Red Mavis by Merrill Gilfillan

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As the late poet Joel Oppenheimer’s favored adage goes “be there when it happens, write it down.” It’s an old tradition, bouncing along down the centuries, crisscrossing continents and cultures from here to there, Basho, for instance. Merrill Gilfillan is but another accomplished voice adding to this poetic lineage of clear concision derived from active observation. Reading his poems, especially those in his new collection Red Mavis, is nothing but pure pleasure.

Even the longer, much more complex among them, such as “Walking with Cheese” written “in memory of Michael Gizzi” may be found to be rather airily lumbering along, apparent complexities dissipating as it goes, leaving a distinct sense of being awash in its own orders of specifics. Even if the names of cheeses and musical composers are not readily familiar, Gilfillan’s tuning of the language make for a fun jaunt to be accompanying him on.

After that it was music, or the thought
of music more than words, the token cheese
the human honey more than words
that led us on a Friday with frets
on its neck through the Luxembourgs
past all the queens of France with a wedge
of Saint-Nectaire in the jacket (carried
like a tune) to Avenue Gay-Lussac and down
rue Saint-Jacques to number 269,
the Schola Cantorum, where a few late
butter-colored hollyhocks bloomed
in the courtyard with its footsteps
and tracery of Roussel, D’Indy, Messiaen, Satie.
But the cheese is for Joe Canteloube,
the Chants from his native Auvergne,
those soprano high notes soaring and sailing
like a flamingo up on the Rhone. A piano chords
from the back, a violin unlimbers
in a curtained room.

You want to be returning to these poems. Gilfillan carves out a space for reflection byway of sounding the language from out the intimacy of a perspective wholly his own. Repeated readings only yield further depth, never disappointment.

Mixed in among many near or “salted” haiku and rather shorter poems are several prose passages. These act as bits of mini-memoir. In “1963” Gilfillan recalls his undergrad days browsing bookstore shelves, the attraction he felt for “the nouns Lorca and Rilke” as they “circled teasingly in my mind in a tight orbit induced by the light similarity of their names” how “their opening syllables sometimes threaten to switch, recouple . . . still move as a double-yoked sun, or distant pun—Lorca dancing under Rilke’s moon, or the other way around.”

Not too surprisingly Gilfillan’s prose proves relentlessly lyrical in nature. His descriptions of singular occasions demonstrating, without beating his readers over the head any, his employment of what might be termed ‘the poet’s perspective’ in order to catch the moment-of-the-poem as it happens, “to be there” as in Oppenheimer’s adage.

In “Suddenly in the Sky” Gilfillan recounts a stay in Pine Ridge country where he went “out each late afternoon to the lovely hills along upper Bordeaux Creek and sat for an hour in the late August change-of-things, taking in the first of the cool autumn tones and bidding a gradual farewell to a favorite place.” One afternoon near the end of his stay a young goat chose to accompany him. “He had seen me and proceeded straight up the hill. Bleating as he came, to stand beside me, obviously seeking simple nonspecific companionship—I guessed he was a castaway.” And soon thereafter, a massive number of nighthawks appeared, leaving Gilfillan and his observing partner to only watch.

a tribe or family moving out against the pastel sky for the evening’s work, gregarious and graceful. They began to hunt, looping and tracking in a loose unassuming group. Every few minutes they passed above, giving a soft, unfamiliar mutter of a call among them—wik-wik, wik-wik, wik-wik—and we looked up as one to watch them go over.

For Gilfillan it is all a song, and therefore to song it all, i.e. literally everything, returns. There’s nothing glib about this poetry business. The tune of activity hangs about in the air wherever you go. Gilfillan locates it all over, particularly when in the outdoors. In “Bullwhippoorwill: Cirrus over Quicksand” he sees fantastical jousting among “Aprils in the schoolyards / boys paired off” which he goes on to describe as

Bantam centaurs circling
and charging, trying to unseat
the counterpart jockey and win the hour.
A little girl cheers.

Such common, everyday scenes are the bulk of concerns Gilfillan troubles addressing in his poems. Shades of light; shadow of cloud; twitter of this or that fellow creature whether bird, human, or other. It is all a company with which he delights in sharing. The celebration abounds and is quite mutual. Masterly care of not only poetic craft yet tender attention to the event happening in the instant has never been more deceivingly displayed with such apparent ease.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →