Horses:

Something not only of itself
comes out of the tree when I see it
something not me that I am.

I will read thousands of poems looking for some lines that succinct and perfect, and I go back to that poem over and over like I go back to Robert Duncan or Gary Snyder or to passages by Peter Matthiessen. What is “something not me that I am”?

This is the backdrop to every piece I write as a journalist hammering away at environmental issues, because it captures our responsibility to the whole: something not me that I am.

¤

The radical novelist Kathy Acker taught me in one of my first-ever interviews in 1988 that biographical criticism is bunk, but Gerber’s life has been so pointedly aimed at collecting words. So I will break Acker’s rule for a minute.

Gerber was born and raised in Fremont, Michigan, where the Gerber company was centered and where its big manufacturing plant still dominates town life. My brothers and I have a cabin near there, and we buy turnip seed from the co-op that was run by one of Gerber’s relatives. Every couple of years or so I fall out of a tree and end up in the Gerber Memorial Hospital. We fish the White River and the Pere Marquette and the Baldwin and all the rivers Gerber grew up fishing.

Polio nearly killed him when he was a kid, which may have something to do with his obsessive nature, and he was sent to boarding schools where he wrestled with dyslexia, but at 12 years old he was given wings by Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman,” which he still (of course) recites entirely from memory, with its chorus:

And the highwayman came riding —
Riding — riding —
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door

“I had a lot of loneliness, so I guess maybe where the seeds of poetry came in were trying to turn that loneliness into solitude,” said Dan. “I think it’s in that ‘Particles’ poem, something of that — it’s like that Jiménez poem”:

I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.

“When I remember that one, I have solitude,” Gerber added. “When I don’t remember that one, I’m lonely.”

That year, at age 12, Gerber started reading poetry and also reading everything he could about auto racing. His hero was Bill Vukovich, the “Fresno Flash,” who nearly won the Indy 500 that year, 1952, and then did win in 1953 and ’54 and then died while leading it in 1955. There was something about that tragic commitment to what land-speed record driver Craig Breedlove later described to Gerber as “conspicuous bravery” that made life sing. With the dedication of a race-car driver, he memorized everything he could get his hands on by Shelley, Frost, Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth, and Keats, working his way through the classics.

He ended up going to Michigan State at the same time as Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Richard Ford, poet J. D. Reed, and a few other people who turned out to be fine writers, and the popular lore goes that Gerber and the others were products of MSU’s writing program. But MSU didn’t have a writing program, and Gerber didn’t know them well. He studied food distribution and English, and he worked for the family company for a while and wasn’t that excited about it so he co-owned a car dealership in Fremont. In 1961, a week after his 21st birthday, he started racing cars.

His first car was an Austin-Healey 3000 that he and a friend built out and they took it to a half-dirt track in Grattan, Michigan, and he won his first four races there. He qualified for sprints at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and started at the pole position against drivers he’d grown up idolizing and took sixth. That same year he bought a Ferrari Testarossa and won some races in that, and in 1963 he bought a Shelby Cobra and made a name for himself. He started traveling around the country and winning races, and in 1964 he was taken on as a team racer for Shelby American, racing Cobras and the GT350 against legends like Jim Hall and Bruce McLaren and Phil Hill. He drove Grand Prix races and the 12 Hours at Sebring and the 24 Hours at Daytona.

In June 1966, Dan was visiting one of his MSU professors, Clyde Henson, at his cottage on the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, and Henson said, “Do you remember Jim Harrison?” Dan had possibly had a class with him. Henson handed him Jim’s astonishing first book of poems, Plain Song, which had just been published.

“I went out and sat under a pine tree and spent all afternoon reading that book, and was just completely blown away,” said Dan. “Here’s a guy who grew up 35 miles from where I grew up, and who was writing the kinds of poems I had been trying to write.”

Gerber was committed to poetry, but he would have gone on being a race-car driver if fate hadn’t forced his hand. In the fall of 1966, during the American Road Race of Champions at Riverside, California, a Corvette nudged Gerber after getting passed, and he went into the pit wall at about 110 miles per hour and bounced out onto the track and got hit by two other cars. He crawled out of his car, which was on fire, but someone else hit it and knocked the car over on top of him. His mechanic reached him and elevated his head.

