Christian Gerard, Love, Olive Kitteridge, poetry, poetry collection, relationships, story cycles
With full disclosure before I continue forward with this review, Christian Anton Gerard is a friend of mine. We went through our MFA program together, and he is one of the best people I know, and has developed into one of the best poets I know. In his poetry, and in his life, he embraces life with the passion of an optimist – looking always toward what he loves, rather than what he hates or fears. This is a rare quality.
I read Christian’s book, Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella over an early breakfast while sitting in Borjo, where Christian and I shared many a coffee together while parallel working, attending readings, or hanging out before or after a class. I only got six or seven pages into the collection when I just couldn’t stop myself from texting him my love for the book. Every poem made me want to shout, but more than the individual poems, I loved the way the poems work together, each one building off the next, telling the love story of the characters of Wilmot and Stella.
In this age of primarily personal, confessional poetry, while I insist that my students refer to the narrator of the poem as the poetic speaker, and not assume that the poem is about, or spoken by, the poet themselves, it is often obvious that the poetic speaker and the poet are one and the same. And that is fine. That is great! I love personal narrative poetry. When I make my own attempts at poetry, I write from the personal experience, and all of my favorite poets are the same. I just read Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire, and Doty doesn’t attempt to disguise that he is the speaker of each one of his poems, and I love those poems. I love Mary Oliver, Ellen Bass, Ted Kooser, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon, Brian Turner, and Marie Howe (to just name a few), and all write straight from their life experiences. They interpret, and fictionalize, and blur dreams with the waking world, and write their lives in a way that focuses our vision, and reveals the beauty, heartbreak and truth in our every day living. This is a wonderful way to write poetry, and is a type of poetry that Christian writes as well, but this book is something different.
The title of the book, Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella, is enough to tell you that this book is not a simple, personal collection. The poems are undeniably capture element’s of Christian’s whimsy, his huge heart, his love, but they are also a fictional construct. They are these characters of Wilmot and Stella, two people that have been living inside him for a long time. I seem to remember that they once went by different names, but the characters are much the same as characters he was bringing to our graduate workshop five or six years ago and they are also much matured. And so while elements of the characters are reminiscent of Christian, they are not him and his wife. These poems tell the story of two characters, and in that, these poems, even when not at all narrative, work somewhat like short stories, and the book works like a story cycle, like Olive Kitteridge or Winesburg, Ohio, a form of short story collections that is dear to my heart. Through the course of the book, Wilmot reveals his love for Stella, he betrays that love, and then loves Stella even more through his shame. This isn’t really a spoiler, the cheating is revealed early on in the book, with the lovely details of:
And she was next to me not wearing pants
Just Eighties-like black leggings, a thin zip-up sweatshirt hooded
zippers over each elbow unzipped
Sounds insane I know but
her elbows were like
two North Stars fighting for a sailor’s attention
After this indiscretion, the majority of the book is about a maturing love. A complicated love. A love of a relationship still in its infancy, but also a relationship that is in it for the long haul – a relationship that can be bruised and tested to the point that it could give way to the pressure, as so many do. Some couples stay together, and what holds them together the ability to love beyond hurts and imperfections and disappointments and failures. To still remember the love, and keep focus on that about all other things. So this book is a love story, and even better, it is an optimistic love story, which is a healing thing to read.
I tend to read mostly darker books, books of conflicted souls, books of people damaging themselves and others. When Flannery O’Conner was asked why she wrote so much violence, she replied that, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially,” and that is what I look for in so much of my fiction and poetry – the extreme, heartbreaking, people defining scenarios. But it is refreshing to read something different, and it is almost revolutionary in how Wilmot Collect, Here for Stella, persists in being optimistic and open hearted, while also walking us to the edges of the extremities of love.
