The Wonder of the World: Introducing Mary Gilliland
As a young poet interested in the environment and poetry, Mary apprenticed herself to Gary Snyder, Beat poet, naturalist and Buddhist. I suspect that under his mentorship she honed an already innate gift for compression of expression, attentiveness to the moment and nature, and the syncopated and witty pacing in some of her innovative poems. “Break your heart / Break for lunch,” as she quips at the end of a riff, in her poem “Can You,” on all the idioms that use various nuances of “break.” Since Mary describes Snyder as her “hero,” I also surmise that in this great American poet she found a teacher who could help her along the spiritual path on which she’d embarked: to study and protect the natural world, “to create sacred space for everyday use,” as she has described her life’s work, as well as to put her poetry in the service of efforts to save the environment. In her most recent work, the magical The Ruined Walled Castle Garden, Mary bears radiant witness – in the haunting melodic echoes of the book’s “troubled music” – to what Alice Fulton describes as “global apocalypse”: “To admit,” as Mary writes in the poem “Infinitives,” that “fields are on fire, oil fields,” and that such burning evidences “our course set for the destitute sunset.” It takes a rare poet to draw us through the beauty of language into the poem which creates a safe (sacred) space in which to awaken us to the larger realities and truths. Mary Gilliland is that poet: “Color of hope, its becoming / lights on your head,” as she writes of the Black-billed Cuckoo.
In addition to The Ruined Wall Castle Garden, which won the Bright Hill Press Poetry Chapbook Award, Mary’s poetry has been anthologized in Nuclear Impact: Broken Atoms In Our Hands and The &sNow Awards: The Best Innovative Writing. Among her honors are the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, a BBC Wildlife Magazine Poet of the Year Award for Nature Poetry, and a studio residency at MASS MoCA. Mary has also collaborated on multimedia and public art installations. She taught writing at Cornell University and at Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, the Dalai Lama’s seat in North America, until her retirement in 2007.
I deeply admire who Mary is in the world. She is modest, forthright, and fierce on nature’s behalf, an activist-artist helping protect the planet and its creatures (flora as well as fauna). I invite you to check out more of Mary’s poetry online, or perhaps to buy her chapbook to read at your leisure. But for now, enjoy the wonderful poetry she has chosen to feature in this gorgeous winter issue of Persimmon Tree.
Introduction to Poets from East Coast States
Being over 60 in 2022 means that in youth we had the privilege of living through years, perhaps decades, of hopeful social transformation – supported and effected by countless individuals. And when individuals transform deep within their being, they radiate that change beyond the self. I was graced with a mother who changed – finally! – in her sixties, from dogmatist to activist. She embraced and spoke up for gay rights; became a volunteer tutor at a resource-poor school in Elizabeth, New Jersey; mentored and taught workarounds to younger women in her patriarchal religion. By the time I found Moya again, twenty years after I’d met her, she had left the convent to become editor in chief at William Sadlier. I love that my life has brought me several such changing older women.
At some point while reading the many good submissions for Persimmon Tree #60, I realized that this issue’s winning poems were assembling themselves into an anthology of life experiences – the meaning of anthology in its original Greek being a collection of choice flowers. A sequence for your wintering, readers – may that be thoughtful, flexible, fruitful! Re-reading, I looked especially for those poems whose language had the will, the effort, and the grace to let the words go, to let them fly.
Here you will find poems of prayer and contemplation, of desperation and befuddlement, of abuse, warfare, capitalism as violence; poems that evoke tenderness and self-respect; others that record old wounds and new realizations, amusement or torment or ambivalent love – or is that loving ambivalence? Poems of disillusionment and – supremely – of delight. Each in its own way honest and musical, each witnessing a different form of relationship within the human family.
How can it be that, along with a handful of our correspondence, I saved only one of many book reports written for those tutorials with Sister Moya? Inscribed in blue ink on lined paper, the report begins with a quotation from the book to be discussed. My sentence that follows, worded with the inspired conviction of sixteen years’ experience on the planet, reads “Thus, either life is absurd or it is divine.” Surely. Until life taught me that it’s both.
