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The Search for a Missing Student Haunts Middlebury Poet's New Collection

State of the Arts



Nicholas Garza is never referred to by name in Gary Margolis’ new book of poetry, Below the Falls. But anyone who was part of the Middlebury community during the endless spring two years ago, when the 19-year-old college student disappeared without a trace, will recognize “Nick” instantly. Margolis is the executive director of Middlebury College’s mental health services as well as a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet.

“Snow can’t hold anything / for long,” he writes in “Where the Field Will Be.”

That’s what spring’s for,

a January thaw. You’re gone

and no one knows where you are,

except you. And it’s likely

you don’t know either.

Maybe the snow can tell us

what you’ve no way of saying.

Can keep a body cold,

safe in its cold house,

until the ground is warm

enough to let a body go.

No one wants to call a body yours

yet. What is hope for anyway?

It’s hard not to read the slightest

sign as a sign of you.

Garza was everywhere that spring, and yet nowhere; that heightened awareness of something lost pervades Margolis’ book — though not every poem is related to the student, whose body was eventually found bobbing beneath debris in the Otter Creek Falls.

Over the last six years, Margolis has been working on poems that deal with family relationships and love, the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Vermont landscape and other subjects. But it was Garza’s disappearance one February night in 2008, and the intervening three months of waiting while police and rescue squads searched for him, that pervaded Margolis’ imagination. That sense of not knowing, of anticipating tragedy, became the thread that would bind his poems together.

“[Garza’s disappearance] crossed my personal path, my professional path here at school and also the writing path,” Margolis says. “So I actually felt compelled; it was necessary for me to pay attention to it in my writing. It felt aesthetically and morally necessary to engage it and to include it in this book.”

Some of the poems were first printed in the Middlebury-based Addison Independent, which has published Margolis’ poetry for several years. He used to send in poems as letters to the editor, he says, when the newspaper had a no-poetry policy. Pretty soon it began publishing them separately, and last year the Addison Press, the paper’s parent company, agreed to publish his book. The relationship with the local newspaper seemed particularly appropriate in the case of these latest poems, which deal with feelings the whole town shared, Margolis says.

To read Below the Falls from front to back is to relive those three months in the Middlebury community. Margolis leads the reader through the day-to-day-ness of Vermont in late winter and early spring, musing on the natural world, snow days, car trips and roadkill. He writes about politics and the news of the day, cracking little jokes with playful turns of phrase. But every few pages his thoughts return to the missing boy, the exhaustive search, the flimsy hopes, pangs of dread.

In a poem called “Winter Searchers,” he evokes the conflicting feelings many in the community had, whether or not they were actively participating in the many searches. People wanted resolution, to know what happened, he says, but they were simultaneously terrified of what they would see if they found the missing student.

Margolis writes:

We’re trained not to

scream like children

taken by surprise,

to hold alarm, relief


It’s no surprise

the whole town — farmers

and students — will feel

relieved when he is found.

No one wants to plow a field

and find what they can’t mow,

what they know is here.

Margolis says he feels a deep connection between his work as a counselor and his work as a poet. “They’re both about careful listening, careful naming, paying attention to detail simultaneous to feeling, and also attending to the silences,” he explains. “The writing and the counseling, they have always felt of one fabric to me.”

Margolis spent many hours during that time counseling students who, whether they had known Garza closely or not at all, felt affected by his absence.

By the time Garza’s body was found in late May, more than 50 organizations — from the Vermont State Police and FBI to search teams with helicopters and cadaver dogs — had pitched in to comb the area. In the end, it came down solely to nature, to the coming of spring. The police chief found Garza in Otter Creek after the water level finally dropped. It was later determined that the student, under the influence of alcohol, had accidentally fallen in the river and drowned after he left a campus party.

In a poem called “Conjugating March,” Margolis touches on people’s sense of helplessness in the face of nature:

We’ve had enough

of thinking April’s spring,

enough of being on the verge.

Even Dud Phinney,

our local pro, hitting his seven

iron from green to green amidst

the snow, wasn’t enough for us to pray

any harder for what we can’t make

happen faster than the sap marching,

camping in a cold tree at night.