Poetry Sunday: Poems by Sandra M. Gilbert

(Triple A) He stood at the door, apologetic grin. Morning on the street. Pre-breakfast calm. “Flat tire,” he said. She barely glanced at him. “Call Triple A.” “I know,” he said. “I’ll call.” The last exchange; she turned to brew some coffee. The big truck came in minutes, did the job. Flat tire: they wrenched the wounded thing away, replaced it, stored it, tinkered with the hub. Ink of The Times soaking up the silence– an ordinary, edge-of-springtime quiet. No more words for now. Beyond the fence, tulips & autos fractioning the light. (Later the other engine, shiny and smart, the one that tried but hardly fixed his heart.)   (Machine) On Friday at nine they came to “do the death.” His wondering mind, master of x & y, stalled behind a veil of useless breath. Did they unplug the lemmas, points, & pi? Or did the great constants haunt him in the dark, the primes on their endless luminous parade swirling through blocs of meaning like a flock of weighty gulls, each aglow with pride? “They say he can hear you,” someone warned, & so she played intervals of noise to wake him up– Schubert, Coltrane, & Bach, fortissimo–                    though he lay sweating, ventilator off, his only sound the strident rasping sigh a body utters when it has to die.   (Eyes) “Didn’t they tell you? The hospice booklet says so– three last expirations, then the eyes. . . .” Crouched by the bedside, what could she hope to see– what know–of how the discarded body does? His breath came slower,  loud, & even weird as if from some fantastic faraway, (the others huddled in corners, urgent, scared, someone weeping, someone trying to pray)– and then, with silence broadening into shock, into a long astonishment of still, the opening, like a struggle to awake while diving backward into a deep pool: his blue-gray eyes, circled with parchment white, slowly widening; innocent;  absolute.   (Kite) Watching from behind the chilly house she sees it flash away, tumultuous skin, fins in the air, triangles to use the wind: wild geometry in motion. Looping, quivering, sometimes almost crashing, the flight itself’s an argument for shape: design tugs at the rope in the hand, the thrashing tail’s a lemma, propels the skyward leap. But the thought is only paper after all, a soul that clings to a stick, tears open, shreds as it’s flung to the ground in a final shiny fall, and at last the line goes limp, the climbing ends. Beyond the rush & sweep, an arc of silence– though a mind imagined this flight, & proved it once.

–for D. G., mathematician, d. 3/7/08

  From AfterMath (W. W. Norton and Company Inc. 2011) by Sandra Gilbert. Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Gilbert. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., www.wwnorton.com, and available for order here.  Also, here is a link to a review of AfterMath.   Berkeley resident Sandra M. Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry including In the Fourth World (University of Alabama Press 1979), Emily’s Bread (Norton 1984), Blood Pressure (Norton 1988), Ghost Volcano (Norton 1995),  Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems (Norton 2000), Belongings (Norton 2004), AfterMath (Norton 2011) and, forthcoming, Judgment Day (Norton 2019). Among Gilbert’s prose books are the memoir Wrongful Death (Norton 1995), the cultural study Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (Norton 2006),  the essay collection On Burning Ground (University of Michigan Press 2009), Rereading Women (Norton 2011), The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity (Norton 2014), and, coedited with Roger Porter, Eating Words: A Norton Reader of Food Writing (Norton 2015). She is currently at work, with longtime collaborator Susan Gubar, on Still Mad: Seventies Feminism Today. With Susan Gubar,  Gilbert has also coauthored or coedited The Madwoman in the Attic (Yale University Press, 1979), No Man’s Land (Yale University Press, 1988, 1994, 1996), and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (Norton, 3 editions, 2004-2007), among numerous other volumes. Before retiring, Gilbert taught at the University of California, Davis, Princeton University, Stanford University, Indiana University, Williams College, and California State University, Hayward. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Philosophical Society and has earned honorary doctorates from Wesleyan University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University. Prizes and awards include the John Ciardi Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Paterson Prize, the Union League Prize and the Eunice Tietjens Prize (from Poetry magazine), and, with Susan Gubar, the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Book Critics Circle. Gilbert has three children and four grandchildren—every one of them, she says, incredibly special. Her late husband, Elliot L. Gilbert, was the Chair of the English Department at U.C. Davis. Her late partner, David Gale, was coauthor of the “Stable Marriage Problem,” which won a Nobel Prize in 2012. She now lives in Berkeley with Dick Frieden, a financial analyst and philosopher. (Author photo: Peter Basmajian)  

Poet’s Note

AfterMath is a sequence of ten sonnets that forms the core of a volume of poems with the same title. The sequence both narrates and meditates on the unexpected death of David Gale, a brilliant mathematician who was my life-partner for fifteen years, between 1993 and 2008, when he was struck by a heart attack that deprived his brain of oxygen for several crucial minutes. As the poems tell, he was taken to a local Berkeley hospital where no interventions were spared, but after he had spent several days unconscious, on a ventilator, it became clear that he wouldn’t recover, and so his children and I decided to take him off the machine. I think this event was so painful to me (I wrote about it soon after it happened) that I couldn’t speak in the first person. Thus I am “she” and David, who might otherwise be “you,” is “he.” The kind hospital staff warned us about much that would happen: “stridor” breathing after disconnection of the ventilator, the possibility that the dying person can still hear, even the shocking opening of the eyes at the moment of death.  But nonetheless, none of us were prepared. Although I have lost a number of people near to me, especially including my husband of thirty-five years, I had never witnessed a death scene, but now, along with David’s children and my own children, I was participating in what in the 19th century was called a “death watch.” And then, of course, there was the terrible grief that followed the moment of expiration. I should add here that the title AfterMath is meant to play on both David’s vocation and on the shock and sorrow that follow upon a death. Perhaps I should also add that one of David’s most important contributions to mathematical economics was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012, though (speaking of the aftermath of loss) David could not be named as a winner of the award because it is only given to the living.

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