“I wanted him to keep it up so I could breathe, because I had so much blood running down my throat,” recalled Gerber. “I didn’t think I was going to survive. I thought, ‘Oh, shit, well that’s too bad. I thought I’d live longer than this.’ Like it was no big deal.”

He had broken both arms and both legs, three vertebrae, all his ribs, cracked his skull, and his nose was pushed up underneath the skin of his forehead. Death was part of racing all the time in the 1960s, before contemporary safety standards — Gerber said he lost three or four friends a year — but he survived this crash.

He was married at the time and already had a baby. His wife told him he could keep racing but he’d be a single man if he did, so after 44 races and five wins that was it. He was still in a wheelchair a couple months later when he took a job teaching high school English.

He had written to Harrison c/o General Delivery in Kingsley, Michigan, where Jim had been working as a block layer. Harrison got back to him from Stony Brook University, where he’d taken a position for the one and only year Harrison ever worked in academia, and they started a correspondence. In December 1967, there was a knock at Gerber’s door and it was Jim and his wife, Linda, moved back to Michigan on an NEA grant. Jim and Dan would become nearly constant correspondents, poem swappers, travel companions, and co-editors of a literary journal called Sumac, and they remained friends until Harrison’s death in 2016.

¤

The two friends were just back from a fishing trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1968 when Thomas McGuane called and said he had an offer from an outfitter in Livingston, Montana, to pay for a 150-mile horsepack fishing trip out into the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains in exchange for writing him some brochures for his business, and Gerber and Harrison went out there with him.

When McGuane sold the movie rights to his 1969 debut novel, The Sporting Club, which was about one of those snooty Michigan hunt clubs that Detroiters favored, he used the money to buy a ranch in Montana near the Yellowstone River. This was how they all got connected to Montana, where locals would refer to them as the “Michigan guys,” and the wild years began.

Painter Russell Chatham had met McGuane and he moved up to Livingston, and Richard Brautigan, who had already published Trout Fishing in America and Watermelon Sugar and several collections of poetry, moved up there, too. There was a lot of fishing, traveling seasonally from the rivers of Montana to the flats fishing off Key West in the winter, legendary partying, and somehow (when did they find time to write?), a lot of great books, including McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano and 92 in the Shade; Harrison’s Wolf: A False Memoir (later adapted by Harrison for a film starring Jack Nicholson) and A Good Day to Die, and four more remarkable books of poetry, including a book of ghazals; and Gerber’s first poetry collections, The Revenant and Departure, and his first novel, American Atlas, which was favorably reviewed in The New York Times.

Somewhere along the way, Peter Matthiessen urged Gerber and Harrison to find some spiritual direction in the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, a series of talks by Shunryu Suzuki given at his Zen center in Los Altos, California, and another book called Afterimages by Shinkichi Takahashi (since republished in an expanded version called Triumph of the Sparrow). They both read the books with interest. Gerber read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa, and started meditating.

“Jim and I talked about it,” said Gerber. “Both [books] had a profound effect on both of us, but we agreed that they didn’t really feel like anything new, because we’d each been doing like a 10-year apprenticeship in poetry, and the process is so similar. It’s all about paying attention.”

Paying attention, however, didn’t necessarily mean finding happiness. After the publication of his second novel, 1974’s Out of Control, Gerber struggled with depression. He found that he wanted more from his Zen studies. Around that time, he was in Key West on the set of the film version of 92 in the Shade, where McGuane was deep into his “Captain Berserko” alter ego and, while directing the film, barely managed to keep the production from washing out on waves of coke, booze, and bad behavior. There, Gerber met Bob Watkins, an ex-con who’d done three years in San Quentin for armed robbery and had the unenviable job of making sure equally berserk actor Warren Oates made it to the set when he was supposed to. Watkins had also studied Zen Buddhism under Suzuki in California’s Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. Within hours of their first meeting, Watkins suggested that Gerber study with Soto Zen Buddhist Master Kobun Chino Otogawa, something of a rogue Zen master who traveled from place to place and was then at Los Altos.

