“Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” by Margaret Gibson

Two epigraphs open Margaret Gibson’s new collection, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush; the first, from Heraclitus, asks, “How can you hide from what never goes away?” The question is equally fueled by desperation and wisdom, from a voice frightened by a familiar haunting. The emotion and attention in such a question are two forces that fuel the lyric speaker in each of these poems. Lamenting the loss of her husband while recounting moments of his illness, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush attempts to account for everything we cannot see beyond our brief lives. It doesn’t answer each question it asks, nor should it, but instead sends those questions like radio waves into spaces made familiar by memory, then made mystical and strange through the loss that lives there. The voice in many of these poems seems to say: I am here, you are here, and I’m trying to see you again.

Gibson’s poems in this collection go much farther than meditations on loss; they examine the haunting presences that remain in our lives, those fragments of the soul which make strangers out of those we love most. The first of six poems titled “Passage” begins as one might expect a nightmare to, while the speaker attempts to build a more familiar dreamscape from memory. Gibson writes, “Alone in the dark, I sense a door. / It is open. Beyond the door, also dark.” This plainspoken opening is a strategy employed repeatedly in Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, allowing the speaker to say all they know in a little moment while moving toward the wildness that lives just outside the door.

This image of a literal opening shows itself in the first poem of the collection which shares the same title:

There are thoughts that come to the door screen summer nights,

lured by a light kept on by

some childhood fear. They bump up against it, or cling.

 

Darkness frees them.

The first haunts of this book, then, are small, insect-like. Perhaps at this beginning stage they are no more than annoyances, still easily squished even if they get inside. Then, in the closing lines of the poem, the speaker turns from observation to reverence for what is born in the unknowable dark:

No clear edge to the universe, now the scientists tell us.

 

They describe an intense

fuzziness instead. World spins into other worlds as incandescent

as what rises from cocoons

ripening on the underskin of leaves and stars.

Even the bugs buzzing at her door are born directly from natural beauty reaching even into space, and this interconnectedness extends throughout Gibson’s collection like a web not used for hunting but holding one’s attention as they unfold images from a curious, sharpened vision inclined to surprise. The balance between bewilderment and personal truth is a hard one to maintain, and Not Hearing the Wood Thrush deftly navigates these impulses, making the unknowability of a feeling or object their most essential quality. “Not Knowing,” as one might expect, begins to probe into some of these observations.

Perhaps he was ready, perhaps not.

I think something in us knows

what we do not, and I hold

that not knowing close—

it sharpens the moment, it opens

the heart.

Astonishment, here, is an exercise for the heart, to which many if not all of these poems are in service. It is the muscle which most often extends its reach outside the body, making it not unlike a possible soul. The speaker in “Not Hearing the Wood Thrush” remarks, “How nakedly / the heart bears its weight.” The heart holds no secrets once the speaker separates it from her body, and this force propels her through each poem as she attempts to reconcile a great loss with the necessity of living and moving forward.

The subject of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush is one scrutinized in poetry for those seeking to curse the “overly-sentimental” speaker, a figure who is often decried but never clearly described. Mary Ruefle, in her essay “On Sentimentality,” deconstructs the Latin roots of the word in an effort to pull a more useful meaning out. She argues that sentimentality consists of “…personal experience, one’s own feeling, including physical feeling—sensation—and also mental feeling—emotion.” If one accepts this definition—that sentimentality is a combination of physical and mental perceptions—then Gibson’s collection provides for readers haunting and beautiful examples of how it is performed best. She closes the poem “Not Knowing” with a memory now unlocked from time, free to float in the more unpredictable spaces on the other side of her lyrical door:

Right now, I still hear his voice,

I still smell the cold air on his coat

when he came back into the house

full of family and laughter,

carrying an armful of wood for the fire.

The world from which the speaker recalls these events is not only a darker one but colder too.  The scent of her beloved is not enough to keep the home as warm and full in his absence, as described, but this bleakness is complicated through the hopeful holding of “not knowing” in the poem. The line between how much one can know and how much one wants to know shifts constantly and works to balance the contents of Gibson’s book.

One sees that line shifting most tangibly toward the end of the collection, in “Continuing the Story.” Gibson upholds her promise of holding the unknown closely, beginning with a plain truth and ascending quickly into imagination:

You are not here, Beloved, but I know

you remember how mist

rises off a river, and the story

continues, as it must,

This inevitability is followed by a summoning of Eurydice, a comparison of her loss and longing for Orpheus to the speaker’s, who admits, “And while I do not understand, not really, / the story ravels into actual rain.” Gibson’s word choice here is interesting; “ravel” implies an untangling, but one that results in more mystery and mess than its prefixed counterpart.

Not Hearing the Wood Thrush asks what might be possible when one names the ghost that haunts them despite the uncertainty that inevitably follows. In the penultimate poem of the collection, “Unconditional,” the speaker asks, “How does it happen? Some days, / I only am that I am / when known by what I do not know.” Perhaps impossible questions are left to the impossible forces that surround us. These are let in through every open door in the collection, of which there are many. The questions, thankfully, cannot fit in only one room: “And I want to know / what happens to the heart. Not, / will this marriage be saved? Not even / Can it be understood?” Margaret Gibson’s exploration of the inescapability of loss is a journey along which readers might begin to consider the limits of their own spiritual bewilderment and to delight in knowing there are none to find.

MARGARET GIBSON has published eleven books of poetry and one book of prose. Born in Virginia, she now resides in Connecticut with her husband David.