Into The Sun: Love Makes A Mess Of Dying - Greg Gilbert
There is a potent justification for poetry in Greg Gilbert’s focused meditation on illness and death: the brutality of the body’s change, the ‘poison’s poison’ of chemotherapy, the emotional drama of entirely original circumstances, and the failure to countermand the emerging darkness as usually balanced wheels come off.
Each causes the sufferer/narrator to reach for metaphor, for a verisimilitude of description that is mostly beyond our power to apprehend, but is vouchsafed in the kinds of seminal experience which circumscribe our relationship with those we love, and with the universe.
The prospect of death enables a transfiguring of ways of seeing: the emergence of acute reflective insights where previously – say, before diagnosis – wandering polychromatic images are darkened at every corner, illuminates a contrast between abstract foreboding and bitter, newly-directed knowledge.
In the earlier state, the shifting, mystical furniture of a riverscape is shadowed, like a lung, by sickening anticipation; the estuarial flow is both katabatic and abandoned; actual – the Solent and the Itchen – and mythic, drawing together threads of memory and documented history.
The conclusion is sublime in its languid sadness, a tribute to Gilbert’s skill at atmospheric evocation:
‘And the last of the ashes abandon their wings
And I fall with them, this agency of thought
Delivering us to the Tower, accepting us as loess.
Disentangled from limb and fate, we can let the salt blow through us.
On this sighted parapet,
Awaiting our next stirring.’
(‘Holy River – Last Poem Written Before Diagnosis’)
There is an integrity to Gilbert’s openness here: to reflect on a state of mind before prognostic truth bites must be painful in the extreme. And he doesn’t flinch from his autobiographical impulse, especially as dread suspicion is confirmed.
After the chain is broken at point of realisation, the narrator wavers between interchangeable stages of a grieving process which is already begun: from resignation, to abandonment, to desperation, to thoughts of family loss, of fatherless young children.
Gilbert’s modus is now projective, guided by a new clarity. The shattering of a universe into splintered, ‘unruly’ pieces is ‘prismatic’, but the spectrum also enables the kaleidoscoping of fresh insights, of ideas and images refracted in entirely original ways.
A sense of loss is woven into the heartbreakingly elegiac poem ‘Seeing Winter as Death and Finding Solace’; it defines the brittle evanescence of life in a winter’s exhaled breath, investing the ‘shrug’ of an otherwise indifferent moment with spectral significance:
‘Each winter breath is a ghost
Of our recent selves:
We can learn to die easily,
No resistance, just
A gentle shrug into everything.
No one mourns their breath in winter.
Though you watch the essence of you
Escaping. Winter has its reasons.’
It would be a travesty not to transcribe such a beautiful poem in full if only because its hard-earned integrity is corollary to its reflective eloquence.
The circumstances of Greg Gilbert’s life add the gravitas of authenticity to our reception of his poetics: father of two young children, member of the renowned Indie band, The Delays, artist and poet, diagnosed with Stage 4 bowel cancer in 2016.
His fine collection documents a series of responses to his condition, to the pain, the helplessness and confusion, and the nihilistic ‘abstinence’ which describes a retreat into resignation.
Perhaps above all, it is an honest account of the moving ground on which Gilbert now finds himself, of how potentially terminal illnesses destabilise relationships on whose certainty we have become complacently reliant. As new to loved ones as to the sufferer, the terrain is occluded and established markers are absent or distorted.
That Gilbert’s harrowing depiction of a hospital visit is conceived in prose-poem form in ‘Blue Draped Cube’ is a measure of his need to contain a maelstrom of emotion, for his narrator, here, is the observer at his own denouement.
The relative control of his exposition confers immense sadness on the ‘buckling’ anxiety, the pity, and the disintegration of those around him as prognosis is confirmed. And yet, the detachment is entirely persuasive: an inability to quite take in the new circumstances is as unsurprising a reaction as the precipitate collapse in others. It enables, in fact, a casually accurate view of demeanour which is entirely without sentimental charge:
‘The surgeon: “There’s nothing to be done, I’m sorry,” and I do think he’s sorry but also embarrassed; eyes downcast, probably longing for the safety of the operating theatre, the nurse here to provide some pity which just pours from her brilliant blue eyes.’
The re-mapping of perception which is a condition of this new truth, in turn, laces his partner’s face with the lines of ‘horror’. Her usual resemblance to the figure in Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1930s ‘Migrant Mother’ image – hardship betokened in ‘the dust-bowl-farmer-wife-face’ – is re-configured at point of revelation like a Lucian Freud canvas.
The bravery which animates the narrator’s urge is counterpointed by a collapse into disbelief, confusion and self-delusion in the onlooking family, whose every pained reaction is caught viscerally, and in extremis, as though by Freud’s brush.
And at other times the moment itself clarifies. The beautifully realised recollection of ‘Discharged (And then alive, a shock to all, we headed out ...)’ yields the comfort of tranquil reflection, as though ‘discharge’ offered a sense of epiphanic release alongside the relief of medical reprieve.
A gaze through a hospital window allows the savouring of a signal connection with the narrator’s young children, who become a pristine embodiment of the eternal:
‘Awaiting visitors – daughters, my
Golden sovereigns, bubbling
Like mad honey – to pull me through
The window and into the sun
Torn with cobwebs from trees,
A press of seeds and wings.’
Close identification with the delicate purity of youth is a compound measure of embattled hope and resignation here. A form of regression, the light towards which the narrator is drawn is a powerful reminder of the sentiment expressed by Helen Dunmore in her moving poem of terminal illness, ‘Hold out your Arms’.
The reader is likely to remember that profound sense of acceptance which finally offers reconciliation of condition and love; where, perhaps, the narrator finds some peace in the unconditional certainty of love in a time of re-defined expectation. A search for clarity in the title poem ‘Love Makes a Mess of Dying’ – ‘(love) Draws close those for whom you’ve been / Essential architecture, each seeking / A totem’ – gives on to the irony of shared grief, cancer an illness inflicting pain on sufferer and loved ones, offering only the silence of inexorable understanding:
We can live in soundless colloquy
Like empty stones full of noiseless
(‘In Retrospect Our Love [What Cancer Has Given Us]’)
There is no place for irony in Greg Gilbert’s simple, essential syllogism:
‘Death makes a crown of love,
A mantle to take across the threshold
As a sign of accomplished living:
You are loved,
You have loved,
You have lived.’
(‘Death Makes a Crown of Love’)
Love Makes a Mess of Dying
is published by smithǀdoorstop
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