Our new poet laureate, Margaret Gibson, wants to come to your town or city, go to your public library, park, art gallery or coffee shop, and engage you in a community dialogue while she reads her poetry or listens to yours.
Gibson also aims to further the role of the poet as a “truth teller” in a time of political deception.
“It’s getting to the point that just to speak your own truth is becoming a political act,” Gibson muses as she sits in her circa-1700s house set in the woods of Preston.
Gibson does not mention President Trump by name as we discuss this; she doesn’t really need to. In four pages of notes she wrote describing how she will approach her position as Connecticut’s poet laureate, she says: “We must learn to hear words of denial and hatred, words that separate and belittle, even when or especially when these words are uttered from places of authority, for what they are. They are lies. They are lies that protect momentary self-interest. They are lies that ask us to look away from the truth we know.”
She adds, “Somehow, poetry has always helped us, through the saving graces of rhythm, through the creation of beauty and truth, to see, to reduce the pain of seeing, so that pain itself can be ‘re-framed’ as compassion.”
Gibson is no stranger to pain and the saving graces that can follow. Yes, compassion is key. Her husband, David McKain, also a poet and, like her, a professor at UConn, developed the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. For 11 years afterward, until his death on Dec. 27, 2017 — their 42nd wedding anniversary — their fortitude and deep love for each other were challenged daily.
Gibson’s 11th book of poetry, published in 2014,Broken Cup, describes their intimate time together as the disease steadily worsened. Gibson took the title from something a Hindu teacher had said to her as he offered her a cup of green tea.
“Over time, the cup stains, it might chip, but one can still drink from it,” she wrote in her introduction to the book. “Eventually it cracks, breaks, and no one can use it. The body is like that cup. But whatever you have drunk from the cup over the years, that remains with you.”
When I ask Gibson to expand on the meaning of the broken cup, she recalls the time when her husband began to show signs of forgetfulness and went to a hospital to be tested. After the diagnosis came, “It was clear we were going to take this journey together, on a road that was headed in one direction. It was going to be a bumpy ride.”
As she remembers her husband’s increasing inability to read, to write, to have meaningful conversations or to understand her poetry, Gibson says, “You could say our lives were broken. The illness came in and changed our lives completely. David was broken. And I was broken-hearted.”
But she says there was a profound discovery. “We both became more human, stronger. His capacity for feeling and spiritual development was still very much intact. A deepening occurred in both of us during the illness, a flowering. I’m very grateful for what I learned and what I think he learned: to love, no matter what; to be available completely; in the face of utter despair, to create moments of joy. I can do that. And I’m still doing that. It’s changed my life.”
Gibson opens her most recent book of poems,Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, and reads the closing lines of “Open Window”:
I love my life — each flash of radiance,
each ghost of grief. Why wait
for the sky to open in a waterfall of spirits
ascending and descending?
Let everything be as it is. Let everything be as it is.
Gibson’s next book, The Glass Globe, tentatively due out in 2021, carries two interwoven themes. “It begins with a poem about washing my husband’s body after he had just died. And the last poem is about washing the planet. These are poems about grieving the loss of my husband and an awareness of what’s happening in the natural world, my environmental grief. They weave around each other.”
When Gibson strolls meditatively around her property, with its pond and the stone walls built hundreds of years ago, you could almost forget about what’s happening to the earth. But she notes, “You can’t live now without being impressed by the crisis we’re causing in the natural world. Poets, like prophets, have a capacity to speak truth to power, to use their eloquence to give warning: ‘Hey, we’re out of line here! We have to change. Wake up! What are we doing?’ ”
And so Gibson says she wants to “green” the state poet laureate position, “to be able to give voice to the fact that what we’re doing to the planet is endangering it and us and our children’s lives and our grandchildren’s lives.”
She sees today’s poets as having a double mission. In addition to issuing that “prophetic warning,” they can write about “our relationship with the living world” and helping others “fall in love with it — for its necessary and wild beauty.”
Gibson has learned that Connecticut has more than 30 town poet laureates, and she has been reaching out to them since the state’s Office of the Arts appointed her in April for a three-year term. She wants to coordinate with them to meet people across the state.
“A poet laureate is there to enable people to know themselves more deeply, to reach out to others more widely, to be full human beings, engaged in community and meaningful activity,” she says.
“I’m a great believer in community and voices that blend together to make a chorus. Mine is just one voice, but I can invite others to speak.”