Remembering Michelle Gillett

Charles Coe told me as we talked about poetry that it’s hard to think of a job that makes less money — “professional pick-up-sticks player,” he said, “or maybe running a ferret ranch in Montenegro.”

He meant, of course, that it doesn’t matter. Poets do what they love.

And it’s hard to think of a job better than this one, when I can call someone like Mr. Coe, and he will talk with me for an hour about writing. 

He read a poem about his mother cutting his hair, and a few lines held all the quiet closeness of that moment between them.

Researching Saturday’s Picnic with Poets led me to Coe’s tribute to James Brown “on a hot, cloudless Indiana night, / when the moon shone like a spotlight / on the rough wooden stage.” The energy in the crowd and the Godfather of Soul, who “skated on stage like a waterbug,” who flew and sweated and grabbed that mike and begged for another chance, are magnetic. The singer taps a palpable longing in the crowd — and knowing that, you feel an unstoppable energy in the music.

I walked into The Bookstore in search of Leslie Harrison’s “Displacement Poems” and recognized two I heard her read in the spring. She spoke then about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the comfort Harper Lee’s stubborn, indomitable 9-year-old narrator brought to Harrison’s lonely country childhood. Here in her clear mornings, tannen-brown brooks and burned maps, a newer loneliness beats inescapably: “Dove-tail joints, like fingers linking hands, / are strong all ways but one.”

And Michelle Gillett gave me an early look at “The Green cottage.”

Her new chapbook, winner of The Ledge Press’s 2010 contest, gathers poetry written in the last six years. In that time, she lost her parents and her sister-in-law.

These losses come clear over the course of the book, and well before she reveals them they come through in images of fragility, of trying to hold something fluid or intangible — often time. Solid things become fluid, like the body of a rat in a dissecting tray: “I slid it open,” she writes, and skin moves silkily aside.

So she contrasts the daily and the appalling, like her sister’s voice as a child in the blitz — “When the planes flew over, all the apples fell on the roof” — as Coe tells the story of his mother, as a teenager, forcibly turned away from a whites-only Riverside Amusement Park.

Coming close to loss shifts her perspective.

Making apple sauce from windfalls at the end of fall when her parents are gone, she says “nothing’s worth keeping / as much as this sweetness where each day is the next to the last one.”

It is a tart and difficult sweetness. But she returns, in poem after poem, to tastes, sounds and vividly recalled places. The world may be uncertain, but it is compelling.

She has moved from her last book, “Blinding the Goldfinches,” to a poem about “How to Resuscitate a Bird.” She catches us by the sleeve to listen to a loon’s call — and tells us to hear and remember it.


This column first ran in the Eagle on Nov. 10, 2011, and in honor of Michelle Gillett I am running it again today, as the Mount in Lenox offers a tribute to her life right now on the other end of the county. I knew Michelle for many years, worked with her in the oral histories program at Inkberry, interviewed her for feature stories and for awhile became one of her editors at the Eagle, whenever she had time to write for me — the Berkshries are a small world.  And I will miss her. 

In the photo at the top a fountain plays in the gardens at the Mount in summer. Photo by Kate Abbott

2 comments for “Remembering Michelle Gillett

  1. Deborah
    July 21, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    lovely, Kate

  2. July 21, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you. She was a lovely woman and writer.

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