If you don’t remember then I won’t either
My father and I tiptoe on a glacier
around an immense circular crevasse
grinding and moaning like a lover
I say I see something like a hand
down there You say no that’s the ice
carved when a river is pulled
underground by denial I say no
there’s a man and a girl
see her braids see his arms
trying to hold her they are churning
round and around in the water
You say it’s just the action
of a moulin which means mill
the circular motion the runoff drills
It is important not to fall in not
to become glacial flour I say Look
there are fronds of a fern frozen
in distortion but you don’t see you
are fishing for your wallet
I have a club foot you say by way
of apology and some bootblack
I start to speak but a hand
goes over my mouth Of course
it is tar and salt and weeping of course
it would sting Then we’re back
where we started and begin again
Something has Gone Terribly Wrong in the Atomic Big Time: The Movie
Saturdays as it started getting dark I watched Thriller Theater.
The movies were always the same,
Something was wrong in the world, things much amiss
And the minute you realized this, you could not go back, not ever.
A man had grown to monster size, exposed to radiation.
He could only sit on the beach, wrapped in a huge cloth, waiting.
Spiders were the size of rooms, hiding in terrible caves.
These things were out there, and now all the people in the movies knew.
Once you knew,
everything was ruined.
I watched in the rumpus room with its oversize furniture,
the garage close by stocked with the delivery from the pretzel and soda man,
its own kind of shelter.
The grown ups
would come to say goodbye
before they left for their crowded parties.
Heavy make-up /perfume and cologne leaving fallout
They mushroomed above
The Lanterns: After Coney Island
It was night and we the cousins were cranky and tired
Trudging to get to the car for the long drive home
After a day devoted to us
To the pleasing of children
The relentless work of play
We had somehow forgotten to buy souvenirs
When an old man with a pushcart appeared by the parking lot
Selling toy lanterns, with old fashioned batteries, bigger than the lamps,
The toys on their wires were shaped like olden day street lights
Soft green, their glow led the way
And we twirled them as we got in the car
And the mothers and aunts told us stories as we nodded off in their gentle light
Of other pushcarts, they spoke of peddlers,
And of the sweet fruit they sold.
The Viewing of Miss Nabor
In our classroom
the smell of freshly polished floors,
the bouillon broth she sipped all day to boost her blood.
She taught us just one month before she died,
we were invited to say good-bye—
the cold parlor where the family laid her out,
so cold that lonely house,
no one there, it seemed, but her
waxen sleep among the bouquets and sprays,
festooned flowers and clustered wreaths,
that pungent-petalled hide-a-way.
I heard my tongue stumble good-bye,
my childhood lurching forward—
scared of broken bones and sidewalk cracks,
scared of breathing in, then out,
scared to not know where we go.
I left the world of wise men bearing gifts—
didn’t believe the glory stories.
I’ll never get used to the smell of bouquets,
broth steaming on a stovetop.
I lie on the massage table, face down,
my shoulders tight. Marla’s strokes
are slow, her fingers deep. My daughter used to
dress in tight skirts and dangling earrings, Madonna
among the fairy princesses and bumble bees.
You can go deeper, but not too much, Marla.
My daughter drove my car without a proper license
to a party up-county, her friend’s dad waiting with a rifle
the next morning. Marla kneads my arms
and travels to my fingertips. College, law school. Thankfully, no drugs
or body piercings. After she passed the bar,
I bought her three black pinstriped suits. A Bronx DA,
she helicoptered to crime scenes,
a detective’s hand on her thigh.
My lower back is a hot spot, Marla. Go deep.
Now my daughter prosecutes teachers, sex crimes her specialty.
She is too smart and beautiful
for most men. You have an unfortunate imbalance, Marla says,
between the hamstrings and the quadriceps.
The oil is so soothing. There is a revealing wedding gown,
calla lilies, East River view, friends flown in from Utah to South Africa.
The universe seems to spin inexorably out of our grasp.
Once my mother stood at the top of the stairs as I lugged
my Joan Baez records and a worn copy of Lady Chatterley, escaping
to a railroad flat in Greenwich Village. You will meet men up to no good,
she warned and handed me two pounds of chuck, ground twice.
One Thousand Is the Number of the Empty Buddha
I just realized, found out too late,
they have given you a new name by now,
or one older than the one your mother gave you,
one I won’t recognize
on the list of all the names here –
in the temple, when the rest have gone,
two young bald-headed nuns
giggle and chant in a language I don’t understand.
I am the hag, the crone in the corner,
petals fallen, invisible,
I run to my room, write it down fast,
but can’t remember how it feels to be like them,
I have been busy watching the clouds
change shapes all through the night,
waiting for the dark to fall away
into their dust.
Calculations: 20 Years
In my language, the word Darfur means
What belongs to them belongs to me
Yet my ample body does not contain
what they have seen. I have no scale in me to size up
effects so great, told by scenes from space.
The emptiness where villages once thrived
The blackened soil sown by infant lives
The hands that crush, obliterate an elder’s face
reach into my grieving body to yank
from me what would live and speak. Yet I know nothing
nothing of their pain. In prayer, I ask how can I answer
this gargantuan deceit? What in me can
express two million fears? the 20 years?
5,000 miles from Khartoum, my small small words
are whispers, miles from rooms where actuaries reckon
costs of oil, coltan, goods that fuel my blood-soaked Western life.
The numbers there and here, 5,000 wasps inside my head.
In the Background
There are days I live as if death
were not eyeing me like a shopkeeper
hungry for a sale, as if this moment
were the only one, sitting with my back
straight up in my chair to be with this
breath, and then this one, forestalling
jolts of terror that reach me
through frequencies of brain and air.
I hold infinity—a mobius film strip
of ocean waves and moon phases—
in my palm, the one dirty
from weeding the garden
of my overgrown mind, eternity
as fine a present as being here
now, reaching above my crown
to catch a black hole where time
slackens its grip, for a full breath.
What is it, little man, that makes you crave
This playful repetition? Neural need?
Or how our roles reverse, with me the slave
And you the laughing autocrat? Indeed,
Our game fulfills us both. For my heart lifts
At being weighted down with your commands.
Though even now the sliding moment shifts:
My competency dwindles; yours expands
As summer trees turn brown, then bare, then green,
The rings within their bark increasing, year
By year, their changes mirroring your own,
Our equipoise more fragile with each hour
That makes the “now” into a distant “then.”
So, yes! While we are here, my dear, Again!
My Own Tree
It was for proclaiming my presence as much as anything,
that I planted a small dogwood in the front garden.
It was for the company of a familiar tree among the old
sweetgums that sheltered this house for years before I arrived.
For the recognition of prayer as I tended it on my knees, gloveless
palms receptive to signs from the soil in my hands. For the glimpse
of soft pink worms gliding back into darkness after being unearthed.
For the delight of found treasure head and leg of a lost toy soldier;
sleek white skull of a shrew. For the surprise sparkle of shovel-struck stone.
For the startle of a garter snake glittering in her garment of armor. It was for the
yearning, the dreaming of plump buds opening; of the translucent blossom saucers
they would become; of the birds who would eat the glossy red fruit of those blossoms
in autumn. It was for the warmth of spring sun on my winter skin; soft southerly wind
in my hair. It was for the heft of the wooden-handled hoe in my hands, its shaft worn
smooth by grip, by sweat, by work. For the rocking, push-pull of working the ground,
for the memories dug up along with weeds. For the ache in my arms
the anticipation of a hot bath.
It was for cool mornings when the sky gilds trees and
rooftops and the sweetgum buds become tall candles or golden pagodas and the light
streams through the dogwood saucers dappling the carpet of garden beneath. It was
for the stillness of two cardinals resting in its branches as I rested below them.
For the joy piercing my heart. For deep attention, its own gift, its own purpose.
All summer we swam in the cold, clean lake,
canoed, hiked, biked the farm roads,
watched sandhill cranes gather in hayfields,
heard jays and ravens trade their trash talk,
chickadees trilling through it all. Tonight
the wolf family calls from the woods:
a parent’s howl, the pups yapping back.
We sit around the fire, our last this season.
Our hands smell of cedar, smoke, peaty scotch.
The wind shifts, the fire resettles.
Jupiter appears, then Saturn.
A saw-whet owl hoots its tugboat toot.
Can we take this feeling home, be different
somehow? you ask. Since I don’t know I say nothing:
there are already too many words in the world.
Creatures among creatures, we only want
what’s simple – food, water, quiet, sky.
