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"What has kept me going is the grace and surprise of the encounter—with people, with character and story, with idea, with elegant language… I felt privileged to be living—each day in the classroom—at the heart of that encounter. In retirement there will be many joys, but I will surely miss that particular richness."
Carol Gilbertson, Professor Emerita of English, grew up at Luther College, or so it would seem. After teaching at Luther for 43 years, she retired in Spring 2011. An Augustana (SD) grad, an MA from North Carolina, and a PhD from the University of Minnesota with a specialization in seventeenth-century British literature, she has published on John Milton but also twentieth-century poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. As Jones Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in 2002-04, she developed the Luther Poetry Project, which brought poems into the foreground of campus life. She taught courses in British Romanticism and Twentieth-Century literature as well as Milton. Her deep love is poetry: she not only has relished leading students into a love of language and cadence, but she often travels to hear poets reading their work, and she publishes her poems in a range of journals. Her chapbook of poems, From a Distance, Dancing (Finishing Line Press) was published in November 2011. She founded and now co-directs The Vibrant Word: The Lutheran Festival of Writing. With her husband, Mark Z. Muggli, she shared a joint position in the department until her retirement. They often hike together and especially enjoy hiking in England and Greece. Above, she's pictured mounting a historical stone stile in Derbyshire during the year she and Mark co-directed Luther's year-long Nottingham Study Centre program, with nine Luther students. In January 2010 and 2012 she co-taught a course in Greece called "Dramatic Greece," with students reading plays together aloud in the ancient sites where they were first performed.
I regularly taught courses in poetry, British Romanticism, Milton and the Seventeenth Century, twentieth-century literature, literary modernism, and women writers. My chapbook, From a Distance, Dancing, was published in November 2011 by Finishing Line Press, where it was a finalist in their open chapbook competition. I am also working on a full-length collection tentatively entitled The Body Remembers and editing an anthology of poems about evening. I’ve recently collaborated with composer Philip Wharton on a cycle of songs, "Birdsongs," which had its premier performances in spring 2010; his composition for flute, oboe, and strings, “Nightrising,” is based on my poem “Night Rising.” I am presently at work on the libretto for a vocal monodrama, collaborating with Wharton.
Teaching has a rhythm. Each semester's rise and fall, with its dates and deadlines, forms an underlying metrical regularity. Each class day is predictable in our coming together, our rituals. But we also discover unpredictable metrical surprises. Class discussion brings a rich range of rhythms, fevered conversation, slow silent thought, sweaty anxiety, excited epiphanies, and, yes, even a boredom of sing-songy voices and sometimes silence. What has kept me going is the grace and surprise of the encounter—with people, with character and story, with idea, with elegant language. In that nexus is energy which is beyond my control, and that fact always humbled me as a teacher. But I felt privileged to be living—each day in the classroom—at the heart of that encounter. In retirement there will be many joys, but I will surely miss that particular richness.
On the Train from Krakow
Outside the window
herds of white birches unleafed,
skeletal. I remember Yellowstone
after the fire—hill, valley, hill, valley—
thousands of pine trunks
standing scorched in mid-summer
like wartime photos of ghost bodies
staring from camp fences.
At Auschwitz the guide,
in memorized English, detailed the scope
and efficiency of the demolition. Pointing
to one crematorium and then its twin
across the road, she did not notice her slip:
These two are miracle images.
The trains left indelible tracks
which still end abruptly at the heart of the camp
as did their hordes of terrified passengers,
each one bearing a singular name.
At Josepha Synagogue the walls
seemed papered with an intricate design.
I wanted to touch but leaning in close
discovered finely-lettered script,
name after name in rows—each
life-line mirroring the next—
like tiny cars on a track.
From From a Distance, Dancing. First appeared in The MacGuffin, as runner-up in 14th Annual Poet Hunt, 2009
* * *
We landed in Athens after midnight,
the children with us. If you hadn’t brought us,
we’d never have come. It was Easter.
My father was dead. We were exhausted,
and the cab driver had a mind of his own.
In the morning the Parthenon sang
white above us. Lambs roasted on small spits
in the courtyard. I bought a round loaf
with a crimson egg in the center
for Ellen’s seventh birthday.
She told us she was keeping a journal.
What made it all so holy? Candles
in the plaka, the calls to prayer,
grottoes at the roadside with flowers,
the man who offered us bread.
The girls made sandcakes on the beach.
You peeled ripe oranges
and handed us sections one-by-one.
My father was gone.
You told them Hercules stories
and one night, as you tucked them in,
I heard Ellen’s sleepy voice:
“I can remember ten of the labors,
but I can’t think of the other two.”
Each day falls into the dustbin
of the past. Do we remember, I wonder,
what we are, what we’ve made—
do we remember
the little labors of our life?
From From a Distance, Dancing. An earlier version of this poem was published in Flyway (Summer 2007) and won the 2006 Flyway Sweet Corn Prize for Poetry.
*More poems by Carol Gilbertson.
NOTE: Order a copy of the chapbook From a Distance, Dancing.