While this book does connect like a story cycle, it is also so completely a poetry collection. The poems are mostly non-narrative, and derive their power from they attention to the lyric and image, and not through the reversal and crisis action. Some poems are told with the conceit of Wilmot’s “collect calls” to Stella, and others are written from a third person perspective, giving more of a view of Stella and of both of them, and others you would never know were connected into the cycle, except that they are in the collection, and are named as such. And they absolutely work to deepen one’s understanding of the poems, of the characters, and by including them in this collection, it deepens my understanding of the poems. That is what I love about story cycles. You can read the oft-anthologized “Hands” from Winesburg, Ohio and get one understanding and love for the town and the characters, but as you read the book as a whole, you get a much richer perspective. And in Olive Kitteridge, in the opening story of “Pharmacy,” you understand Olive to be a hard case, and a difficult wife to be wed, and generally unlikeable, but as the stories progress, you get to know her in new ways, each story like “Incoming Tide,” “Basket of Trips,” and “Little Burst,” revealing new depths to the deeply sensitive inner core to Olive, so that by the story “Security,” we empathize with Olive in her failures with her son in a way that we never could have if we had read the story by itself. And yet. And yet, I also envy the reader that only reads “Security,” or “A Little Burst,” because they have a single, distilled, pure view of Olive that you sacrifice when you read the collection in its entirety.
The same is true in Christian’s book. I loved the poem, “Probably, Then” when it was a stand-alone poem, that I think I remember Christian writing in response to an observation made by our poetry professor, Luisa Igloria, which I reprint her as it was published in Orion in 2009:
I’m interested in the half-finished.
—Luisa A. Igloria
If I lived in a forest and you lived somewhere else, maybe in the forest, maybe not, no difference, just somewhere else, with a different language, and you found me in my forest and we had to talk, had to find out if the other was dangerous, I would point at a waterfall and say, maybe, waterfall and you would say, la fin du monde. We’d stand there looking at each other as if we were talking about the thing or maybe what we wanted from the other. We’d probably point to a few more things. It would feel important. Like the end of the world or maybe like the world itself. Probably, then, we’d realize the world is big. Much bigger than either of us had anticipated, and one of us, without doubt, would walk away.
In the book, it reads exactly the same, except the title is different, and feeds right into the first line of the poem:
“Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella; or If I Lived in a Forest”
and you lived somewhere else, maybe in the forest, maybe not, no difference, . . .
Gone is the dedication, and the title, but all else remains the same. The poem is the same poem of love that I loved five years ago, and it is also an entirely new poem. Read in this new context, it deepens my affection and love for Wilmot, and changes my understanding of the poem, emphasizing the heart break, giving it an underlying narrative that delivers so much power to this little poem, especially in its place near the end of the book. I loved the poem before, and I love it in a different way now. I also love that it is a prose poem, a form that I’ve rarely read from Christian, I think because he is so adept at working the line breaks for every bit of tension he can wring out of them, but in this prose poem, he achieves what Mark Shumate, a master of the prose poem, said about why he writes prose poetry, saying that he is:
. . . also drawn to the relative homeliness of the prose poem. Its inelegance. A blob in the shape of the state of Kansas. A bulbous dirigible hovering there at the top of the page. Most of the assembled spectators would think it could never fly. But cut the tethers. And stand back. If it’s crafted well, it will hover out over the fields in defiance of all poetic gravity and leave the crowd in awe.
I could go on quoting more and more of Christian’s poems, but I must stop somewhere. Just trust me that every poem is different from the one it follows, and the one that comes next, and yet every poem also unites into a powerful whole. In then end, I find it most suitable to end my ramblings with the last line of another one of my favorite poems, titled “They Bought a China Cabinet Instead of a Bookcase,” in which:
They filled the cabinet with books fragile
As her great-grandmother’s willed wedding china
And then, building on that description, and touching on the betrayal, and the tension, it ends with this final line, a barb flung from Stella to Wilmot:
How long’d you think your poetry’d protect you?
In the case of Christian Anton Gerard, his poetry will not just protect and serve, and guide, and build him for a very long time, his poetry now also “protects” me, and all who read it. Poems are our defense against the world, a way of seeing life, and ourselves, truly, and in the case of Christian’s, his poems protect me by showing me how to live life with an open heart. Thank you, Christian, for writing this book.