Briefly on Dan Gerber’s Sailing Through Cassiopeia

One of our favorite poets and writers, Chris Dombrowski, joins us most months with a meditation on his recent enthusiasms from the world of verse. In this second installment of his series, Plough Lines, Chris reads Dan Gerber’s new poetry collection, Sailing through Cassiopeia, published in 2012 by Copper Canyon Press.


The award-winning author of thirteen books, including eight books of poems, Dan Gerber raced cars professionally in the 1960s for five years before he “stuffed [a car] into the end of a pit wall at Riverside, broke every bone in his body, and quit.” He claims to have set the unofficial world deceleration record in that crash—110 to 0 mph in less than a second—and decades later, can still recount numerous precise physical details from that elasticized second—the posture of a man in a red jacket fleeing the point of impact, the shock on the face of a woman behind the pit wall, etc.

The poems in Gerber’s latest collection, Sailing through Cassiopeia, exist in a similarly lyrical remove from time. Via delicious imagery, masterful pacing, and long-sanded language, Gerber constellates a bright poetic world in which

….the shocked expression of a
thirty-five-million-year-old damselfly,
the moment she found herself
bound to be in amber…

meets the poet’s gaze, millenniums later, and, by turn, the reader’s. Searching for the moment before or past poetry, where there is “no me to narrate / this scene to who I am,” Gerber maintains a continual curiosity and gentleness of spirit despite his keen awareness of the world’s inevitable horrors:

I saw on television,
a woman in Iran buried up to her breasts,
then wrapped in light gauze
(to protect the spectators),
weeping in terror and pleading for her life
while someone at the edge of the circle
of man dressed in black
picked up the first baseball-sized rock
from the hayrick-sized pile,
to hurl at her eyes, nose, mouth,
ears, throat, breasts, and shoulders
How big is my heart, I wonder.
How will it encompass those men dressed in black?

“The universe is so much eye secretion,” wrote Japanese Zen poet Shinkishi Takahashi, one of Gerber’s talisman writers. When Takahashi wrote about a crow, someone said, it was a crow, not some convenient metaphor from which to dangle the poet’s neuroses. Gerber’s world, too, is one filled with actual creatures (his affinity for ticks, moths, birds, etc., reminiscent of another Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa), but his words are also living things, their music and essence trusted by their handler, often appearing “at the end of [his] pen / like the answer to a question [he] hadn’t yet asked.” Here’s one that follows both types of creatures to its discovery:

Napping in a Cabin near Ennis, Montana

And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep. —Keats

In my dream
seven different shades of green
well up and reach out
and wrap their slender arms
around my shoulders and thighs.

My friend Jim asks if I have a pencil.

I realize it’s only a dream,
and am not obliged to write it down.
I don’t want to wake up yet,
to leave the tendrils I’m loving.

A horse nickers in the deep summer grass,
and I’m willing to believe—
though he stamps his foot,
and I hear the swish of it through the window—
that he’s grazing in my dream.

Now I hear someone trying to start
a rusty old pump wheel:
sandhill cranes yodeling extravagantly
from the bog beyond the river willows.

“Do you have a pencil?” he asks.

A late-quiet surrounds Gerber’s new collection, and a formal poise (reminiscent of James Merrill in A Scattering of Salts) guides it toward its penultimate and gorgeous title poem, a George Oppen-esque three-page suite composed largely of closed couplets, many of them sentence fragments. “The sky is round because the eye is round /” it begins. “A high soprano singing from the fire.”

With its avidity for linguistic tectonics, the contemporary poetry scene may miss out on many of the treasures (awakenings, mysteries, brutalities, even practicalities) this book humbly offers. Its art is that hushed, its maker that marvelously detached: “The silent greeting from a satellite / sailing through Cassiopeia.”.

What follows is an excerpt of a recent interview I conducted with Gerber over e-mail; he wrote from his home near Santa Ynez, California.

CD: In this new book, as with much of Wallace Stevens’s work, I find hidden numerous ars poeticas. Are these lines here (“as this gaggle of stars I’ve been parsing / snaps into Lyra quite suddenly”), from “Prelude to a Starry Night,” somehow a figure for the act of making poems?

