Monday, March 26, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Gary Lilley

I met Gary Lilley in Chicago at Nina Corwin's and Al DeGenova's monthly poetry venue at Molly Malone's. (Nina and Al are excellent poets in their own right and deserve mention in the context of Chicago poetry, as well.) I don't remember who was featuring, but it was neither one of us. We were sitting at the same table and each read a poem during the open mic--I believe back to back, but I don't remember for sure. I do remember that we each commented on each other's work in the same way--the treatment of and respect for the line. We both attributed that feature of our poetry to former teachers--Gary first mentioned Keith Wilson I believe. I said something like, "What? Keith Wilson from New Mexico State University?" He's my old college professor who taught me the same thing.

And so we discovered we were brothers in the word, and a friendship was struck that has remained long after we both left Chicago. Gary went on to Port Townsend, WA, where he taught in the schools and became the poet laureate of Port Townsend, publishing four books to date: Alpha Zulu, Black Poem, The Reprehensibles and The Subsequent Blues. Gary is not originally from Chicago, but since I met him there and his terrific work epitomizes the slipperiness of Chicago poetry in not being capable of being pigeonholed, I include him here.

I have said elsewhere that Gary Lilley's poems sound like part Stradivarius, part blues saxophone, and part southern gospel singer--successfully blending virtuosic craftmanship, blues soul, and moral import--something quite unique in the world of non-sequiter, non-consequencial assemblages of lines that sometimes pass for poetry today--until you hear the real thing. And Gary Lilley is the real thing! Listen (read aloud) the following opening poem to his second collection, The Subsequent Blues, and you'll hear what I mean:

Prelude To The Predicament

Ain't you the image, a part of the creator,
when you got love growing in the garden
ain't everything raised in its warmth,
asked the snake.

Thickets grew in the path,
air beneath the trees fouled
and birds shied to the sky.
Wolves howled behind
the red of their teeth,
vultures reversed their spiral
and discovered a taste for death.

Seeping fell like stones.

A saxophone wind, the first low notes,
wailed the story of troubles forever.
They ran, mouths wide open,
eyes pinpointed and seeing nothing
but ground moving backwards
under their flying feet.

Gary grew up in rural North Carolina and spent years in rough parts of Washington, D.C. Later he served in the navy aboard a nuclear submarine. His capacious life finds itself in his poems, and his voice is one that is instantly trusted. Here is the title poem from his first book, Alpha Zulu--monikers for the first and last letters of the military alphabet.

Alpha Zulu

I know more people dead than people alive,
my insomniac answer to self-addressed prayers

is that in the small hours even God drinks alone.
My self-portrait; gray locks in the beard, red eyes

burning back in the mirror, the truths of grooves
and nicks on my face, one missing tooth.

I'm a man who's gathered too many addresses,
too many goodbyes. There's not much money

or time left to keep on subtracting from my life.
Except for needs I can pack everything I have

into my old black sea-bag. To all the bloods
I'll raise a bourbon, plant my elbow on the bar

and drink to the odds that one more shot
won't have me wearing a suit of blues.

I'm so exposed, with you all of me is at risk,
and if that's only one side of being in love

that's the one deep down that proves it.
Here you are sleeping with me, narcotic as night,

naked as an open hand, and the skinny of it is,
what makes you think I am afraid of this

when I once lived in a cave, moss on the cold wall,
all my bones scattered across the floor.

Gary has taught Creative Writing for Warren Wilson’s low-residency M.F.A. program. He has also taught at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference at Centrum, and has been a poet-in-residence at WritersCorps, Young Chicago Authors, and The Poetry Center of Chicago. He currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington, but he'll always be one of my top ten Chicago poets.

No comments: