Winter 2002/2003

The Seasons by Merrill Gilfillan

The Seasons

Merrill Gilfillan

Adventures in Poetry/Zephyr Press ($12.50)

by Dale Smith

November 5: The Seasons arrives with the first cold blast of fall air. The poems extend song with objectivist clarity, relating attention impressed by the physical world. They are lovely, light on the surface, but packed beneath with minute particulars of place, memory and art, resembling layered deposits of compost. "1958," the poet's 13th year, is a poem of recollection. The notational compiling of images conjures the sensual condition of a child's geographic placement in time, but without any nostalgic intrusions.

Found a frog.
Went to dancing lessons.
Read books I got
for Christmas.

Sledding on
Jackson's hill. Woodcock
for dinner. Listened
to radio. Played

on pond. Went
to a dance. Skating
at Uncle D's. Making
a whistle. Played

"Count and Capture."
Learning Morse code.
Ice thawing. Mended
fletching on arrows.

This is an "I remember" poem, but the leading verb of each sentence activates the energy of the line. There's no bog in rhetoric. Instead, the mimetic simplicity of childhood is attained by the reduction to action and image.

No proposals. The focus is domestic, personal. There is sensuous delight in language and landscape. Observe the clarity of image, the quick movement from natural detail to human relation in this fragment from "Five Landscapes":

Teal flush
across inkblue water,
over Charolais bulls.
Let the young remember
the old, the old
forget the young,
the dead the living.

The levity and casual command of Gilfillan's poems work out of an attention to the complexity of environment. Not environment in the Green Peace sense, but ones that relate the morphology of personal space. The precise choice of his words also shows an inward poetic ecology where language moves from material utterance toward emotional values. With few words to waste, he strives for a quality of art that registers feeling in the syllabic restraint of his lines. Language is the mediating force between him and his natural, or noetic, environments.

Writing, as he practices it, seeks proper relations. In the first movement of "Systole Variations," he writes:

The straits of July.

A strange moth in the keyhole.

The summer deep
as of piles or hills
of leaves or snow.

Bring it over
through the solid month
that mouse-colored horse
you wish to sell.

We aren't beat on the head with social causes, though what constitutes proper relations are subtly given here. There's an easy appreciation of the cycle of return and dissolution. "What a face / on that barred owl / dead beside the road-" he writes in "A Nap by the Kickapoo." Life. Death. Rhythm. Etc. But the art of it-making oneself capable-that's the trick, or the acceptance.

The long, final sequence, "The Seasons," appropriately ends this fine book. Jaggedly moving, these quick takes morph into revelation. They set into the play of words the patterns of weather, plants, labor and memory. Poetry here is derived from mundane-certainly rural, not urban-sources. Lists reveal a rhythm for each season, a sense of the poet's preoccupations. In "Summer," for instance, we read:

June 21 to July 6:
Weed rice.
Plant mulberries
to sprout new saplings.
Plant hemp.
Plant late red hibiscus.

Come winter, the focus shifts:

January 6 to January 20:
Pick mulberry leaves. Chill
silkworm eggs. Catch snow-water.

It's as if one's post-its or calendar entries could be transformed to the level of art. Which of course they can, and are, here. The so-called subject of a poem, Gilfillan shows us, can be anything. It's the ability of the poet to see from within that finds energy in the routines of every day. The poet practices art in order to see and hear, to find in his imagination what forms speak to him. The word to stress is practice. How to see or how to listen in a poem is the point. His poems aren't pumped full of attitude or irony. There aren't any social proposals. There is instead an almost moral emphasis-expressed directly through the work-on the responsibilities to domestic space, one's own language and patient listening.

   Summer coffee
sweet in the slot
between crickets
and cicadas.

... ...

   Such
such catbird
sings

we set
our dark blue
pencil down.

His is an objectivist, occult preoccupation, finding relations in things. William Carlos Williams had the "no ideas but in things" wrap down long ago. But the environment of things here in the all-inclusive seasons relies also on prosody, careful timing, the physical rhythm and resilience of his pacing.

   We climbed the hill
(a mountain-hill, Big Sur)
with bedrolls and a bag
of avocados and slept
up there one night.

The "up" in the final line lets this stanza swing in the vernacular of Gilfillan's Ohio-bred voice. Resilience of voice and heart, the quick grasp of mind for the particulars of environment-these qualities, among many, make rich his seemingly casual surfaces. The difficulty of this achievement is immense, and seldom praised. But the point of such life-long labor in art slips into his Seasons with sudden, eye-opening clarity: "To seek that which was lost / without knowing seeking / or that it was ever gone.

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Winter 2002/2003 Table of Contents