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Book Review: 'Museum of Islands: New and Selected Poems,' Gary Margolis


Published May 19, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

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  • Gary Margolis

Poet, psychologist and former Middlebury College professor Gary Margolis brings us his second volume of selected poems with Museum of Islands. (The first, Raking the Winter Leaves, was released in 2013, also by Bauhan Publishing.) This latest selection includes more than 100 pages of new work, forming a book within a book, along with poems from Margolis' previous collections Runner Without a Number and Time Inside.

Especially in his latest poems, Margolis composes mostly in breezy tercets: three-line stanzas with a restless tendency to link one thought to the next. This form fits the poet's associative and often humorous style; he strings images together like beads on a necklace, each thought provoking the next.

In "God at the Buzzer," for instance, the poet imagines a divine basketball game, moving swiftly between puns and playful images: from "the Garden's / ticket-taking turnstile" (Eden or Madison Square, take your pick) to fathers coaching to Christ as a zebra-referee.

Margolis accentuates this associative style with a consistent use of sentence fragments to separate his images. In "I Was Living in a Poem," he writes:

My friend thought to turn his horse

into a therapy horse. Certify her.

Trailer her to Addison County's

Porter Hospital, a.k.a. the University

of Vermont Porter Medical Center.

A new conglomerate.

And lead her in. As if into the winner's

circle at the Kentucky Derby.

Wearing her blanket of championship

roses. A bouquet of perfume

so strong I'd feel I could rise

from my deathbed. Unplug my breathing

tube. Eat anything I wanted to again.

This style has a shorthand quality akin to the notes that therapists take during sessions. It feels apropos for a poet who's a licensed psychologist, not to mention executive director emeritus of Middlebury College's mental health services. And poetry, after all, can be thought of as the art of listening, of analyzing.

The themes of Margolis' newest poems range widely, from the nature of dreams and reality to meditations on poetry itself to the political atrocities of the previous presidential administration, a topic around which the poet bobs and weaves.

Margolis is at his best when his terse statements reveal surprising moments of truth. In "Notes for Our Workshop," the poet writes, "Maybe the first line will become / the last. If you live long enough / to revise the past." In addition to using a deft internal rhyme, he here allows the meta-ness of writing poetry about writing poetry to give way to something more profound: a truth about mortality and regret that any reader will easily recognize.

The dreamlike quality of Margolis' personal poems is another of his strengths. "Scam" begins: "I'm not sure it's you calling, writing / your name across the sky. / That's not what you do, even in // my wildest dreams."

Later on, "Poetry of Current Events" echoes the image of a celestial reminder: "The clouds will recall you / keeping track // of where they've been. / Turning into one headline / and then another."

This motif of shifting uncertainty about the line between reality and perception begins unfolding on the collection's first page. In "When Suddenly," the narrator describes carrying a red-winged blackbird inside his ear: "when suddenly you think / you're hearing things, / which you are."

Poems that might seem one-dimensional at first, such as "Ruby-Throated," contain lines that cut through the poem's surface meaning into something deeper: "Suddenly you're gone as much / as you're here," Margolis opens that poem. Later, he describes leaving a plastic feeder out all winter "For you to remember // where to come back to. With / no memory to remind you."

The collection has occasional uncomfortable moments, when Margolis attempts to draw connections between instances of personal trauma or political atrocity and more mundane topics. In "To the Bookstore Owner," the narrator appears to compare their daughter's sexual assault to unsold poetry books, which are described as "survivors." And the political poems tend to veer away from engaging with war or violence by returning to literary or personal references.

For example, the excitingly titled "Ending the War" turns out to be about the narrator's wife's truce with falling pine cones and "the battalion / of weeds." Robert Frost then intrudes.

Frost appears often; in "The Vice President Visits Vermont," the narrator's expression of opposition to the previous administration is limited to saying that he didn't vote for Donald Trump, "however lame that sounds." Margolis then imagines giving Mike Pence's motorcade directions to Frost's historical marker in Ripton instead of to the Calvin Coolidge homestead. It's difficult not to be left wanting more, although the taciturn wryness here certainly evokes rural Vermont humor.

The joy of new and selected editions is that they have something for everyone: Newcomers to a poet's oeuvre get to encounter their work in the context of their strongest recent writings, and faithful readers get to experience the latest work in a handsome edition that unites several collections in a single, easy-to-reference book.

In Margolis' case, those other collections provide a fascinating look at the breadth of his concerns. Runner Without a Number, released in 2016 by Wind Ridge Books, concerns the Boston Marathon bombing. In "How to Save Your City," Margolis writes, "Refuse to stay inside and not / line your streets with yourselves, / your cobbled stones."

Time Inside, published in 2019 by Green Writers' Press, foregrounds poems that Margolis wrote about his time leading workshops for inmates of maximum-security prisons. "You look at me as if I'm crazy / to want to be inside with you," he writes in "Teaching Prison."

This Time Inside selection closes out the book, with the title poem, "Museum of Islands," in the final position. A personal piece that contemplates memory, family and mortality, it's a fitting conclusion to this wide-ranging collection of nearly a decade of Margolis' poems.

"A rock overlooking / a sea, they say, hasn't been named yet," he writes, "/ and is waiting for me."

"Scam" by Gary Margolis

I'm not sure it's you calling, writing

your name across the sky.

That's not what you do, even in

my wildest dreams.

I don't believe you've been arrested

for a crime you didn't commit.

Stopping on the side of the road

to admire the wild orchards.

The sacred falls.

The trash left for the wind

to do with what it will.

Swirling it around your head

like that jewel

of a hummingbird.

You say could be mine,

if I wire you a thousand American

dollars in small bills,

tiny denominations.

God's eyes can't detect.

Can't find you living in the kingdom

of cell phones and random numbers.

One of which is the one I use,

I save for emergencies.

When I may have fallen on my walk

around my neighborhood.

Where there isn't anybody

who wouldn't know me. Send

a check or a diamond bird

to an anonymous address.

So one day I could be freed,

sent back unharmed, wearing

an orchid in my hair. Proof of

who I am, where I've been.

Museum of Islands: New and Selected Poems by Gary Margolis, Bauhan Publishing, 192 pages. $22.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Analyze This | Book review: Museum of Islands: New and Selected Poems, Gary Margolis"