Reb Livingston Reveals Her Poetry Crush

“Poets on Poets” is another new essay series, parallel to the recently launched “Selling Shorts,” only this time, as you’ve probably guessed, I’ve invited poets to talk about their favorite poets. I decided to start with Reb Livingston because she’s a good friend; we’ve done several panels together in the Virginia-Maryland area, and she’s currently celebrating the publication of The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, a selection of poetry from No Tell Motel, the online poetry journal she co-edits with Molly Arden (and where, as it happens, she’s had the opportunity to publish the poet she’s chosen to write about).

reblivingston.jpgAmy Gerstler is my first poet crush. I don’t say “was” because it’s been almost a decade since I first fell for her and I still go all googly for her poems just like I did the first time. It was 1997, I recently discovered a website called Amazon and suddenly had access to an amazing selection of poetry books that I could browse from my office desk as my boss believed I was hard at work. I ordered with wild abandon, anything that sounded interesting. One of those books was a reprint from Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporary series called Bitter Angel. Gerstler had me at the first line of the first poem, “Siren”:

I have a fish’s tail, so I’m not qualified to love you.

And then she had me again and again and again. A quick glance at the poems, they seemed harmless enough, but no, they were entrancing, haunting and daring. They never left my mind. Devotion to Gerstler’s work ensued. Her books are challenging to describe, especially in such a brief essay, because doing so rings a string of contradictions, her poems are funny, but not jokey, smart, but not showy, hopeful, yet cynical, knowing and full of doubt, bold and tender, strong and vulnerable. She is a master at many things, such as taking the point of view of an unconventional character and not only making the reader feel like she’s really in that character’s mind, but with great empathy. Or how Gerstler skillfully invokes a mystery, painstakingly examines and meditates on it, but humbly defers to solve it.

She points out the questions, lays out the facts and scenes, examines possibilities, directions, but never cheapens the moment with a neatly packaged conclusion. I’ve always thought that poets offering up the “great answer to life”—oh if only, dear reader, you were clever enough to figure it out from the clues in the lines—were actually presenting an age-old parlor trick. My contention is that the greatest gift a poet has to offer is leading readers to new ways of perceiving something, asking the questions we never even thought to ask, reminding us there are other ways, so many other ways, let us not be so sure what we think we know and how we see it—we can never be sure, situations and people are always complicated and yes, there are hidden meanings in everything, but let’s not confuse those with pat and dry answers. If you demand answers, try a crossword puzzle.

Gerstler’s themes and images (birds, dolls, incestuous kissing siblings, ghosts, mediums, brides) stretch throughout her eight-book career. It’s not this book was about “that” and the next book focused on “this”—each book builds on the previous ones, ruminating on ways the dead and living co-exist, steeped in literary and biblical history while addressing contemporary culture. Difficult topics to grasp and write about, yet she does so with fierce focus and dedication.

It’s not that Gerstler has been completely overlooked, while still mid-career, she received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 as well as a number of other prizes and her last four books, from Nerve Storm (1993) to Ghost Girl (2004), have been published by Penguin. But for a poet who has already created such an important body of work and will no doubt do so for decades to come, there’s no good reason why her poetry is not better known, read and discussed more thoroughly. If you’re looking for fascinating, multi-faceted and exquisite poems, look no farther. Sure, I won’t lie, I’ve had other poet crushes and will no doubt indulge in more down the road, but never have I felt one for so long and so deeply.

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15 February 2006 | poets on poets |