The Bookshelf: Poet Deborah Gorlin

Jul 24, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features poet Deborah Gorlin. Gorlin has a way of seeing ordinary things in new ways. A baby chick is an “avian dandelion,” an insect “more a mobile jewelry than a life form,” the heart muscle “like the plush velvet of stage curtains.”

Poems in her new collection, Life of the Garment, take us on the road, into family life, and far out of the usual hum-drum way of seeing the world. Life of the Garment is the winner of the  2014 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry PrizeTake a listen to Gorlin's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.

Deborah's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.    Lyric essays by Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson. “People should read Biss because she argues passionately but intelligently. She never forgets that she’s writing sentences. The sentences sing, even if they’re burdened by exposition. She’s a pioneer, and she’s also a former student of mine. She’s created a whole new genre called the lyric essay. I don’t want to sound pedantic, but it combines poetry with information, autobiography, no concerted division. They’re melded, like mating a butterfly with a hippopotamus.”

2.    H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. “A fascinating biography, memoir, and guide to falconry. She’s a woman who is a grief-stricken by the death of her father but also quite experienced in training falcons. It’s an account of her year and a half purchasing this goss hawk, one of these wild raptors that you don’t want to be in the same room with unless you know what you’re doing, and in training this hawk, she learns how to come to terms with the death of her father. It’s just a gorgeous book.”

3.    Sparks from the Anvil edited by Christian McEwen. “A collection of interviews with contemporary poets who appeared in the Smith College Poetry Series, which is a wonderful series in Northampton. The interviews are quite revealing.”

4.    Intervals by Alice Fogel. “Her book reveals what I would describe as an exquisite intelligence. It’s inspired by Bach’s Goldberg Variations and it has the rigor and structure of Bach.”

I want to add one more brilliant description to this list: cars, you write, are “metal wigs on wheels.” Just incredible. Can you read that poem?

The Sorrow of Cars

Cars sorrow too, their glittering
surfaces, metal wigs on wheels,
just shams.

Like puppets, they need us to animate them,
steer their wheels, accelerate, brake, turn.

Dependent on a tiny key,
homunculus, the god that blossoms them.
Obediently

their motors run,
follow our every cue,
witless without us.

Poor brooders, parked
insomniacs, alone in their garages,
cattle in lots.

Chronic movement or stasis
means a bipolar soullessness.

Dopes, they desire impossibly:
vehicles that yearn to be tenors,
pant for their own expressways.

They dream of teapots and fireplaces
centered in their engines, a mobile Jerusalem,
where their tires caress the road, where

a pristine soul, despite the grease,
could live in their machine—headlights for eyes—
and no longer disconsolate, they at last can stop

their performance, their fiery march, up down, up down,
becoming stilled wind when they want, or free transport.

You dedicate quite a few poems in this book to cars.

I sure do.

Why is that?

Well, growing up in New Jersey in the mid 50s, early 60s, I was surrounded by cars. We lived in a tiny little enclave industrial suburb just outside of Newark, surrounded by factories and hemmed in on all sides by Route 22, the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike to the west of us. So there was the physical fact of cars and transport that were part of my backdrop and my background. And the other important fact was that my father was a car dealer and he sold Chryslers, Plymouths, Cadillacs, and cars were very much a part of our livelihood.

And you write that he’d come home frequently with a brand new, shiny car, and everyone in the neighborhood thought you were so wealthy.

That’s right, and I have this memory of him driving a midnight blue Cadillac Convertible with red leather seats and a red hood down the block and it was as if he were the pope or some royalty because cars were status symbols and they were more than just machines. They were ways to convey wealth and prosperity and joy and happiness. The American car, synonymous with the American dream in many ways.

In addition to cars and family life, you also write beautifully about loss here in this book, and there were a few images that stayed with me. One was the image in the poem where you describe both human and dog staring at the door that the people you miss would never come through again. And then there was one poem that really hit me, that was the poem Long Gone.

Long Gone

Now and then, my parents crop
up and I see them around
the neighborhood, a nameless older

couple, pleasant sorts who either
take occasional walks, arm
in arm, or stay close

to their house, the woman
kneeling as she gardens
in her front
yard, the man mowing

the lawn, tinkering in the garage,
and I acknowledge them, nod
my head, wave.

A lot of people would have that kind of response after someone died. Full disclosure: after my mother died, I thought I saw her in a bus, driving right by. And it just stopped me in my tracks and I had to think, “No, it’s definitely not my mother,” but you seem to have captured that feeling just so perfectly in just a few lines.

That’s right. And what I say—and I don’t mean to be facetious about this—but when people die, especially your parents, yes, they may be materially dead, but they still live in you, you still can have a relationship with them. If you like my relationship with my parents—in the last twenty years, and they’ve been dead for much longer, has really improved remarkably. You see them, if you have children, you see them embodied in your children in some ways. In other people.

So it still happens?

It still happens. Their lives are still part of the animate world.

The voice you take on in these poems—it’s higher than everyday speech, it’s poetic language, but it’s also got a casualness to it, as if it’s—I’ve heard the Vermont poet David Budbill talk about poems dribbling off his tongue, and there’s an element of that here in your work. Is that something you consciously strive for?

Absolutely. You want to find the music in everything, whatever the words may be, and that can be challenging when you want to incorporate certain information that may not be as lyric or as poetic in terms of content. Also, just in terms of the sonic value of the words themselves. So yes, that’s what makes me a poet. And sometimes, that’s what starts a poem. It’s a word or a sound that I have to follow out to its eventual, surprising conclusion.