“We’re really verbs”: An Interview with Margaret Gibson

Thibault Raoult: Upon first encounter with your new book Broken Cup, I’m taken back to Donald Hall’s Without—his poetic confrontation with the death of his poet wife Jane Kenyon. The circumstances are different in each book, to be sure, but nonetheless the reader senses at once a reeling and holistic aspect to the work. There are many passages that might be read as Total(ed) Song (something ruined, something complete). To what extent does this book deal in world-revising, and to what extent world-building?

Margaret Gibson: The poems in Broken Cup arose because, as with most poems that are lyric and inhabit the realm of feeling, I was finally unable to keep silent after the long poetic withdrawal that followed my husband David McKain’s tentative diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t begun a new poem for two years. I was “reeling,” as was my husband, through a cycle of emotions, and I was forced to address a host of new practical necessities. The ground had been cut out from beneath us. For the one who has Alzheimer’s, there is a shocking, if slow, process of deconstruction. Also for the one who has it, the physical deterioration caused by this brain illness becomes a deconstruction of Self as many cognitive skills drop away. Who am I?, the disease makes the afflicted ask. We humans spend our entire lives building what we consider to be a credible self, revising that “identity” by choice—if we have a choice—and by necessity if we have to. Alzheimer’s slowly takes over as it takes you apart, and there can never be a new whole—the disease doesn’t put you back together. Admitting this may be hard, and denial sets in. Watching it happen to a beloved partner is devastating and difficult to accept.

In fact, we don’t have fixed identities. As my poem “Chantpleur” puts it, we think we’re nouns—but we’re really verbs that have settled in one place too long, until we think there’s some sort of permanence to us—and we resist impermanence. Alzheimer’s is a crash course in certain basic existential realizations. Among them is that there is no fixed identity.

And yet as a familiar world is falling apart, an altered one is being built. The poems in Broken Cup reflect this double process, reenacting elements of collapse, revision, and rebuilding. The aesthetic challenge I took on was to let the work reflect both deconstruction and reconstruction. There is the choice of letting the words reel and spin and imitate the deconstruction; there is the choice of using formal means to contain or resist what’s crumbling. Inevitably, there is dramatic paradox: how to shape the poems so that they enact in their relationship between form and content, what you call “world-revising “and/or “world-building” amid the sense of unwanted change. I hope that reenactment engages the reader and a “revision” takes place in his/her realm of feeling also. By turning again to making poems, I think I hoped to deepen the sense of what was happening in my life—to feel more, not less. To take on my situation as fully as I could.

TR: I’m particularly taken with two of the sequences in Broken Cup—“Winter” and “Solitudes.” Formally the partitions seem to operate almost like buoys for the accompanying revelations. Better yet, they could be seen as saucers for your lines/broken cups. What drew you to the formal device of sequence? Any particular challenges with or blessings in this enterprise?

MG: I didn’t realize, until you’d asked the question, that my choice of the sequence might be connected in part to the physiological fact that for one who has Alzheimer’s there’s an acute loss of sequence—in doing tasks, in dressing, in reading. Of course I’ve on other occasions chosen to write in essentially lyric sequence because I like how one can leap from any given moment, perception, or epiphany to the next; how the partitions suggest space and time; how each part emphasizes the integrity of each moment. Because the poetry moves in sequence, the parts, taken as a whole, may suggest narrative (or a change in thinking or feeling) without using an exact sense of time passing. Organizing the sequence around sense-experience instead of in linear time can allow the reader to take the poetry in as a non-discursive whole. The challenge is to unify the single sections sufficiently so that broader cohesion can happen. The blessing is that the speaker gets to stand in the midst of essential mystery—raising her voice when a clarity or urgency becomes sufficient to call up speech. The blessing is in creating a sense of tentative development—one doesn’t have to know everything. With each new moment arises new inquiry.

In the architecture of Broken Cup there are three important sequences: “Sentences,” the first poem in the book—rather differently from the two you’ve focused on—introduces the entire collection of poems and also raises questions of philosophical import that will reoccur throughout the book. “Winter” comes relatively early in the book; “Solitudes” toward the closing. In “Winter” the speaker is trying to understand the mind altered by Alzheimer’s—the alteration in her husband’s mind, what it must be for him to live there; and then there are sympathetic or resistant alterations in her own responses, and so on. For Alzheimer’s, there is no cure; there are no explanations for origin of the disease. “Answers” just aren’t available. The moment is what remains. This one, the next one. And there are long silences. The artistry of any sequence lies in discovering how to navigate the gaps. In “Winter” the speaker’s distress is tangible, and it shapes how the data of the world is seen and interpreted. The world has been blown to pieces. The sequence’s individual sections seem to me to be suspended in air, blown about in the wind. There is space; there is also the sense of a loss of familiar “laws” such as gravity, cohesion, cause and effect. The gaps are stunned silences. During silence we take things in, await understanding, then comprehend (or not). Any sense of resolution is partial; in closing the speaker reminds herself of words she has used in the past. But now the words (“great faith,” “great doubt”) have to be lived.

