Meeting Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg
I met Jack Gilbert in Linda Gregg’s kitchen in the summer of 2009. I had met Linda months before at Sarah Lawrence College where I was finishing my MFA in poetry and directing the student-run poetry festival that year. We had invited Linda to read, which I was incredibly happy about, and so she came on a strange, chilly evening in April and I picked her up from the train station. I was very familiar with her poems, they meant (and still mean) a lot to me—she was a lyric poet I’d studied carefully.
I don’t remember what we talked about on the way to the auditorium or what I was thinking, but what I do remember is that there was a moment before she went on stage when we were alone in the green room and I said to her, “what are you reading tonight?” Her selected poems, All of It Singing, had just been published by Graywolf Press and she said she was reading from that book. There was a long silence after that. She didn’t seem eager to talk. Someone came in the room and told us we had 5 minutes before Linda had to go on stage. She took a bottle of water, looked at me, and said, “which way?” I walked in front of her and on the way to the auditorium I shyly looked back and said, “would you read your poem ‘Asking for Directions’?” There was another silence. We were walking. “Oh,” she said. “That one?” And we arrived.
Victoria Redel introduced her, Linda went up and began to read, and poem after poem I was impressed by her in an entirely new way. I hadn’t heard her read. I remember I wasn’t in the audience, I was standing in the corner, to the left, near the podium, in case she needed something during her reading or there were any technical difficulties. After a while I looked at my watch and knew there was about 5 minutes left. I gave her a signal. She read another poem and after she finished she briefly looked at me, then back to her book, and said, “this last one is for my new friend over there,”—I’m sure we’d exchanged names but she didn’t say my name—“it’s called ‘Asking for Directions,’ it’s a poem I almost never read. It’s a,” she paused, “difficult, deeply personal poem for me.” I knew then that we had understood something about each other, even if she had forgotten my name.
That night we rode the train back to New York together. I was living on Allen Street (where I still live) and she was living on St. Mark’s (where she still lives), and so we commuted home, being more or less neighbors. I really liked Linda because like most of the people I’m instantly drawn to, she got right to the point (which is also my style). We talked about our love affairs, our families, her poems, death, and pop music—all on the Metro North, on the 40 minute train ride. She gave me her phone number, a land line, and told me to call her up sometime.
Two weeks after that reading I graduated from graduate school and had free time (for the first time in what felt like forever), during which I was, of course, looking for jobs. One afternoon, feeling deeply discouraged after a long search, I came across the piece of paper on which Linda had written down her number. It was in the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night we met. I called her. She invited me over. I walked the eight blocks and stayed for four hours. We talked about everything. We talked about poetry. We drank. I watched her smoke cigarettes. A month later, the same thing: I called her, came over, another four hours.
The third time I called her she picked up the phone and said, “Jack Gilbert is here, do you know his poems?” “Oh wow,” I said. “Do you know his poems?” she repeated. I think I must have said “oh wow” again because she asked the question a third time, in a more impatient tone, and I immediately blurted out, “I love his poems, can I please come over and meet him!” She said yes. I walked the eight blocks. She opened the door.
I went in, sat at my usual chair at the round, wooden table, and I saw Jack Gilbert in the other room. He was sitting down on a sofa. “Let’s talk for a bit,” she said, “he’ll come out if he wants.” And so we talked, like usual, and after a while I forgot he was there, until he got up from the sofa and slowly began walking toward the kitchen. In our conversation Linda had said that they were about to fly out to California where Jack was going to live. He was sick, but she hadn’t yet told me that he had Alzheimer’s.
As soon as he walked in Linda said, in a very loud voice, “Hi Jack, this is my friend Alex.” Jack was looking down at his feet, walking, but he heard her. He came over to my side of the table and said, “Hi. I’m Jack.” He held out his hand, I held out mine, ready for a handshake, and he put his other hand over mine. I was incredibly nervous and felt slightly embarrassed to be there. I looked over at Linda, Jack still holding my hand, and she said, in a lower voice, “tell him you’re a poet.” I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do. He was looking at me now and I looked back, then down, and again at Linda, who said, in her loud voice, “Jack, he’s a poet.” Jack finally let go of my hand and once again looked at me in his intense, slow way—it was a common look for him, Linda would tell me later—and he said, “Me too. I’m a poet too.” And then he filled a cup with water and went back to the sofa in the living room.
I don’t remember anything Linda and I talked about after that. What comes to mind, as I type this now, is a moment months later (I would continue to go over to Linda’s apartment every two to three months and we’d do the usual thing: talk, drink, smoke for hours) when she said to me, “that day when you met Jack, that’s probably going to be the only time you see him. He’s not coming back to the East Coast.” But I also knew that what she meant was, he was dying.
I found Jack Gilbert’s poems before I read Linda Gregg’s. I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I picked up The Great Fires. I found out about Linda’s poems from reading Jack’s, and I went through phases when I liked his more than hers and hers more than his, but it wasn’t about that. They were poets who had written poems that I admired with an intensity that was almost devotional. Their poems were naked, heartbreaking, ruthless, and contained. Once I’d read them, I couldn’t forget them. I re-read them often or…all the time. My interest in their poems continued through college, graduate school, and is still strong today.
So when Jack Gilbert died earlier this month, I thought about that moment in Linda’s kitchen and I also thought about our meetings, Linda and I. The last time I saw her was in December of 2010 when I went over to her apartment again. After that we both got busy—I was writing my first book of poems, running Wilde Boys, working full time at the Academy of American Poets, and she was visiting Jack on the West Coast very regularly and trying to write as well. She never read my poems because I didn’t really want her to—though she did keep asking. Our connection was one I still can’t entirely describe. It was deeply personal. Like her poems and like my poems. I told her things about my family and boys I’d dated, things I was trying to figure out how to write about. She told me endless stories from her life—San Francisco and studying with Robert Duncan, her time in Greece with Jack, and many other things.
One of the times I was over I brought my copy of All of It Singing and asked her to sign it. We knew each other pretty well by then so she wrote a really nice, personal note in the book. I asked her about the dedication—it was for Jack, with an epigraph that read—“It was like being alive twice.” She didn’t say anything about it. “It was like being alive twice”—she read it to me, just once, deliberately, out loud. It came from a poet she loved, I forget who, and I suppose I could look it up but it’s more honest to tell you that it didn’t matter to me because that line felt entirely written by her, for Jack. And then she showed me these incredible little thumb size books of poems (yes, thumb size) that Jack had made by hand, and written love poems in, in the tiniest of handwriting. She let me take a photo of one of them in my palm. I still have that photo on my phone and I would post it but it feels too personal, so I’ll let you imagine.
Those meetings with Linda, over that year and a half period, were an emotional education for me—like reading her poems, like reading Jack’s poems. Their poems have taught me many things, among them, the depths of feeling that all of us have access to, and how difficult it is to feel, and to be a feeling person in the world. We all know that, but it’s important for me to write it here because it’s another way to say: Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg’s poems have instructed me not to turn off, to stay on, to feel things, as they really are.
That last time I saw Linda I told her about one of Paul Thek’s paintings that I was obsessed with at the time. Paul Thek had a deep friendship with Susan Sontag. She dedicated Against Interpretation and AIDS and Its Metaphors to him. He painted things like this for her. I had been looking at his paintings in catalogues while I was reading Sontag and I told Linda about this one that had made a great impression on me. It was called “While there’s still time, let’s go out and feel everything.” We both loved the title. Linda said, “Jack would too.”
Alex Dimitrov / November, 2012 / NYC
Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg, Greece, 1960s
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