Sing Falling Water

Reviewed by Elisabeth Whitehead


                                                    This road will make you forget
                                               most everything but the meadowlarks


Refrain begins 

              With a Bird:              cardinal, kingfisher, crow, vireos (who sing falling water)
              And Birds:                who talk softly in their sleep / as this poem talks in mine
              Trees:                         hornbeam, juniper, red oak, sycamores
              Then Sky:                  night’s coinage of stars or daybreak’s burst persimmon
              And the roads:          that will bring us there: 194 east, 66 south, that sweet 16 up
of Tazewell into Welch

Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis (Flood Editions, 2014) casts the repeating characters of the natural world in this collection of poems (distilled, haiku-sized poems to longer prose poem reflections). Repeat: moon, mountain, small fire to warm your hands by, bird and birds, vireos (who sing falling water), and the red mavis herself, known for the lines of her repeating song.  In poems of pilgrimage, we travel to the Blue Ridge, to Roan Mountain, to Smokey Hill River, to the South Platte. There is road and forest and stream, but striking also is what is absent from the page: the life of crowds, of speed, of cities, a daily grind. At first I thought this absence would result in quiet poems of sanctuary, a place of rest, the still eye of our lives we can (dream to) escape to. But instead I found a saturation of the senses, the electricity waking up beneath a simple scene, what might normally be missed by a lack of attention. Slowing down and removing the noise of distraction highlights the aliveness of small, still moments. A different type of sanctuary. (Get perfectly still and instead of silence, hear your own heart, your blood running full through your body.)  So the poems slow to the meadowlark, to the cottonwood, they slow to sharpen, define, cut, carve, and intensify the experience of one moment.  Like a Japanese sumi-e painting, the poems remove the distractions of many, and heighten, making piercing and vivid, the experience of one maple, one sparrow. Gilfillan’s description of the magpie’s nature speaks to the nature of the poems themselves: Magpies will / be there…tasting everything / in sight: earth, stone, grass, bone. 

Gilfillan watches light filter through the trees in the mountains and describes it as texture, saturating the moment with its intensity, making it real and tangible as stones that you could bend down, pick up, and hold: 

                                         The mountains missing leaves,
                                         low sun: pearled, pebbled, bossed—
                                         hints of plum, glints of elderberry, almost
                                         a calico.

In slowing down, a moment is saturated in color:
                                          Even the river stones
                                          show early autumn: wet scarlet,
                                          sugar-maple bronze.

Saturated in sound:  

                                        A late cicada sizzles, hums. Men turn to see.

In light:   

                                         at midnight, the scent of trampled mint   
                                         as strong as the moon.

Although depicting scenes that are both highly specific and particular in place (Cumberland Mountain, Swannanoa) the poems also feel universal, as though you could be anywhere, stopping to observe deeply the rustle of the limbs of a tree in wind. Too, there is something slippery in the boundaries between things, between seasons, geography, sky and water, human and nonhuman, where different orbits easily and happily collide. Autumn leaves are described as being slippery as snow. To convey the deep, silky black of a night sky and its stars, the description settles not in the sky, but in the water below: Rigel leaves a ripple-- / otter / through black water. A tree is described as wearing a human mantle: Rhododendrons trail their fingers / in the river. Jumping from scene to scene, to landscapes, to seasons, and to different qualities of light, gives the book both a transient, lightly moving quality, but also, in the particularity of naming and sharp description, an anchored or grooved feeling. It strongly embraces a place (tasting everything in sight), but doesn’t cling to it. It is this balance that allows for a deep seeing/observation, acceptance, and the love that allows (is necessary) for clear sight.

Elisabeth Whitehead

Elisabeth Whitehead grew up in the Washington D.C. area and in Japan. She currently lives near Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she teaches writing at Wake Forest University. A chapbook of poems, "To the Solar North," was recently published in A Third Instance by Instance Press.