“Solitudes” was written early but found its place in the book as one of the final poems. Here, acceptance has been achieved. There’s a settling—and a coherent setting. In “Solitudes” the two people have come to rest; they sit together outside. They are contained within a specific place—even though it’s clear that how to navigate from place to place beyond home ground is a skill that David has lost. The sequence focuses more on what remains, operating by objective correlative, by observing the sensuous, by facing impermanence, by accepting that we will disappear: “no trace.”

TR: The community plays a significant role in the text. The titular broken cup participates in a world of things that often seem to relate even as the human actors do not, or cannot. I’m wondering, do you consider these poems at all in the vein of anthropology?

MG: Well, you’d have to see our house: come on over. Actually you’re asking the question because the poems in Broken Cup do permit you to see the world that the couple has created. David was an avid collector, junk picker, and antiques sleuth. He could find a thing others would overlook, put it in a different setting (bring it home), and—something beautiful appeared. As I worked on my poems, David worked on rearranging things in the house. In “Revising” I called it “coupling,” putting one thing next to the other because in the altered juxtaposition a flash of insight arises. The poem focuses on this ingrained aesthetic activity. There is a play with things—things that will outlast us. Anthropology? If by that you mean the impetus to create a culture, a worlding of things that will reflect us, even a temporary arrangement that will suggest meaning or current feeling—yes. If you mean that the poems explore a “lost world”—yes to that also. Poetry and the visual arts differently attempt to give us—in one swift non-discursive blow—insight, epiphany. A little crack in the nature of things widens a bit. Most poets engage in this. For me writing these poems with the ground of Alzheimer’s shifting beneath me added urgency. When there’s urgency, anything can arise.

TR: Humor is pervasive as well in the volume, even necessary. “Maybe we’re entering / Nirvana”, which is misheard as “entering lasagna.” “We’ll make / a good wife of you yet”, the speaker nearly jokes, watching her husband in the kitchen putting things away in the wrong drawers. Does the humor creep in later as you write, or is it there in some form to begin with?

MG: Humor provides “a moment’s jubilee”—I’m taking out of context a phrase from “Lucky Dark”—and indeed humor keeps a check on sadness. It can create irony; it can also deepen grief. Humor can keep the reader with you when the going gets rough. It can be a coping skill, or it can be comedic and therefore wisdom-revealing. And humor can undercut or restore dignity. David loved to pun, and we’re both playful with words—so yes, there were and are still moments when we make jokes or burst out laughing because, well, “word salad” is what David speaks now. Lots of displacement, invention, sounds that stand for things, and so on. Sometimes it’s very funny and we both laugh.

You mention how lasagna is heard when Nirvana is said. David’s hard of hearing. The moment given in the poem is pretty much exactly what happened, even the purring of the cat. I think I focused more on creating more Z sounds for the poem to enact the purring. The humor was there. The same is true for the distressed wife—“Job in a bathrobe”—watching her husband put things away, “helping out.” The humor arises but remains unspoken out of her respect for his efforts—he means well, he’s happy to help. And as the epigraph to the poem says, “The task of a human being is to transform suffering to joy.” That’s a serious thought; my sense of humor is often self-deprecating, however, so the serious thought turned comic. On another occasion, as we were leaving a friend’s house in Vermont, I was going through my automatic verbal checklist with David at the door. Did he have is wallet, glasses, keys, etc., and I added “giraffe” to the list just to keep the moment light, to make sure David’s dignity in the presence of his friends wasn’t nicked. Check out the poem “Bed” for humor; as one friend remarked, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What David is given to say in the poem is exactly what he did say. And yes, I made things up, too. “Barred owl” became “bard” owl, a homonym that appeared only when I was writing the poem.

There’s an inevitable sadness to these poems, imported by the subject matter. Grief is a reality in what’s called “the long goodbye.” But there are moments of joy and laughter as well, and other gifts I wouldn’t have imagined before I was David’s companion on “ the Way of Alzheimer’s.” On balance, I think of Broken Cup as an affirming book. Stephen Dunn calls it “a love story.” A friend of Jane Hirshfield’s called the poems “lifeboats of recognition.” Brokenness suggests wholeness; the reverse is also true. In our marriage, before the Alzheimer’s progressed to its later stages, David and I sometimes struggled when either of us held the other to an ideal, and (of course) found the other wanting. Given the fact of Alzheimer’s, nothing was ideal. We learned to experience love without idealization, to give and receive it without conditions. Humor is also gratitude.


Thibault Raoult was an assistant editor at The Georgia Review from 2015 to 2017. He now teaches at University of Maryland. Raoult holds a PhD from University of Georgia and an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University; he has published two books of poems—Person Hour (2011) and Disposable Epics (2014)—and the cross-genre text «Pro(m)bois(e)» (2016).