Eighty-Seven and Writing
She walked up to the podium, assisted by her husband. She smiled to the throng beneath a white hat and behind classic horn-rimmed glasses, her red and white curls falling to her shoulders. She looked like a beautiful, senior southern belle transported into the 21st century from another place in time.
I stirred in my seat, full of anticipation. Sometimes, at group poetry readings, you just know when someone is going to be good. She was going to be good — her graceful entrance, dignity, and presence promised a moment to remember.
Finally, Kathleen Elliott Gilroy took the podium to deliver her selected entry in the 2008 Magee Park Poets Anthology, an annual publication of the Carlsbad, CA-based poetry group. At 87, she was the oldest selected poet. In the first sixth lines of “Late September Night,” her wisdom, experience and perception tumbled forth in a luminous crystal image:
Almost everything outside tonight
Is as dark as a dreamless sleep
Except my vinyl privacy fence
Which glows fluorescent white,
As the luminous moon unspools its
Light, like a bridal train in a chapel.
Kathleen read on, her cadence slow and strong, each word rolling from a soul who has lived life so gracefully. The 100 or so people in the audience were transfixed, not by her age, but by her willingness to share the essence of her life.
As she read, I thought of what distinguishes poets from fiction writers, and why I’ve long practiced writing poetry for a month or two before starting work on a novel or memoir — the precision of not only words, but also feelings and moments. When you put the three together, your words can change your life, and the lives of others.
Of the forty poets who read at the Magee Park Anthology launch, one other spellbound the audience with her voice—the anthology’s editor, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, whose precise enunciation, quiet power and sweet palm-fed accent made it sound and feel like Rumi’s feminine side was in the room. However, none closed a poem with such silent provocation as Kathleen Gilroy, whose “Late September Night” ended with this:
All these, like me,
Are transfixed, embraced in silence,
Receiving a non-vocal benediction—
A blessing, granting fragile evidence
Of unbreakable bonds between
Beloved humans and animals
Now departed and we who live on.
Then Kathleen delivered the punch line: “I am now 87, and I read a poem that I wrote for the first time when I was seven, so that makes 80 years of writing poetry.”
Eighty years … and she’s never published a collection. She said that her poems lie in file cabinets, desks, between pages of books, and that she’s going to pull the collection together.
I sure hope so. After hearing and reading “Late September Night,” I can only imagine what a Gilroy collection would look like. I can definitely imagine publishing it. It also underscores why we need to promote poetry a lot more in this country, from kindergarten classes on through assisted living facilities—the most basic and precious qualities of humanity, truth and feeling lie within its verses. And we need to get as much of it into the public eye as possible.
Because sometimes, we might be publishing the crystallized jewels of a wise, wise soul, such as the lady with the hat and red-white curls who defined a Southern California poetry reading on a cool Wednesday night.
(If you’re interested in ordering the Magee Park Poets Anthology, send a $5 check or money order to Friends of the Carlsbad Library, 1250 Carlsbad Village Dr., Carlsbad, CA 92008).