Murray, a native Londoner who spent most of her short life in the United States and studied with W. H. Auden at the New School, died at the age of 24, of complications from a congenital heart condition, five years before Auden awarded a posthumous gathering of her poems the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1947. Michael Harper selected Gilbert’s manuscript, Across the Mutual Landscape, for the 1983 Walt Whitman Award, which was founded in 1975 by the Academy of American Poets to reward first books. Born in Alabama and raised in Lansing, Michigan, Gilbert became a psychotherapist, and although he lived for nearly a quarter century after the appearance of his first collection, he never published a second volume.
Fortunately, both of these remarkable poets are enjoying something of a renaissance after falling off the po-biz radar for many years. In 2003, a shout-out by John Ashbery, who was always fond of underappreciated “minor” poets, initiated Murray’s comeback. Ashbery elaborated on his praise in 2017, saying that “the mere act of reading Murray’s poetry always seems to be pushing one closer to the brink of a momentous discovery.” And in 2014, Mark Ford’s elegant, comprehensive essay on Murray for Poetry, “Joan Murray and the Bats of Wisdom,” also contributed to the appearance of Joan Murray’s Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry, skillfully edited and introduced by Farnoosh Fathi and published by New York Review Books Press (2017). Dan Chiasson wrote perceptively about Murray in The New Yorker earlier this year, offering fresh insights of his own into Murray’s small but exceptional creative oeuvre.
A couple of years before Murray’s newly restored book appeared, Graywolf Press published Turning into Dwelling (2015), a volume of Gilbert’s work prefaced with an essay by Terrance Hayes, which includes, in addition to the entire text of Across the Mutual Landscape, previously ungathered poems entitled Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation (Music of the Striving That Was There), edited by Mary Fell. The book is part of its important Re/View Series, edited by Mark Doty, which is dedicated to bringing “essential books of contemporary American poetry back into the light of print.” I refer anyone interested in Murray or Gilbert to these thoughtful, illuminating editions, the introductions to which make forays into issues biographical, aesthetic, and cultural.
My column regularly explores what it is that a second book allows, portends, shuts down, or invites. For some poets, the second book is a natural extension of the first, thematically and formally. In other instances, a second book can represent a radical departure. It can help writers feel they have a “career,” a future, a life as a poet beyond the one-hit wonder of the inaugural book. Whether much anticipated or overlooked by readers and reviewers, second books move beyond the crucible of the first book. They signal movement.
One can think of a host of reasons why poets might not publish a second book of poems. For one thing, they may not care to do so. They may feel that they’ve had their say, or they may jump into other (more lucrative!) genres or fields. Ironically, poets who win first book prizes (where publication by a given press is a one-off, and future publication not guaranteed) may have trouble placing their second books. And, of course, a conspiracy of obstacles and discouragements, personal and otherwise — rejection, a sense that one’s work doesn’t “fit” the zeitgeist, depression, physical illness — can also stymie a writer’s creative energies and inspiration.
Rather than rehearse the contexts provided by the restorative work of the editors, essayists, and reviewers named above, I’d like to present a poem by each of these poets from their first books, which I happen to possess in their original iterations. I admire these poets tremendously, and while I mourn the absence of second books shaped by their own hands, I’m grateful for the poems that do exist — both the work between the covers of those first books and the unpublished work brought to light posthumously by careful, caring editors. Poets and poems often find us when we need them; if anyone reading this piece hasn’t yet encountered either Murray or Gilbert, perhaps the poems reprinted here may lead to a lasting connection with their work, which is very much alive.
Murray’s first book is long — 143 pages — and, as is often the case with first books, at times derivative of her “teachers”: Auden, Rilke, Yeats. Most of the poems in the collection were written at a kind of Keatsian or Dickinsonian “white heat” in the year and a half between her workshop with Auden and her death. (Murray’s mother is even said to have accused Auden of killing her daughter by sending her into a creative frenzy with his poetry course.) Murray’s subjects are often epic, vatic, mythological, architectural, “impersonal” — but the best of the poems are quirkily haptic and synesthetic, burning with a barely restrained psychological intensity. Despite her near-death bouts with her heart ailment, Murray was an avid hiker, paying eerily somatic attention both to nature and to the mutable world of the self, as in “And Though It Is Evening and I Am Tired”:
As spider with slender entwined knees,
Spun clock-wise by avalanched honey-bees,
Turns to the subtle weaving of a more insidious web.
So much of laughter in the head,
So much of the golden apple and the racing,
The sly won game and tricks of placing.
Now the garden and the mental laughter still,
Rejection never given, never made, stands freak upon the hill.
Laughter is better quiet, the smile is heard.
Images of spare Madonnas, Mary Magdalen and Christ,
The uneven walk and garrulous seeking wine bowl;
All loud reflection on the somewhat soul.
Bend the head to the out-cupped hand.
This is the age for shabby forms and contraband.
Life’s macabre and every night’s replete with its defeats.
We are allowed to place one foot before the other,
To know some valley or some slaty sea,
To hear with weary calm that being born to live, we must live to be.
There is small love lost in this strained hour.
Youth dropped down has only dreamt the flower.
The dance of death now cries out for the undivulged tomorrow.
And though it is evening and I am tired,
I will gather myself to the mountains
Only to chant that primal unsexed quiet till
Doomsday for my pains.
Like Murray, Gilbert is something of a visionary metaphysician, and Across the Mutual Landscape — though certainly nodding to older poets like Robert Hayden and to the jazz musicians Gilbert loves and writes about — is strikingly original and uniquely obsessed with time, identity, and the palpable music of being. Here is “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.
In Murray’s prescient stanzas and in the intricate, figurative lines of Gilbert’s poem reside a poetic intelligence and relevance warranting our abiding engagement. I am grateful for the vital participation of these two poets in the ongoing conversation of American poetry.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.