After taking some pains to get an introduction to Kobun, who preferred to go by his first name, Gerber did start studying with him and traveled with him to Japan on multiple occasions, where Kobun would introduce him to other Zen masters, who would test him with impromptu “combats” — “Let’s debate the relationship between art and religion,” one of them would say. “I’ll be art and you be religion. Begin.”

Jim Harrison also knew and admired Kobun, and Gerber would eventually be ordained as a Zen monk and given the dharma name of the Soto Zen philosopher-poet, Dogen.

“Kobun said, ‘As Dogen, your practice is to see the world through words and letters, and words and letters through the world.’ So meditation and writing have been kinda like two sides of the same thing. Well, not even two sides — they’re both on the same side. But sometimes the writing is the fruit of the practice,” said Gerber.

¤

Jim Harrison led me to Gerber. It was October 2015, and I was making a second trip to see Harrison up in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston.

Jim hunkered at his writing desk like a greasy old bear, shirtless because a case of shingles had made it too painful to wear anything on his back. After a couple hours of talking, we decided to have a drink — “It’s 5 o’clock and I get a glass of wine,” he growled — and we sat outside at the picnic table under the tall trees with a magnum of Montepulciano. While we sat, Jim’s wife Linda, who was in the hospital with a terminal illness, telephoned to tell him she was refusing any further treatment. He finished the short call with “I love you.”

I told Jim I was sorry I had to hear that. “It’s just an accident,” Jim said, lighting another cigarette. “How could you know?”

I cooked dinner for Jim that night with him getting more and more broken up, telling me story after story about Linda. Later that night, Jim’s editor, Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press, said I should send a note to Dan, so I did. Two days later, Linda died. Dan sent me a great photo from around 1968 of a thin and handsome Harrison and beautiful Linda and their dog and Dan. So I got a bunch of Gerber’s books and dug in. About six months later, Jim died too, at his desk in the middle of a poem, and Dan wrote this:

“To Jim from the River”

Still floating on the current,
this last stretch before the sea,

like so many we fished together
through what seemed an endless river

of summer afternoons — this one
as familiar as it isn’t, hurrying more

the further we go — our conversations
about the words of which things are made,

stilled now to become just the things
themselves, the purling and the rings

of water reaching out from our casts,
heard now only with our eyes

as I stand in the bow, watching
my fly float high on its hackle

along the grassy bank,
careful not to let my gaze

drift back to where
you would always be,

sitting behind me, a wreath
of cigarette smoke —

the strange feeling you said
you sometimes had, letting

a trout go after all
the concentration of catching it —

more like Mozart
than Wagner, you said,

your good right eye
watching for the rise of a life

your blind left, not too far
downstream, already absorbed

in that dark river light into which
we’re constantly rowing.

¤

In August, I was visiting Dan and his wife Debbie at their home in Santa Ynez, California, and as we were driving after lunch he said he had to make a stop to drop off a poem. He had a beautiful little signed broadside of Joseph Stroud’s poem “Flowers” in a glass frame, and it was for Jan Dance, the wife of rocker David Crosby, who is one of his neighbors.

Jan wasn’t home but David was, trading licks on some pre–World War II Martin guitars with photographer and musician Alan Kozlowski. We ended up in a bedroom where Crosby sat on the bed and played us some guitar pieces he was working on, which was magical. I wanted to sob. Earlier in the day, Dan and I had been talking about the practice of poetry, how you have to do the work every day, and he and Crosby started talking about this.

“In the evenings, I open myself up and I play and I get myself hung up,” said Crosby. “You can play for hours and not realize your fingers are bleeding: that’s the definition of ‘hung up.’ You have to put in your 10,000 hours.”

“I don’t remember who said it,” said Dan, “but, ‘To meditate and pray and listen is like throwing the doors and windows open. You can’t plan for the breeze.’” This turned out to be Jack Kornfield in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

I added, “Harrison was fond of a line from René Char, who said, ‘You have to be there when the bread comes fresh from the oven.’”

“We have to be paying attention,” said Dan.

“And that takes work,” said Alan. “You have to do the work.”

¤

You don’t understand “doing the work” until you go into Gerber’s closet. On his side of the big walk-in, there was a bureau that was actually a shrine to writing. He called it an “altar.” There was a postcard from John Steinbeck in Los Gatos to Henry Moore, in which he says his new book has “a good title: The Grapes of Wrath.” There were photos of Antonio Machado, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, postcards written by Mark Twain. A stone picked up on the Old Mission Peninsula, where he first read Harrison’s Plain Song. A whale’s tooth that was a gift from poet George Oppen.

