Something to Exchange

by Celia Gilbert

The monks in Giotto's fresco
discover Saint Francis dead.
One raises his hands to heaven, one leans forward
in tears, another
motions the others on as they come running.

I understand this moment--
this passage from breath to nothing--
stuns them as it did me
when I saw you carried out
knees strapped to chest
"Goodbye" too late."

                                                             Celia Gilbert
                                                             The Death of St. Francis
                                                                                 at Santa Croce
Something to Exchange
by Celia Gilbert

Published by BlazeVOX [books]
Book design
by Geoffrey Gatza
First Edition
ISBN 13:9781935402343
Cover art: Monotype by Celia Gilbert
Library of Congress Control Number: 2009923619  

The above quote, extracted from Celia Gilbert's powerful poem "The Death of Saint Francis at Santa Croce,” offers us the heart and soul of this commanding poetry collection.

The mystery of death and dying, the anguish caused by witnessing the final struggle of family members, and the resultant loss that cries out for meaning is what these poems provide, with strong imagery, not snap shots nor still shots, but haunting moving images that we, all of us, who have experienced the loss of loved ones hold privately in memory.  Celia Gilbert dares to transcribe these stirring images, and as if placing a mirror to our minds, lovingly shows us in the objective form of poetry what we already know, what we would prefer to ignore: death and dying come to all.

Poems in this collection like “Stroke” and “Smile” capture the frustration and helplessness we feel in the presence of someone weakened by illness:

“If only I could let myself into the dark
where you languish; investigate
your clogged veins, bursts of neurons, synapses;
discover, perhaps, the sentences
you still can form, when, at times,
you surprise us with your own voice----“  (31)

“Juice, how it runs down over your cracked lips
and sometimes crumbs catch
at the mouth’s corners.”  (35)

Indeed, these poems are powerful. Yet stronger still are those that deal with death, rendering the cathartic effect of classic Greek tragedy. In the poem “Woman in the Black Dress,” for example, the longing of a mother to spare her child from death is compared to the prayerful act of a woman dressed in black, crawling on her knees to the shrine of the Virgin. 

“Wouldn’t I have crawled
on hands and knees,
to my mother’s lap
begging her to hold back
my child’s oncoming death?”  (26)

The excruciating misery associated with the death of both a daughter and a mother, revealed in this collection, does not bring us so much to pity the narrator as to commiserate with her, almost become her, mindful of our own losses.  The details of death force us to understand the commonality of humanity, because as Gilbert’s poem, “The Marketplace” aptly expresses: death is democratic.

And what happens after death?  The narrator of these poems often addresses the dead with the personal pronoun, you, as if the dead are present: 

“Nights you come, in the second
between closing the book and turning off the light,
or at four a.m. outside the window”  (15)

Directly speaking to a lost loved one offers a kind of hope.  Perhaps the dead, their souls, can hear us, are with us. Maybe they nudge us to remember them when we look into the faces of the living who remind us of them, as the narrator does in the poem, “The Marketplace.”  Seeing an elderly man who sells carved birds in a flea market who reminds her of her father, the narrator dreams of her father that night, and returns to buy an owl from the old man the next day:

“wanting to touch his veined hand,
knowing he would soon go down,
unacknowledged, to abide
in death’s democracy with you, Father,
both of you among the fortunate
with something to exchange.”

In prior centuries, months, even years, were allowed for mourning; members of society acknowledged that the loss of family members rends the soul.  However, in our contemporary culture, we are given only a few days off from work, and we are expected to return to normal functions promptly. We repress and hold back our sorrow, our longing for those who have gone. Memories of them emerge at times, but we don’t let them linger.  We don’t have time.

What Celia Gilbert offers us in this very necessary book of poems are precious moments when, viewing circumstances, thoughts and images of suffering and death, we can begin to process our own losses, the deaths of our own family members.  Compassionately, she provides us with Something to Exchange.

--Mary Ann Sullivan