Love. Safe distances. A planet breathing.
In my dream, I am with my sister, we
are preparing a family meal, the recipe
is hers, but somehow not the right one.
I have been thinking of how much I owe
her, all of which she would hate to hear.
It is because of her that I have become
a woman who keeps her promises, tries
never to fail to do what she’s said she
will do, never let people down. All of
my petty virtues are mirror images,
funhouse echoes of her petty vices.
This morning only the small birds out
in the air which is already musky,
heat smoked, seem to be having fun.
The leaves in the trees are tossed by
grief they don’t understand but must
endure, like my sister’s bewildered
grief at finding herself losing herself.
She complained she didn’t know how
she was supposed to do it: no one
had taught her how to get old and die.
She and our older brothers taught me
how not to do it. Who teaches the how?
This morning even the thin clouds
don’t know how to be themselves,
how to endure their going hence
even as their coming hither.
In the Cool Air in the Room of the World
I followed my dead from room to room
A decade passed
Then they were gone
On a morning in May, my dead returned
I walked as I slept and they walked with me
arm in arm
I remembered the musk
of each lover’s breath
I remembered the bedside
of each one’s death
The past was a poplar grove
Their voices alive in the river rose
the muguets opened
my grief-locked heart
in a distant village
in a market at noon
in the cool air in the room of the world
I remembered asleep and awake I wept
in the marketplace with the olives and breads
the piles of shallots, the still fish heads
the baskets of strawberries, bottles of wine
the sun, the earth, time returned
and I returned
The cottonwood seeds, like fledglings, fly
through the in-between
of the river’s eye
The river runs north and south with the wind
They are gone again but I am alive
in the cool air in the room of the world
To the Darkhouse
Her exorbitant mind with
stood headache persistent as sea ur
But neural plasti
city went narcolept when con
catenations of spec
ular voices clung like electric
eels, nasty welts lodged in her cortex.
Her whole word family halted at the border:
the unspeakable splashed from its burrow,
stronger than she, lush rupture
of young body stilled, explored
as though she were a country.
Scratched reams of ink
have always brought me
the next novel’s shape, its true begin.
Troweling through talk overheard
in a shop, on a corner, I carefully
brush stray tendrils, the toque,
cut of the jacket, length of the skirt,
crux of a character who finds herself
in a favorite chair, a room where she moves.
This site would not ex
cavate. It held sound
waves, no footing, the an
cient sea culling its sed
iment, a wet rush of grief
and release: his chat
tering teeth after climax,
her stifled bounds.
The day was overcast. After lunch
she’d smoke her two Sobranies,
let wraiths roam her palate,
then walk by the river, some
thing in her pocket besides hands.
from The Ruined Walled Castle Garden (Bright Hill Press 2020)
Old Town, Key West
Beside the lane where I stroll, a golden fig
sprouts in its host’s canopy, preparing an
aerial root to shoot round and down to reach
the porous ground and someday grayly strangle
the gumbo limbo rooted next to my passing shoulder.
Blue-flowered lignum vita, yellow orchids on the tamarind
by royal, coconut, palmetto, buccaneer—counting off
the palms, coils of my brain switch to orange and mimosa
in the most gentle sudden heat, teeth in small cooked pink
shrimp, jacket tossed aside for the Salvation Army.
Fowl peck up bugs among brittle brown leaves
in Old Town while across the island the stern of a
white ship rises with awkward regularity off
Mallory Square bearing hundreds of necessary
daytrippers with their plump cerulean purses.
Portuguese men of war cruise the pier at Higgs
Beach where no one can sleep and the carpark
is full and along the long walkway inside the wall
of Casa Marina the movie stars slup-slup their
platform sandals, their toy dogs in gilt collars.
Tangents on tall fences, bougainvillea ruffle
while extreme weather warning is repeated
in a baritone over the thwack-ck-k of a serve
bounced to the backboard of a partner’s
inattention before the drinks party.
Winter birds walk beneath scarlet trumpets, saffron
flutes, air passages roughened by jasmine and car
exhaust, sometimes arcing a sturdy sandal away
from the buckled sidewalk to give room to a hen
and her dozen clucking their late morning rounds.
Mary Gilliland, “Can You,” in Hotel Amerika 8.2 (2010).