Rhode Island Notebook, by Gabriel Gudding
2007 The Dalkey Archive
ISBN – 13:978-1-56478-47-7

Is it possible to start a review of a book published in 2007 with a review of a book published in 1975? I’m going to try. Because Merrill Gilfillan’s To Creature (published by Blue Wind Press in Berkeley in 1975) is as good a companion to the latter 436 page volume (published in 2007 by The Dalkey Archive) as anything else I’ve come across in the last 33 years. I bought Rhode Island Notebook not because it says on the back cover that the book-length poem is an exorcism of violence both historical and personal. Well, it might be. I read the book twice and didn’t feel that much got exorcised. I bought it because it looked interesting in the way that Danil Kharms’ Today I Wrote Nothing and Felix Feneon’s Novels In Three Lines looked interesting in The London Review Bookshop on the same day. But it isn’t.

(A brief aside) Most UK poets suffer from not having read (or at least enjoyed) Walt Whitman. This preposterous statement is, sadly, not preposterous enough, because what poetry (until recently in the UK, at least) so often lacks is a sense of adventure or an excess of energy or the desire to plunge onwards in the way advocated and explored by Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer in their great attempts to get it all down in the heady (because I wasn’t there?) days of the 70s in works like CC’s still unpublished long poem and Bernadette’s Studying Hunger Journals and Desires of Mothers and Midwinter Day...& how interesting that Bernadette & GG’s transcendentalism is so particular and domestic.

One way of getting it all down is Gabriel Gudding’s getting it down in the notebooks which he had by his side for the many trips which he took between Illinois and Rhode Island in order to see his daughter while she was with her mother and he was working approximately 1076 miles away. Don’t crash! I kept thinking as I imagined him scribbling in the margins as he sped along between Rhode Island and Illinois.

I am wary here of stating the obvious but I love this book and I want to write about it and so will begin.

I thought I was unloved, alone at last, then a friend of my mother arrives in the brain fields and continues to my body by immaculate zebra skirting coy plastic surf. Agh. Mystery. Coy plastic hills open to frenzy but generally cool we passed a shepherd crapping in the woods, holding his hand carved flute in his teeth on the way to a small party in the foothills, cars parked among the dusty road among them the cherry Packard, above them rocky mountains and from here you can see dull red and green blurs out there where grenades rolled out from under the camoflauge way way up. O O birds before your minds took over. O O eager birds through cold clear water and priceless navy bodies creased and figured from sleeping on a rope. Roy took a ride on a chrome hay wagon.

Well, that was the first page of Merrill Gilfillan’s Aout 72. Elizabeth Bishop wrote something (or was it someone writing about Elizabeth Bishop?) about looking at something so closely that it stopped being real and became something else. The first parts of her The Fish does (to me) this.

So I am looking at these poets and thinking how the business of seeing it all going either past or just waving around in front is a considerably pleasurable experience and is not about recognition but about Making! It! New! By seeing it well too. & how seeing at speed is the contemporary modus.

Gabriel Gudding gets in his car and it’s almost always early and he buys donuts (mmmm) and adjusts his scrotum (hmmmm) and sets the milometer of his car and drives towards his daughter. Her name is Clio and I’m glad that I knew that because the book doesn’t tell you. & this book is a book of names. Of dead things by the sides of roads, and road numbers, and rivers, and donuts, and Clio isn’t mentioned because Gudding’s ex- demanded it. & to be unable to say the name of one’s daughter is a terrible thing. Ah, names!

But then I think of Georges Perec’s A Void and how the point of the missing e is the point of it all and then not being able to say C____’s name becomes in some way the point of the book. My daughter’s name is Koto & we live a mile & often a few days apart. Oh, how many times a day do I say her name? So many. & yet never enough. She is 6 years old, the same as C____. You know. Well, I do, growing older. Gabriel, I imagine you do too.

I don’t know, either, if I want to learn anything about the world from reading poetry, but I learned about the world between Normal, Illinois, and Providence, Rhode Island. & was not bored.

1. Gudding’s poem was handwritten in notebooks. As he drove? (see above)
2. America, here, is wild in the sense that you cannot keep the animals off the road and you cannot keep them from getting killed.
3. So this poem is the nature poem / ecopoem of the 21st Century because the way that most Americans see nature is through a car window at approximately 50mph and Gudding sees it.
4. & he sees, regularly, that nature is death. Or that Man + Nature = Death.
5. & he sees but he’s really just counting down the miles / hours till he is where he wants to be.
6. This poem is filled with counting. Times. Miles. Roads.
7. eg. 76e 451m 9:41 & I count with him.
8. I learned about rivers too but now I forget their names. Susqu-something? Cocohana? They go too fast. By which I mean: I go by too fast. & this THIS is the tragedy.

Gudding is an interesting poet because what comes into his head is what comes into the poem, and because we are both snowballs of Dogen.

When I read Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance I wanted them to stop philosophising and get back driving. Sophie (last night) said that she only liked it for the food writing.

I grew up with Bruce Springsteen singing about driving away. Always away. But the truth of driving is that it’s more usual to be between. Young men drive away but they (look at Kerouac) have to come back. (Unless you are Arthur Cravan or Hart Crane or Lew Welch.) Gudding’s BETWEEN is flooded with desire and ennui. Boredom, I salute you! Oh mother of the muses! - Baudelaire. What does he know about language poetry? Landscape? Coffee? Trousers? Himself? Women? Weather? Writing? Something, at least: plenty, somewhere between point (a) and point (b).

& this is a wonderfully cumulative poem because you go with him and go there again and again. Something like you can’t put your leg in the same stream twice. Or, in fact, if you leave it there, even, once.

& how unusual to read a poem with people in as opposed to a poem without.


paused in a clearing
at the smell of new levis
and onion grass, drive on

(Merrill Gilfillan)

Gabriel, are you ____________________? I have questions: oh, many questions.
One about Buddhism, and at least one about your daughter & you.

The spirit opens / by complete surprise because it’s muscle.
IN MEMORY OF ALBERT AYLER (the first 2 lines) by Merrill Gilfillan

So: a generally undemonstrative man says: read this book because it is a big book of poetry that you can read every page of. Read it because fathers who are poets and who are not with their daughters every day and who tremble before the thought of death because that means their daughters may never remember them if they die (and, god knows, poets like to die young) may gain some small consolation if they know that the wider world knows, for god’s sake, that they love (present tense) LOVE them.
& because it is playful. See for yourself. Nancy Regan floating.
& because The Dalkey Archive should be applauded & rewarded for their great publishing program.
& because it is ambitious and adventurous about recording the curriculum of being both poetry & human.
& because I don’t want to categorise it & it resists categorisation.
& because we all of us travel for most of our lives approximately 28 inches above the ground.
& because it is Whitman + Mayer + _________ (and that is very exciting)
& because it is a recommendation to readers to read Merril Gilfillan.

Oh: & that it is completely different from Gudding’s A Defense Of Poetry. & that is a very great book too. What a great cover.

We were crouched, we were spread, we were gypped
into landscape. First the Firth of Forth. Then home
with something on the radio, high ridges disappearing
to meet in the north. Not for long!

Merrill Gilfillan / from KHAN

PS Gabriel, I would have liked to have read more footnotes.