Undanceable by Merrill Gilfillan.
Flood Editions, 2005.
Reviewed by Martha Ronk.
The poems in Merrill Gilfillan's new book, Undanceable, lift objective and specific events of nature into song. The landscape of the American West is put before us in the names of rivers, birds, shrubs, and moths, and the language itself is musical – attentive to sound, repetition, and various kinds of rhyme, including, "crows/alpenglow," "river/Denver," "grosbeaks/goatsbeard. Again and again, the poems operate out of particular forms of restraint. The lines are short; the rhythms somewhat abrupt; the perceptions clear; the consonants cracking. The poems seem to demand focused and immediate attention, as if the sort of concentration that went into the writing were also required of the reader:
Spiderwort, the begs-
to-be-said: Fat of the summer
off at the crack of the fat
of the bat. A pair of grosbeaks
feed in a hackberry tree
so lost in it all they have
a sort of kundalini air. ("Something for John Clare")
In many ways one can grasp these poems somewhat simply since one is always located, almost mapped onto a specific site, itself anchored by place name and by the names of things, as in part 12 of "Solomon Solstice." The notes to this poem push its precision even further: "The Solomon River rises near the 101st meridian and runs easterly across the high plains of far northwestern Kansas":
Hawks all distant day
ring the fraction hours:
Moth-chiefs and red tails
large. Forty in a hundred miles.
The audience, the ear intended
(understood), always the elms,
the goldeneyes dead center.
I say elms because I talk of cottonwoods
but I mean cottonwoods all day
and goldeneyes dead center.
Winter star rests in the oriole nest.
Placement in the landscape, however, is, I would argue, at one with placement in the language; Gilfillan may be a nature poet, but one is also aware of the placement of each word in the poem, each line break. One is located in language as well as in the world of nature, even one might say, in the dictionary since so many of the words in Gilfillan's poems are so accurate and highly specialized that one is aware of the need to match what is seen to the word, of the need for the word to make possible what is seen. Sometimes, this simply means encountering words such as salal, azimuth, ceorl, cassis, calcareous, or baleen. Or a list of various kinds of lilacs or various names of butterflies. The poet seems to insist that one must master taxonomy in order to see and to know. Hence, a reader is always negotiating the landscape of poetic language as much as the landscape of the Yampa River running through Colorado. Each poem demonstrates that language and landscape are inextricable, and one experiences a traversing through each poem that is tactile and physical, but also epistemological. As a result, these deceptively accessible poems are also entangled, dense, even disorienting, but never abstract:
lightly repainted: poetry
as subtlest of craws: crows
fine print for omnivores.
They sit on old boxcars -
"Alabama State Docks/
Port of Mobile" – doors
wide open, see right through:
bar, willows, Yampa,
alders, foothills, half-lit peaks:
the Williams Fork Range.
(from "Yampa Crows at Yampa Evening")
That the poems focus
on place, including linguistic place conveys, as much contemporary
poetry does not, a sense of history - the history of the Irish and
the moundbuilders, the history of railroads, county fairs,
fishermen, and truckers, a history of America.
Gilfillan's poems are bracing, and remind those of us looking at American today of a different time and place. In many ways, the poems can perhaps best be described by what they are not: they are not ironic or posturing; they don't deny the natural world; they don't mock joy (many poems radiate such joy) or mystery, although the mysteries in Undanceable are not the dramatic kind, or rather not dramatic as in stagey or otherworldly. Undanceable leads into mysteries that are one with the ordinary if one could but see. "Salal," for example, puts the reader in the world where mystery is, where poems like these write it.