“When I see their faces, I check in with myself and get some indication of how I’m doing. Sometimes Willa Cather gives me a stern look, and sometimes Whitman says I’m doing okay,” Dan said.

The house was full of these framed pieces of correspondence, and some of them are incredible: a page from Whitman’s handwritten journal, in which he apparently is doing what Dan does often, reciting back words from memory, these from Goethe; a letter from William Blake; a page from Thoreau’s journal from Walden Pond; a letter from Emily Dickinson; a page from a little book in which Rilke wrote out “The Panther” in his gorgeous handwriting for a woman named Wera Knoop; a letter in which he discusses the meaning of “The Panther” with Fräulein Else Jaffé; a letter in French from Rilke, addressed from Muzot and dated from the time when he wrote the Duino Elegies.

In the presence of these letters, which look to be written last week, the writers themselves are not dead. They are very much alive. Gerber lives in a world where poetry and literature flows like a river.

One of my favorite letters hung in a bathroom, and it’s from Wallace Stevens on official Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company letterhead, placing an order with a purveyor of hams. Hams!

After discussing the importance of how it might be cut and broiled, and the red gravy, Stevens says it must not be a gift. He must pay for it. “I know that I can talk plainly about this to you. I want you to say that this ham cost $3.67, or something like that, and then I propose to send you a check.” Brilliant.

Physics was another of these obsessions. Gerber had almost no science courses in grade school or college, but he began reading what he calls “really difficult books,” such as Brian Cox’s Why Does E=mc2? and The Quantum Universe, rereading them seven or eight times in order to understand the relationships among the materials that make up the universe. He wrote about physics in some of his earlier poems and in 2010 wrote “Often I Imagine the Earth”:

Often I imagine the earth
through the eyes of the atoms we’re made of —
atoms, peculiar
atoms everywhere —
no me, no you, no opinions,
no beginning, no middle, no end,
soaring together like those
ancient Chinese birds
hatched miraculously with only one wing,
helping each other fly home.

He had no way of knowing, of course, that there’d be Chinese birds in that poem, and the new poem, “Particles,” started off without any particular direction, either. In talking about its construction, Dan quoted Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” But he soon found that he was writing about memory — I find it hard not to suppose this is a natural subject for a man who pushes back against dyslexia by memorizing the world.

We see time past as Euclidean — moments,
of solitude with no date affixed —
long afternoons of childhood in no time at all,
when it first occurred that you were seven,
without knowing that,
because of the moment — now in memory —
you will always be seven in that place.

Because of the context of the poem, which deals with the creation and structure of the particulate universe, these moments feel like principles of matter, somehow contained within the atoms themselves, which are really largely empty space — “Form Is Emptiness — mostly.” There isn’t emptiness between moments as we live them, of course, but our memories do become isolated particles and we don’t retain the interstitial bits. There are giant gaps between our memories. As we gradually lose them, we wonder why. Is it too much information? Too much to bear? Is it important that memories fade in order for life to continue? The idea that the universe was born of matter’s mad desire to shed its mass and become light, “to have / no substance in which to decay” suddenly becomes us. The day will come when all those memories evanesce into some kind of absence, too, maybe not light, maybe darkness, and then where are we?

And how will you endure your thoughts
In the great dark absence
Of everything you’ve known?

Then we become the emptiness. The space between particles. What is that? Is it death, which is nothingness? Or is it enlightenment, or nirvana? If form is emptiness — mostly — is it the ultimate form? Is it perfection?

“I don’t know!” laughed Dan. “I remember going out with my youngest daughter, and we were walking back from the barn, many years ago, looking at the stars, and we started talking about the distances out there, and the vastness we can’t comprehend. Here’s a poem of Rilke’s, ‘A Walk’:

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance —

“I love that, So we are grasped by what cannot grasp,” he added. “I can’t grasp that out there, but I can let the wonder of it grasp me.”

¤

Dean Kuipers writes on ecology, art, and politics and was an editor at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of the book Burning Rainbow Farm and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Outside, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.


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