DG: There are ars poeticas, I think, in a number of my poems, though sometimes I’m not consciously aware of them. And, of course, I love the comparison, or association at least, with Stevens. I just read a wonderful thing by Paul Valery—who wrote many wonderful things about the making of poems. He wrote that the first line of a poem is like finding a piece of fruit on the ground, a fruit you’ve never seen before, and the making of the poem is creating the tree from which this fruit might have fallen. It’s in that sense that I’m going back to address this stanza.

It might be saying that you have to sufficiently surrender to the world of your experience—beyond distraction—before you can hold any hope it might yield fruit. It might be saying that the poem was already there, is always there, though we haven’t seen it. And now I’m experiencing a spark, as one piece of flint chips off another, that brings back something Jesus says in the Thomas gospel: “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.” Paying attention, which is a form of love, I think, may just be the most holy thing we can do.

CD: In an interview with the poet Greg Rappleye, you mention your slight dyslexia. I recall listening to a craft lecture by Richard Ford during which he described his own early experiences with dyslexia—he said, if I recall correctly, that his dyslexia forced him to place extreme attention on language at an early age, and thus had a strong bearing on his eventually becoming a writer. Do you feel that your experience with dyslexia somehow influenced your path?

DG: I didn’t discover the term “dyslexia” until I was in my 30s. When I began grade school I was thought slow because I had great difficulty with spelling and reading. In high school, geometry was impossible, and my teacher said he would pass me with a D if I promised not to take solid geometry and trig. I had to read everything at least twice because I would juxtapose the word orders, and a paragraph wouldn’t make sense. Consequently I became, of necessity, a slow reader, and now, I am, by choice, a slow reader. The compensation, for me, seems to have been that I remember well what I’ve read, and drive friends crazy with the anthology I seem to carry in my head.

CD: I’m sure you recall W. S. Merwin’s “Berryman,” in which the Berryman persona offers to the young poet this famous advice: “Don’t lose your arrogance yet / you can do that when you’re older.” From whom did you receive early advice about the poetic journey, and how lasting has that advice been?

DG: I’ve had some very good unsolicited advice, and some, from Berryman in fact, that was not so good.

I’d been writing, or trying to, for at least six years before I ever met another living poet, so most of my early advice came from poets in books. Paul Blackburn was the first poet to comment on my work, or my attempts, calling it “clean and spare” and encouraging me not to lose that concision. Jim Harrison and I became friends in the mid-sixties when I read his first book and wrote to him about it. We’d grown up about thirty miles apart and had been at Michigan State together in the late-fifties, but really became acquainted after college through a professor we had shared. Jim encouraged me, early on, to be more arrogant.

I’m not sure how I would have done that, or why I would want to, believing, as I’d learned from Yeats that “…arrogance and hatred are the wares / Peddled in the thoroughfares…” Arrogance had never seemed to me something I’d want to cultivate, in fact my practice and my art, “to forget the self,” seemed to me to be a process of working to get beyond my arrogance, which, in my mind, needed no cultivation or encouragement. I learned a lot from Jim, about what made good writing and about how things worked in the world of art. He told me that if I wanted to “make it” as a poet I should move to New York, cultivate literary friendships and go to parties I didn’t want to go to. “But you’ll never do that,” he said.

George Oppen was an early mentor. He wrote a wonderful letter about my first book and encouraged me to come to San Francisco and visit him, which I did. He and his wife, Mary, became like family. George surprised me with his enthusiasm for poetry so different from his own, and didn’t hold back in expressing his disappointment in my, not-so-good, second book. You might say, as I’d heard from Whitman, that he “shamed the silliness out of me.” But not the humor.

The best and most enduring advice came, I think, from Basho, that whatever we may be doing at any given moment, we mustn’t forget that it has a bearing upon “our ever-lasting self which is poetry.”

Chris Dombrowski’s new collection of poems, Earth Again, is just out from Wayne State University Press. His essay “Chance Baptisms” appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion.


  1. It’s gratifying to read such a short interview like this with a poet I love and admire in which every question asked by the interviewer is right on target.

    Dan reveals himself best in one of his own sentences: “Paying attention, which is a form of love, I think, may just be the most holy thing we can do.”

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Chris.

  2. I must agree with Chris. This interview served to enforce Dan’s greatest gift to me; to live in the propinquity of the moment.


  3. How lovely to have Chris and Dan talk with one another, poets/souls who keep us attendant to what we should be attendant to. Ever grateful,

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