THE FIRST SENTENCE of the first new poem to appear by Christopher Gilbert in over two decades reads: “The into was music that said / ‘be alive’ and ‘willing.’” But I read these lines before they were published this year. During one week in June 2010, a brief series of lightning-bolt connections involving a used copy of Gilbert’s first (and, until 2015, only) published book, Across the Mutual Landscape, and a cross-racial and inter-generational network of poets scattered between Maine, Pittsburgh, Georgia, and Indiana, had ended with the poet Fran Quinn handing Gilbert’s unpublished manuscript to me over an Indianapolis breakfast table. I was a little worried. What if the new work didn’t measure up? That first sentence seemed to say, Don’t worry, it’s still me.
Gilbert’s work from the 1980s had been my first connection to a poetry that looked like it referred to the same planet I lived on. The opening poem from his unpublished work announced that music was still key, the body was at least part song, race was real but not an essential truth, and blackness wasn’t reducible to a simple a matter of skin color. The poem’s opening moment continued: “As black men / who had found a home in which / our spirits would dance.” So, home and self aren’t givens, they’re musical pursuits. But, poetry, or life, what Gilbert called “the into,” was more than a pursuit of home (one’s own) or music (recorded); in it the self was physical but not bounded by the individual body. And, getting to the truth was neither a Herod’s oath nor a dilemma for Hamlet, it was something both more and less fundamental and uncompromising: “As not just / flesh, but that indigenous momentum for / entering the truth and being a native / there.”
Beginning that week in June 2010 as part of a collective effort to get his poems (some previously released and some never seen) published in a new collection, I’d read and re-read Gilbert’s work in a new light. I found myself re-encountering and furthering my sense of how his work had helped me link my sense of home to the world around me, my sense of music and truth to a momentum that could grapple with the strangling power and pressures of American apartheid. That summer my goal remained the same as it had been for years, when I’d passed out Xeroxes of his out-of-print poems to classes and seminars: to enable others to encounter the rare quality and — to borrow a term I think Paul Gilroy invented — “cruciality” of Gilbert’s work.
The new collection is now available. Released in July 2015, Christopher Gilbert’s posthumous Turning into Dwelling is a dual volume. The first half of the book contains Gilbert’s mostly forgotten classic work from 1984, Across the Mutual Landscape, which won the 1983 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. An unpublished manuscript titled Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation — given by his widow to his friends, the poets Mary Fell and Fran Quinn — completes the collection. Compiled and edited into its published form by Fell and Quinn, and further edited by a collective of poets and editors including Jeff Shotts and Mark Doty, Chris Gilbert: An Improvisation provides a second, and, sadly, a concluding chapter to an important, different, and little-known literary career. Turning into Dwelling, therefore, answers a hanging question in American — certainly in African-American — poetry: what ever happened to Chris Gilbert?
His death at age 58 provides one answer; but this dual volume extends and deepens our opportunity to consider the work of a unique and important voice. The absence of Gilbert’s voice created an empty space in the poetic terrain of the 1990s and early 2000s. That space is now accounted for. With an introduction by Terrance Hayes and an afterward by the poet’s good friend, Mary Fell, Turning into Dwelling will be a singular and important work to read, re-read, and to integrate into — thereby enriching and expanding — our notion of what American poetry makes possible in our world.
Gilbert was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1949. He was raised in Lansing, Michigan. Studying with the poet Robert Hayden, Gilbert earned a BA from the University of Michigan in 1972. In 1986, he’d received a PhD in Psychology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Gilbert was an active member of the local poetry scene in Worcester and lived the rest of his life working as a therapist in Providence, Rhode Island. After Michael S. Harper chose Across the Mutual Landscape for the Whitman Award, Gilbert’s national profile in American poetry receded steadily. He published a few single poems, appeared at occasional, mostly local, readings such as one for the Darkroom Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and exchanged letters with poets such as Denise Levertov, Rita Dove, and Etheridge Knight into the late 1980s. A prolonged struggle with polycystic kidney disease resulted in his death in 2007.
Christopher Gilbert’s poetry constructed a subtle and expansive version of American being. He called that zone of being the “Into.” In that space of flux, people and the phenomena of existence splash together creating a zone of becoming in which everything is itself, becomes a presence, by its participation in a reality beyond itself. “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso / I Remember Braiding My Sisters’ Hair,” possibly his greatest single poem, begins with the line: “What it’s all about is being.” In Gilbert’s exploration of being, so much depends upon “finding / an otherness that trusts what you'll become—.” Not to be confused with transcendence, Gilbert’s “Into” complexly and explicitly calls people into an interactive zone — historically engaged, culturally contingent — both rooted in and en route beyond the racial and gendered ghettos of American particularity. He put his finger on a dangerous and chronic American innocence and simplicity: “The need we have to deny the way things have to be / more than themselves.” Gilbert’s poetry explores and contends with how that American simplicity restricts people’s becoming, and how they are forced to inhabit their own and each other’s lives “like refugees awaiting our turns to be / an absence happening.” So, Gilbert’s is a poetry that attempts to replace one version of American being, of what it means to be “an absence happening,” with another, as he wrote in the “Listening to Monk’s …” poem: “i.e. there are circumstances / and you are asked to be / their member. Not owning but owning in —.”
