It’s been an amazing gift to my poetry (if not to my ego) that one of the great poets lives in and/or nearby Albuquerque, and that I know her. I met Lisa Gill in 1992, at a reading for the UNM lit magazine Conceptions Southwest. I was indelibly impressed by her fluttering, scarred energy, her flowing yet firmly in-charge reading voice, the way there was no mistaking—often for quite intangible reasons—whether the piece she was currently reading was poetry or prose: but mostly by her ownership of language, as if language was part of her body. In later years this has seemed more and more to be the flip side of her body’s struggle to be physical, via the experience of chronic disease unfortunately; but at the time I felt I was witnessing a transmutation of body and spirit into one another or at best, into a new element, something uniquely hers. You can’t not recognize a Lisa Gill poem.
At best her choices are unerring and effortless. At less than best, she resorts to wordplay, which always at least brings a smile even when it doesn’t produce a laugh or a gasp. Her invention would seem tireless if it weren’t so obviously painstaking, the offspring of prolonged insomnia and various kinds of strain. The amount of sublime writing she has been able to output is something I envy her, not least because through it she keeps her natural charity and clear witnessing of the world intact. If now and then she develops trust issues with the male half of the human race, well, why wouldn’t she? I won’t make the futile “not all men” argument here because she makes it herself again and again, sometimes on the threshold of generalizations she never quite succumbs to. Repeated disappointments don’t lead her to forget that people are invididuals. Whew, says a veteran disappointing man.
I still have many of the beautiful duodecimo-sized chapbooks she came out with in the ’90s, before her first collection (I still call it Letters to a Dead Trappist) drew the attention of a local publisher. Since then she has published the herbs-and-healing meditation Mortar and Pestle, a tiny reflection of herself in the night sky—this may well be my favorite work of hers—called Dark Enough, and two dramatic pieces, both shocking, sorrowful and revelatory, The Relenting and Caput Nili. Any of these books would do as a beginning exposure to this important, indispensible poet.
The poem I asked Lisa’s permission to include here really isn’t illustrative of the linguistic acrobatics I associate with most of her work, but shows her at her plainest and most human—qualities that come through in the verbally wild poems too. It comes from a group of poems centering around Lisa’s work as a contractor in iffy Albuquerque neighborhoods. I hope she makes this series available to the public in some form again someday.
The sun’s out
But one of the tenants tells me
his wife is still scared of crackheads breaking in
tells me that she’s scared
because a woman who’s been raped
he knows about this
because he was a boyscout in vietnam
so young to be a green beret
and when he came back without his buddies
he had to be a hermit
since people were scared of him
he had to take thorazine
until he received the lord in 1971
and dumped all the pills down the toilet
now he feels a whole lot better
but some people
they don’t like themselves
because they’re mean
some people are just mean
I tell him he has a good door
with a solid core
that here people look out for each other
that his new neighbors
will be good
I know: I’ve met them
and he’ll be able to speak with them
since he comes from Spain
and they come from Juarez
and I tell him:
the neighborhood’s gotten better
even if it’s still called the warzone.
I know this.
I haven’t had to clean
blood off walls for a while.
And I don’t find so many busted lighters.
So much burnt tinfoil.
So many syringes.
The gunshots are farther off
and I haven’t been threatened
on my way to the apartment recently
or seen a kid with rickets
for almost three years.
Now there’s even a lot down the street
that got turned into a park.
And today, I tell him, is beautiful.
The sun’s out
and these apartments
aren’t so big
that they block
all the light.