Poet Margaret Gibson to read in Mystic

Poet Margaret Gibson at her home in Preston. She will read works from her new poetry collection tonight in Mystic.
Poet Margaret Gibson at her home in Preston. She will read works from her new poetry collection tonight in Mystic.

On a sun-dappled October afternoon, poet Margaret Gibson is seated at a small garden table in the side yard of her home in Preston. The neatly-tended lawn gently slopes down to a small creek and, beyond, a rising copse of towering trees already boasts the jousting colors of early fall. Mitch, a large Golden Doodle with a gentle, e'er curious personality, lopes about in playful disruption of harvesting squirrels.

Gibson would like, someday, to once again share this place with her husband, David McKain, a fellow poet and former University of Connecticut English professor who lovingly did much of the work renovating the house and clearing the land. And, indeed, it's possible that McKain, who suffers from Alzheimer's and is in a care facility a few miles down the road, could one day come home if the disease reaches a stage where he could be watched after on-site. Gibson would treasure that.

Gesturing at the surroundings, she thus apologizes to a reporter for having suggested this visit rather than a phone conversation. "I wanted you to see the place David made." She pauses. "I mean, I worked on it, too, of course, but this was an ongoing project for him that he loved very much."

For two years after McKain's 2006 diagnosis, Gibson - a National Book Awards finalist whose collections have earned her a reputation as one of America's finest living poets - was unable to write a word. Part of that was emotional; part was reality.

"It was that initial period of David losing things and getting lost," Gibson says. "The checkbook was a mess and there was so much to learn - practical stuff - in addition to just the shock of the situation."

Then Gibson thought of a poem she'd written before McKain's diagnosis. It's called "Remembering" and is about one of those special and shared husband/wife dynamics when, in this case, David would stumble on a word and would say, "Okay, it starts with a B," and they'd go back and forth, suggesting possibilities, until the phantom term revealed itself.

"It was a casual memory game, playful, but I was already thinking something darker," Gibson says. After all, McKain's mother and probably his grandmother both suffered from what doctors now suspect was Alzheimer's.

In the context of the perhaps subconscious prescience of "Remembering," Gibson began writing again and, this time, the process was, in the simplest context, cathartic. The work touched on all aspects, nuances, contexts and experiences of the illness and its myriad effects on themselves and their relationship. Late last year, LSU Press published a collection of these poems - "Broken Cup" - one of the most elegant and profound books you'll ever encounter.

Tonight, Gibson will read from "Broken Cup" for the first time at the Arts Cafe Mystic.

"I actually want to read because 'Broken Cup' is a love story," Gibson says. "At first, there was a dread factor. I asked my daughter and my step-daughter and they assured me it would be a positive experience. I mean, you can't get away from the sadness or the melancholy. There's been loss after loss, surprise after surprise. There's no way to duck it. But I've learned so much from writing these poems, and I expect to learn more reading them."

Christie Williams, director of the Arts Cafe Mystic, was happy when Gibson contacted him with the news that she had a new book coming out. After all, the Cafe had hosted her twice before and her presentations were well attended and very successful. But when Gibson told Williams the arc of "Broken Cup" concerned her husband's dementia, he was wasn't sure what to think.

"I was concerned the poems would be dark and hopeless," Williams says. "Indeed, when she invited me to read the finished manuscript, I was dismayed at the prospect. I have been subjected to lots of bad books by great poets. But I read 'Broken Cup' in a single sitting, on a train to New York. It was a thrilling read. There was humor, which is always a saving grace. There was light - or should I say enlightenment. And, throughout, there was a shimmering beauty - the beauty of deep feeling conveyed intelligently, with supreme craft. It's a deeply moving book which I knew I had to share with The Arts Cafe's audience."

"Broken Cup" is all Williams said it was.

It is also not a "past tense" book; it is not a eulogy or an obituary. While there is profound sadness, there is at the same time a tremendous sense of vitality and a fierce appreciation for the couple's marriage, what it meant, what it has revealed, and what it will be going forward.

"I would put it this way," Gibson says. "Both people - the patient and the caregiver - are dealing with ongoing and changing frustration, fear and grief. Both lives are significantly altered. But after a while, if you're lucky, there is a new intimacy that involves real respect. There's a surrender of boundaries, taking on a kind of unconditionality of loving. I had to get to that point where that happened."

There are philosophical and spiritual lessons, too.

Gibson says, for example, "My take on things now? That what is the 'self' is central. The self contains personal and impersonal qualities. For a long time, my self was associated with gender politics and personal accomplishment. Part of who we think we are is what we have made. Alzheimer's takes a lot of that away.

"As David lost more and more of his intellectual ability and reasoning, he would say, 'I used to know who I am.' Or 'I don't know why I am like this.' He sees the slow degeneration. And I told him, 'You still have the ability to remember you have (the disease).' When I said that, the light came back in his eyes and things were okay for a while. That's when what has been behind all along emerges. He is and has been kindly, he enjoys people, and at times he enjoys the moment and the right here and now."

Over time, as Gibson revised and finished the poems in "Broken Cup," she reversed an earlier decision not to read much of the work to David. "I said, 'What the heck.' I started showing them to him and I'm so glad I did. His responses were so positive. He told me they would help people."

The title poem in the collection is about a literal hand-painted cup that McKain brought to Gibson a long time ago after he visited Puerto Vallarta. For years, Gibson drank her morning coffee from it until, with time, the handle cracked into two pieces and the cup was banished to her desk to hold paperclips. After McKain's diagnosis, when Gibson realized her heart was broken, she glued the cup back together - but, fearing its fragility, refrained from ever trying to lift it because she was afraid it would break again.

Some time later, on the recommendation of a friend, Gibson decided to visit a Hindu teacher in Providence renowned for his ability to help people suffering profound grief. The teacher described a metaphorical cup from which one might drink - and the cup stood for the body/mind or Self. He explained that the cup remains functional through the years even though it might stain or chip. Eventually, though, it breaks - "but whatever you have drunk from the cup over the years," the teacher said, "that remains with you."

Shaking at the eloquence and the eerie choice of parable, Gibson reached into her bag, looked through the pages within, extracted her poem "Broken Cup," and held it out to the teacher.

"He read it and just smiled," Gibson remembers. "Then he nodded and said, 'I know.'"

IF YOU GO

Who: Poet Margaret Gibson

What: Reads from her latest book, "The Broken Cup," at the Arts Cafe Mystic

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Mystic Arts Center, 9 Water St., Mystic

Also on the program: Songwriter Lara Herscovitch and poet Victoria T. Murphy

How much: $10; students under 21 admitted free

For more information: (860) 912-2444,theartscafemystic.org

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