Reviewed by Erika Howsare
The sensing of Merrill Gilfillan's work is compressed and multiple. We hear, briefly, the sound of birdtalk in “Urban grebes, / grackle ghat” before realizing the choice before us: chalk up the passage as onomatopoetic, or interrupt reading to learn, from the dictionary, that “ghat” is not the language of the grackle, but a type of stairway found on Indian riverbanks. (A grackle is a large, glossy blackbird.) (Rivers and birds are essential touchstones for Gilfillan; indeed, his 2003 book of essays is titled after them.) We smell “. . . the scent of chocolate / with a trace of fish / and a grace note of kerosene”: the odor synaesthetically laced with the understated rhyme within its description. We see the geometry of experience:
--as though diagrammed, though with utmost simplicity.
And, very often, we are through these sensings placed bodily in a locus, a landscape, which in Gilfillan's view is always hospitable: “down the Big River to Cairo, / a hard left on the Ohio, way on up-- / Mooleyville, Rising Sun, we stop for melons”--a peopled landscape, certainly, but steeped in an old-fashioned sense of America as a setting for adventure--the bigness of that river. It wouldn't be so thrilling to feel the continent's rivers as a set of cosy neighborhood streets if that continent weren't so immense to begin with, and filled with wondrously-named inhabitants.
Indeed, the language of the land--not just its birdtalk, but the many layers of human names that illuminate and divide it--are central to Gilfillan's project. He does revel in the oddness of American place names (“Bucklin through Sitka to Buffalo”) as well as, constantly, a rich legacy of species and their monikers (“Red vines high in the pignuts-- / Mace on nutmeg”; “shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, / pig”). But more importantly, he is fully aware of language as a medium of experience, of all these nonhuman beings suspended within a network of human perception and invention. Herein poetry, if it means to heighten a sense of locality, must heighten as well the sense of that locality's language, including history, myth, and the different forms of ownership implied by place names like Irondequoit and Frenchman. Thus, places, flora, and fauna are not enumerated, as by reference book, but incanted, as by a particular speaker: “cedar, mycelium, and what we used / to call 'fishworms.'”
Who is this we? Ultimately, it is Gilfillan himself, of course, firmly rooted in context of smalltown-Ohio-raised baby boomer. The ruefully nostalgic character of this sensibility is summed up by a prose piece, “Fu with Grosbeaks,” in which the speaker remembers his parents taking him as a boy to the house of a neighbor, who's called to say that the annual migration of grosbeaks has ended at the feeder. The piece ends with a comic plot point, trumping the earnestness of the ceremonial birdwatching, in which the narrator returns to the image of a limp turtle whose youthful guardian had claimed it was sleeping: “But that turtle was unmistakably dead.”
This is not nature poetry born of the wilderness ethic. Rather, it is a benevolent vision of America as garden: symbiotic relations between residents and residence, studious Audubon Society tempered by (now nearly quaint) mass culture: “Now, lad, / it's just a scrawny circus leaving town.”
Thus, finally, the sensibility of the author becomes paramount, constructed though it may be through the senses and the sense of his peculiar materials. It is a thoroughly American worldview, though some of the poems are set abroad. Take “Morning with a Calisthenic from Walt Whitman,” and witness its plainspoken humor: “six men in Monkey Ward sportshirts.” Witness the Pop-Art belief in collage as catch-all: “Chromaticists bathing, / Painted Desert, / the first beam of sunlight / through guava jelly jars.” Witness the loping rhythm beneath, relaxed as a stroll on Sunday: “Old granny chops her chow chow. / Mumbling stripling dumps his pawpaws / at her bony knees.” The poem is typical of the book in that its form (and the book uses various ones) ultimately seems less important as a shape than as an instrument of juxtaposition, a lens that lends meaning to the divers collection of natural and cultural artifacts within, including the “the Spuyten Duyvils,” “Carp rolling in shadows,” and “the blind albino / in the New York subway.”
The guiding sensibility is also thoroughly generous, both in terms of its thirsty curiosity for experience (especially travel; often, food) and its undisturbed view of what is really a tragically despoiled environment, despite the continued presence of multifarious natural wonders. The seer is just that, never an actor (though he, of course, walks and eats). And Gilfillan is a wonderful traveling companion: wry, poignant, willing to reach for the most flamboyantly odd diction. Much of the subject matter here is irresistible to anyone with a taste for Americana--the real, complicated, contradictory sort, not the cartoon. Visiting Bull Run, he looks at persimmon trees, ponders the recipe for scrapple, and autodiagnoses “Advanced chromomania / and a love of maps.” These elements are placed as meticulously on the page as they are in a geography.
This is what makes Small Weathers such lovely fun to read, in its lyrical dance with illegibility. (“'Tired but happy,'” quotes the speaker after the epic river-journey outlined above: as is often the case, Gilfillan here allows a disembodied voice to lay down the understated punchline.) If these poems, so linked to landscape, largely skirt the reality of environmental destruction, they serve a different, more oblique purpose: in their masterfully slow revelations of a mind lighting on the world, they enact a way of sensing--sensible, sensitive--that may be a necessary part of a more responsible way of living in the American garden.