Read as a whole, as an epic, Turning into Dwelling shows how the late-’70s and early ’80s “Into” that Gilbert frames, inhabits, and explores in Across the Mutual Landscape, which was published in 1983, didn’t survive the ’90s. But, Gilbert never really gives up on it, either. Instead, he goes down with the Into-ship, descendent of Robert Hayden — a “descent-dent” of Hayden’s — and Whitman, of course. But, as the Into-Landscape is destroyed, as he watches and undergoes that destruction, Gilbert, like no other poet I've read, chronicles what’s lost and what that costs. He retains a sense of quest for a receding horizon of inhabitable meaning beyond the waste of fragments, and cultural “sub-cities” of apartheid, glossed and adorned by the literary subsidies and empty ironies of late-20th-century American life. Riffing on both corporate culture and rap music of the early ’90s (NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, to be specific), Gilbert terms this other, non-mutual landscape the “Outta.” In “Straight Outta Truth,” Gilbert intimates that the Outta means “these walls be they wretched selves,” means “staying in your box.” The world of the late ’80s and early ’90s had become a place divided between bitterly partitioned boxes of public space and the closed-off private interiors of the self. Of the former, in “Into the Into,” Gilbert describes civil unrest — and eventually positions the un-resters in verbatim connection to Robert Hayden’s underground-railroad-riding runaway slaves in “Runagate Runagate.” Hayden’s imagined slave catchers issued a warning to the would-be vigilant public about the slippery resourcefulness of fugitives:
Catch them if you can, but it won’t be easy.
They’ll dart underground when you try to catch them,
plunge into quicksand, whirlpools, mazes,
turn into scorpions when you try to catch them.
Echoing his former teacher, Gilbert records the fictive script of self-lacerating rebellion in the “subcity” of the 1990s:
‘Shattered dreams are a hallmark of mortal life’ was written in black spray paint on the storefront window. ‘Shattered glass is the trademark I make to mend my life’ was written on the glass on top of that. Then the kid who is reading this throws a brick through the glass, ‘a hole is nothing more than the sum of its parts.’ He say, ‘catch me if you can,’ but it won’t be easy. He’ll dart underground when you try to catch him, go into subcity, dark dens of duality, confusions and misuses whose meaning can be understood only from the midst of the moment.
Along one axis of the aging 20th century, the Into had been pushed into a communal, underclass insularity. Encountering the latter, mainstream private, insular option in an artist / lover in a prose piece titled “Untitled,” Gilbert confesses he can’t take pleasure in the supposed freedom of the dislodged interior where “she felt herself when she melted snow in her mouth and in the melting loved the taste of spring, felt herself in the center there.” For Gilbert, seductive and beautiful as it seemed, that individuated interior was untrustworthy, incapable of the kind of personal/social, musical, truthful momentum he insisted upon in experience, created and explored in poems. He couldn’t abide the so-called “real” violence strafing the subcity or the would-be “aesthetic” romance of the “Outta.”
Finally, speaking as an otherness that nonetheless trusts what you’ll become, and in spite of the real violence of public walls and aesthetic pleasures of safe boxes singled in the taste of spring, Gilbert asks, “Read my lines, be my mind” in the final poem of the book, “Into the Into.” He charts the de-industrial breakdown of American presence in the world, in the self, and most importantly, in the mutual space between selves, between world and self. In the final, stunning sequence, splicing together lines from Martin Luther King’s final speech from Memphis on April 3, 1968, lyrics by Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson, and Sly Stone, and adding the hopeful refrain of the little engine that could and the syntax of Dr. Seuss from Green Eggs and Ham, Gilbert’s voice offers its final call to whoever’s out there to take it up in search of the Into.
Framed by a surrounding world fixated on the inside of its boxes, and fantasies of what that kind of bunkered privacy can offer, Gilbert, terminally ill himself, concludes Turning into Dwelling, urging readers back into the world: “we face our mysteries by living among them.” He concludes:
We wouldn’t, couldn’t, make our way out of history. We make
our way by way. By making history. Well. So I may not get there
with you. But.
Turning into Dwelling cautions against our simplistic American-mythic urge to “make it on our own.” Scripting an Into that links our private and civic lives with domestic and international politics, his work charts the pressures and promises of a sacred labor, of a being that’s about trying, trying to-get-there, to-get-here, trying to get it, together.
Ed Pavlić is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.