Margaret Gibson, born 1944, is an American poet. She was named to a three-year term as Poet Laureate of Connecticut in 2019.




Margaret Gibson

The burning that must
have been coming from me—
these are lines I’m stealing
from someone else’s poem, just after
I’ve resolved not to lie, not to steal
to live in my evergreen
integrity as long as I can manage it
I’m much like these foxes
gathered on a night whose stars
might be flakes of snow
They have their burning torches
to lift and bear
down the road, fully camouflaged
once they’ve put on the stolen forms
of pious pilgrims
The bare, spreading tree above them
is fit for owls to inhabit
when a savory hunger makes them take
deadly aim
on any small rustle in the dry leaves
That’s their true nature
however haunting their melancholy cries
But the foxes—for the love of me
(and it’s exactly that)
I can’t see why
I shouldn’t want to touch them, stroke them
I might just rub the ruddy silk
of their coats against my cheek
And often have, you tell me bluntly
That friction, however
slight, sufficient to make me
spit fire, gnash my teeth
and lunge for the soft parts of your body
lifting my chin moments after
to say hotly, I didn’t mean to
I didn’t sense it coming
As if I were the innocent one
blindsided, bloodied


Margaret Gibson

Someone no longer alive

is hovering over a great expanse of smartweed, panic grass, and midden
where a house used to be
where trees and gardens once flourished

where puddles and ponds held a sky of clouds and stars
in place
for a moment

and you lived there . . . Ah, my dear


I speak from the liminal space where your beloved’s last barely audible breath
slipped into your body

then out the window into the winter chill, whose horizon line it rolled up as if
it was twine

into a point, a still point—
a full stop that opens the heart

From that point, I speak


As once you washed the body of your beloved
let us wash
for the last time

this one earth, this only, and only once, for once and for all

as if it were a lover who has died, and we, not knowing what to do

at last must wash the poles, north and south
where long ago the ice

cracked open
sheared off
and melted
Last, the mountain peaks

Last, the crowns of oaks and maples, on whose bare branches long strips of torn
plastic flutter

Also the steeples, the turrets, the domes

Last, the open fields and meadows, wash them clean

the vast desert and its last oasis

riverbeds and shrunken rills

ravines and gullies

the rocky promontories from which we viewed the sea
as it rose to cover the cities
Last, the cities

submerged full fathom or in low tide only the towers and the tips of the high-rises
winking up

Last, the sidewalks, shop windows, market stalls

Last, pebble, shell, and skull

Last, lark

and satellite, wash them, and the field of broken mirrors

Last, the house

Last, the bed

Last, the hills of midden, and their treasures

a button

a seed

a feather

a zipper

a chip of china plate

Last, the nose cone, the black box

Last, the trawler, the landing gear, the microchip, the missing part

Last the kiva, the sweat lodge, the drum

Last, the prayer rugs, the pews, the cushions

Last, the seat of enlightenment beneath what remains of the small tree’s spreading

Last, the factories, the foundries, the mills

the maze of subway tunnels

the turnstiles

Last, the eye of the needle through which we could not pass

Last, a gun, a mine, a missile

Last, a bridge

Last, middle C on the piano, last a cello, a violoncello, in particular the Sonata
for Violoncello no. 2 in D, op. 64, by Heinrich von Herzogenberg

precious because it was the last music you listened to

precious because, like the last word your beloved spoke, you did not know it was

Last, the pattern of fish displayed on ice, and their many-eyed, one-eyed gaze

Last, the last whale beached on the shore at Truro

Last, the glint of an eye in the periwinkle, the lovely, sinuous ripple of a reclusive

Last, the chemicals, the vitamins, the pills, the chemicals

Last, a hearing aid

a pair of binoculars

a surgeon’s knife, a sling, a robotic hand

Last, to list only a few from the multitude that perished, fox and laughing
gull, swallowtail and hawk

lion panther coyote vole giraffe mosquito trillium hummingbird hibiscus owl

Last, the very last line in a poem by Rilke
the line
you can’t forget the ache of, the line you didn’t enact, not one syllable

of it—
You must change your life


Space, of course, lasts

I walk upon it, as one would walk on a tablecloth for a table no one will set

What’s left of my eyesight has dimmed, what I hear is only wind
and that, muted

And because I have nothing to write on, I build cairn after cairn, lifting stones

balancing them

touching what remains in place, as if it were a new alphabet, or a sentence in Braille

You are reading the last of the earth’s last rivers and mountains—do you
know that?

These stones, these silences

the last words

held in mind for a moment

as if they were a net of fireflies shimmering in a summer field one can’t tell apart
from a night sky and stars

Wash them
each stone, each firefly

wash them clean

this one, a love cry

that one, lament

and the last one the wing of a warning you might still be able to hear

just as once, long ago
you caught the smoke of the oracle rising from a rift zone at the center of the earth


If these cairns, these stone syllables, survive, there may be no one left to read
the poem they make—
but if by chance, there is . . .

let the stones be read aloud, so that a human voice

might widen its reach, floating off among the stars like the ringing-through
of a great bronze bell

like the audible layers of birdsong gradually moving west as dawn
brightens, or used to

and the great earth turns


Margaret Gibson

What little I know, I hold closer,
more dear, especially now
that I take the daily
reinvention of loss as my teacher.
I will never graduate from this college,
whose M.A. translates
“Master of Absence,”
with a subtext in the imperative:
Misplace Anything.
If there’s anything I want, it’s that more
people I love join the search party.
You were once renowned
among friends for your luck
in retrieving from the wayside
the perfect bowl for the kitchen,
or a hand carved deer, a pencil drawn
portrait of a young girl
whose brimming innocence
still makes me ache. Now
the daily litany of common losses
goes like this: Do you have
your wallet, keys, glasses, gloves,
giraffe? Oh dear, I forgot
my giraffe—that’s the preferred
response, but no: it’s usually
the glasses, the gloves, the wallet.
The keys I’ve hidden.
I’ve signed you up for “safe return”
with a medallion (like a diploma)
on a chain about your neck.

