Slashed Narcissi, Drilled Stone

Reviewed By

In physics terms, the poetry world is underground “all the way down,” so Influence lurks in each sea cave like a bastard eel, recharging in darkness, awaiting his next dinner with flickering impatience and slaverous hunger.

I.

In physics terms, the poetry world is underground “all the way down,” so Influence lurks in each sea cave like a bastard eel, recharging in darkness, awaiting his next dinner with flickering impatience and slaverous hunger. Will the clownfish from the children’s mystery drift unsuspectingly by, or will it be the kaleidoscopic bluegill on his morning constitutional, a glittering mininova carapaced with his own blinding innocence? The sidling ghost of a ponytailed pirate or a more perfect sillhouette just out of reach, liquid shadow thrown upon the cave walls, some antideluvian Kokopelli dancing in the tidewaste? But despite his eternal hunger, the nature of the eel is merely to wait in the gloom; fangs and electricity, brooding and dreaming.

The more one thinks about capital-I Influence, the less it seems to matter. Grandfather anago hangs up his guns and withdraws, pledging himself to a more sustainable diet. And with the importance of ur-Influence go too the heroes on either balance-end of the actual work: the photos of Richard Hell and Patti Smith are unpinned from the dumpstered bookshelf and not replaced; the local show fliers silkscreened with kill-yr-idols idealism are untaped from the walls and filed away.

Sometimes it seems like there are more important things than debating influences, especially against oneself. The apocalyptic sunset; the fog-cloaked dawn; the paying of rent, and hustling of healthcare. The searching out of any solution for your phone’s dying battery while you’re consoling a friend thousands of miles away. The yawning windtunnel of lowrange deserts; the severe writer’s block; and death, and loss.

in the highest high of whirlwinds,
way beyond the spinning dust devils,
Yahweh clenched His starry fist,

His beard flashed, His brows met in a line of fire:
You must never corrupt My Name, he muttered,
if a single letter should be deformed

bury My Word in the desert
as if you were laying to rest the dead
body of a beloved.

And so it happened, said the scribe,
that someone’s brush slipped…

from “Said The Scribe”

II.

At face value, the most surprising thing about the Seminary Bookstore is that it still exists. After all it’s certainly not the most viable decade in history to operate an independent bookshop solely accessible through the lobby of a theological seminary, hidden behind a barely marked door and all-the-way-down a rickety staircase feathered with show fliers and outdated announcements for faculty talks. But the world’s finest purveyor of esoteric academic texts and forgotten tomes of theory endures, actually thrives, nonetheless. And the warehouse rows of the University of Chicago student library (at least as of a few years ago when I visited) remain mortared with circulation-grade bindings and the landscaped grounds remain traversed by gangly physics postdocs and chainsmoking philosophy grad students, careers arguably as blown-out as the leaf husks they trample underfoot but perhaps just as arguably overwhelmingly successful, securing an institution to study at, an apartment to sleep in, and manically intelligent colleagues with whom to set off on long walks in the apocalyptic winter stormlight.

“O all the phenomenal world / thickened with omens then— / the dead fish on the beach, the motherless / seal in the windbreak. . . .” (from “Earthquake Weather”)

And soon more examples crystallize of this universe of breathless debates in department lounges, paneshadowed mathematics libraries and three-deep raw wooden bookshelves imploding in Durango, CO. A stuffed mailer of zines collecting dust in a philosophy department mailbox at McGill, the TA long gone across the Atlantic for the summer. Enormous leafpiles of Analytic or Continental philosophy, Aristotle or Adorno, a hoary Eastern institution with medieval gardens or an observatory fortress among the redwoods.

A rusted insectoid truck still traverses the long coastal highways of California, sandblasted by saltspray and piloted by a skinny girl with glassy eyes and an elaborately tattooed boy with braided hair and a beard woven from Placitas tumbleweeds. He drifts in and out of sleep on his bed of paperbacks, whispering: this world still exists, and isn’t lost forever at all.

At the first light of spring, I bring you narcissi,
their delicate pale heads drooping, drugged
with the breath of their own perfume.

How clear your stone is after all this time,
more than a decade since some unknown carver
was paid to drill your name in polished granite

& decades more since our youngest child was hurled
weeping into this same light of March.
Now your body that was once my body too

is nothing but a rag for spiders spinning

from “March 13, 2004: Sunset View”

III.

So Aftermath is an elegy for no epoch at all, nor an analysis of any specific ancestry. It’s an elegy for Gilbert’s late partner the mathematician David Gale, as both the title and dedication make almost confusingly clear. It’s an elegy for Gilbert’s husband Elliot Gilbert who died years before; it’s an elegy for a child, “hurled weeping” from this world. It’s more than one hundred pages of elegy to add to Gilbert’s anthology of elegies which she edited, and two nonfiction books about grief which she authored. It is, overwhelmingly, a book of grieving.

But in addition to the intense windstorms of emotion that Aftermath relates, the collection also amazes because of the rich span of Gilbert’s imagery and the palpable analytical rigor leveraged to bend each of her very intense experiences into poems. The work is uniformly strong, even (especially?) when the reader can sense the poet herself unraveling alongside the characters in her work:

You, poet, watch his dreams
you aren’t in them but you
write them down,

& you write that down too.
And the breakers
speak their snarl of sentences

while great fish pace beneath
the glimmering surface,
& hawks loop above the pines

at the edge of the beach.

from “The Lost One”

Besides commanding a well known catalog of poems and a distinguished tenure in academia, Gilbert is first and foremost a superstar of Literary Theory. Her CV boasts countless highly-regarded works and one stone-cold classic in The Madwoman In the Attic, a book of feminist literary criticism published with Susan Gubar in the eighties that catapulted both professors to international fame and Harold Bloom-status acclaim, a book famous and powerful enough to warrant inclusion in that unassailable top bracket of criticism alongside Frye’s Fearful Symmetry and Bloom’s own The Anxiety of Influence.

But Aftermath turns out not to be about this context, per se. But this also doesn’t really matter.

Gilbert brings the pain with this collection, literally and figuratively, and strangely enough I found that unpacking the text with my own half-baked ideas about her philosophical influences or structural choices ended up only making the poems more rich, if slightly more opaque and mysterious. In other words, I tried to approach Aftermath with a satchel of conceptual lockpicks, but the text preemptively kicked through its own front door with crossed arms and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing on its property.

I think that you should read Aftermath. For the theory, for the exceptionally strong stanzas, and most of all for the vivid conveyance of grief and loss, but I would recommend knocking, or possibly ringing the doorbell, before attempting to enter on your own.


Nate East writes poetry and fiction for Cowans Gap zine in San Francisco. His work has also appeared in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, SoandSo Magazine and elsewhere, and he can be found online at www.nateeast.com. More from this author →