Book Review: Not Hearing the Wood Thrush

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Oh my gosh! How did the high privilege ever come to me to review this book? I am lost in it and continually astonished.

Margaret Gibson’s newest book of poems, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, is ripe and full and endlessly transcendent. Not hearing the wood thrush is a fine art that we would all do well to learn.

She makes her way and takes us with her through the dozen doors and windows of her poems into the woods, the river, and the star fields.  These are passages both text and breath of a life lived close

…to the one vine
that unfurls its many blooms
continually beside the door, 
and whose tendrils
brush lightly at my sleeves, 
coming and going. … (from The Cry).  

Because they are Passage, she dares to give six of the poems the same name; how they enter and take us, through prayer, through grief, through joy, into the open space of 

the dark (p. 9), 
the sky (p. 32), 
what continues without you (p. 39), 
when it is dark enough within (p. 49),
as one might court the Infinite (p. 67).  

From a current in the “river” that seems to flow through her poems as her own sense of herself, she turns and speaks directly to the ineffable, sometimes as “you,” sometimes as “No one,” sometimes as her late, beloved, “Beloved.” In Ripe, she says:

I long for you to take me over.  I long
to sink my teeth into you, no longer
a ripe idea but a peach 
about to turn if I don’t eat it, and right now.  

Later in “Two Trees” she says:

No one, how relieved I am you don’t
step right up and clarify the mystery.

In “Praise” she says:

Don’t tell me your secret name, 
No one– I want to sense it as the blind 
tell words by touch, as wind shivers 
when the falcon soars from the thicket by the river, 
rising with wings on fire toward the sun.

Sitting quietly, she is nevertheless, and thankfully, moved to write and to speak to the “you” before her.  In “Not to Remain Altogether Silent” she says:

…How stark it is to be alive—
and although absence is the form you take
in what we call the world, how durable…

We are grateful that she has decided, “not to remain altogether silent”.

Like the kindest of monitors at the back of the meditation hall, Margaret Gibson helps us. In “Opening And Closing The Book Of Changes”, she asks How do I find God? and listens when  

A voice whispers, the cure for the pain is in the pain…
and discovers  
…that inside my tiredness,
there’s a well.

In an earlier book, New and Selected Poems, Earth Elegy (1997), she travels across the living and dying world like a pilgrim and tells of her joy in its most delicate leaves and its longest shadows.  In the title poem, she says:

…and the words would halo
and hallow and blur my descent 
into the barrow of unknowing
each moment is. …  

With this reverence and this restraint Margaret Gibson has made her way from day to day, line to line, book to book.  The titles tell much: Broken Cup: Poems (2014), One Body: Poems (2007), Autumn Grasses (2003), Icon and Evidence (2001), The Vigil, A Poem in Four Voices (1993), Out in the Open (1989), Long Walks in the Afternoon (1982).  Her poems tell how she is. There is little time given to small talk, so much to unabashed honesty and vulnerability and sensuous delight in the life she lives. There is a refreshing directness in all of it including her memoir, The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood (2008). Her poem Always an Immigrant was featured in the last issue of Mountain Record and was among the poems she read at the Monastery’s Buddhist Poetry Festival in summer 2018 (find the poem online at mountainrecord.org).  

In Not Hearing the Wood Thrush there is science, fantasy, metapoesia, the songs of Orpheus, Hui Neng, Teresa of çvila, and ordinary house keeping. In the flush of my unabashed rapture, I want to say each song is quintessentially poetry, most certainly music. How it lifts us! But Margaret Gibson would admonish and redirect me and say as she does in Evolution,  

…—waving my fern
down the lane, following what isn’t
and what is, wherever they lead me-  the real
work is not the poem, but what moves me to it.

Robert Rakusan Ricci is a poet and a senior monastic in the Mountains and Rivers Order at Zen Mountain Monastery.

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