Okay, today, this writing,
I’m amused by the art of losing.
I bow to Elizabeth Bishop, I try
“losing faster”—but when I get
frantic, when I’ve lost
my composure, my nerve, my patience,
my compassion, I have only
what little I know
to save me. Here’s what I know:
it’s not absence I fear, but anonymity.
I remember taking a deep breath,
stopped in my tracks. I’d been
looking for an important document
I had myself misplaced;
high and low, no luck yet.
I was “beside myself,”
so there may have indeed been
my double running the search party.
“Stop,” you said gently. “I’ll go
get Margaret. She’ll know where it is.”
“But I’m Margaret,” I wailed.
“No, no.” You held out before me
a copy of one of my books,
pointing to the author’s photograph,
someone serious and composed.
“You know her. Margaret
Gibson, the poet.” We looked
into each others’ eyes a long time.
The earth tilted on its axis,
and what we were looking for,
each other and ourselves,
took the tilt, and we slid into each others’ arms,
holding on for dear life, holding on.


Margaret Gibson

Savoring each summer moment
lush and brief
I close my eyes to see
your white robe, falling open
as you call for your scroll
and ink stone, a brush
As your brush passes over the paper
my body shivers
How closely now you watch
at the open lattice
as your servant hurries away
the next morning letter
tethered to
a spray of clematis
whose blossoms will not open
until they reach me
In the washbasin
your face is
the bridge that spans
the floating world of dreams
Now you are yawning
Now you are reciting sutras
bowing to the wind
When the letter arrives
all the leaves of the maple
outside my window
are stirred
I read your words
just once, then once again
bringing my fingers
to my lips, my hair
tucked back behind one ear
On the dawn’s trellis
the scent of clematis
Now smell your fingers
The petals of my body
gather in your empty arms
How shall I respond?
The cry of the stag
is so loud
the echo answers
from the empty mountains
as if it were a doe
I tell you only what you know
Clematis—the scent
of your teaching surrounds me
My empty arms fill
Come night, the fragrant petals
fall in a heap at my feet


Margaret Gibson

The concerto in D streams out the moon roof.
Inside the car the air is ripe with Mozart,
watermelon rind, cat litter, stale beer bottles,
napkins infused with fish oil, pickle juice,
loneliness, and a mouse nest I shook free
from the flannel sheet folded away and meant
to be saved as a drop cloth. It’s andante time
at the dump. High noon. On the lookout for Ralph,
who likes to ask about my absent husband
with his hand reaching for the small of my back,
I fling paper, glass, and tin into the maw of one bin
and the unsorted detritus of daily life in the other.
On the take-me table there’s a wine glass,
clay pots from Mexico, commonplace plastic
toys, and a toaster. I’ve brought it a book
with a broken spine and a box of old LP’s.
Back at the car, Mozart quickens and spills
his genius onto the talk at the nearest tailgate,
two men in sweats, leaning back, at ease
with their belly fat and old boots. Mozart
raises the tempo and gives one ball cap a flip,
but the men don’t notice, their talk is
more contemplative than you’d think.
One man tells about a friend’s recent by-pass
and renewed heart—the word’s his. He says
the surgeon split him up the middle like a hog.
“It makes you think,” the older one says,
and he pulls out of his hatch-back a large print,
nicked and torn on its cardboard backing—
it’s Renoir’s luncheon party on the river.
Brightly colored parasols and tables,
the wine uncorked, the women and men florid.
Renoir—it must be noon in all his paints,
the impression of light so this-worldly
it’s another world entirely, and ours. Or is it?
At the river restaurant just yesterday, the sun
blew in green gusts, dappling the white linens
on the tables, the sun afloat in the glasses
of bourgeois Chablis. Across the river
in the little park by a beer joint, two men
with loud voices: “You’re a tough guy, huh?”
one yelled and slapped the other man’s face,
then made to punch his ear. Then did.
Both men had ponytails and a misplaced sense
of the Sixties and its abandoned protests,
having run through too many motorcycles
and one night stands, no place to sleep,
too much straight no chaser, who knows?
They socked each other in the gazebo,
drew blood, yelling fuck one too many times
for the wait-staff and the river customers
who couldn’t intervene, but wanted to.
A few looked annoyed. Someone called the cops.
There were sirens, handcuffs, and in the quiet
after the last crunch of gravel under the tires,
a sense of smutty resolution. “Show’s over,”
a waiter announced to the swordfish specials,
the tacos, lush salads, and lobster rolls.
At the dump now, where no one’s wasted,
I hear the man on his way to recycle Renoir
say, “I feel for the guy.” And because
he’s turned his back and cleared his throat
to hide his feelings, I believe him.
“It could happen to any one of us,”
he mumbles beneath the soaring cadenzas
and inversions, now spritely, now sonorous—
Mozart, whose body was wrapped in a torn shroud
and dumped into a pauper’s grave before sun-up.