Gabrielle Edgcomb (1926-1996)
Merrill Leffler

When we open a book of poetry, we are entering the world of a poet’s sensibility. We may find that sensibility to be comforting or upsetting — the poems may rattle our expectations, they may teach us something new, or they may simply give voice to “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” The possibilities of course are many, especially with regard to diction, rhythms, tropes — those stylistic aspects of poetry that go towards creating a distinctive, recognizable voice. We mark off poems we especially like and try to generalize about our experience of that sensibility. Here are some I’ve taken at random from books on my shelf.

“This is the product of a witty sincere, thoughtful, highly literate, good hearted, curious, mature, broadly cultured and experienced poet. . . .”

“Her poems are rooted in landscape and weather and increasingly, in the intimacies of the heart.”

“His poetry is meant to be read, to connect with other human beings. It does so with grace, with vigor, with style, and above all with heart.”

“There is always in her poems a gentle sensibility, a probing intelligence. . . a poet of unwavering truthfulness. . . one of the most trustworthy and gracious poets writing today.”

I don’t much go for blurbs: at worst, they make wild claims, though at the best, they provide an entry for a reader new to the poet’s universe.

This prologue itself may seem like an odd entry into the poetry of Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb, a Washington writer who published two collections of poetry: Moving Violations, a modest chapbook from Some of Us Press, in 1973, when she was 47, and Survival in Prehistory in 1979, published by Working Cultures. Gabrielle died in 1996. She also published From Swastika to Jim Crow, a remarkable history of Jewish academic refugees from Germany who took up teaching positions at African American colleges, later made into a documentary film.

I had read the two books of poetry when they were first published — in truth, I had not remembered specific poems, the kind that when you read them you feel (as Emily Dickinson wrote) that the top of your head is taken off. What I did remember was a politically engaged sensibility and that I knew to be a part of her life, though I was short on the details.

I knew Gabrielle, though not well — we met once or twice to speak about her poems and had a brief correspondence. In 1975, she sent several poems for Dryad, the poetry magazine that Neil Lehrman and I started in 1967, and which eventually evolved into Dryad Press. The last issue of Dryad was in 1976 — it included a number of Washington poets, Gabrielle among them. Here is the poem we published:


MARTINETS ARE MOSTLY MARIONETTES

the strings will break
the marionettes fall

Who pulls the strings?

Bread strings
not the bakers
gold strings
not the miners
god strings
not the faithful
flag strings
not the soldiers

who pulls the strings?

bakers — take your bread
miners — take your gold
faithful — take your church
soldiers — take your guns


“Who pulls the strings?” she asks. Not the working people, not the bread makers, not those who work the mines, not those real believers, not the men (and now women) we send off to war. The string pullers are the oppressors and they are many — the monied, the corporations, the privileged. Take your rights, she exhorts in the second verse stanza, they’re yours. Get out there, don’t sit passively, take what is yours. This is a battle cry and you can imagine how well it would have gone at an anti war rally in the early 70s. But this is a poem of the times — it doesn’t have the staying power of a poem such as Robert Bly’s “At a March Against the Vietnam War”: “We have carried around this cup of darkness/ We have longed to pour it over our heads// We make war/ Like a man anointing himself.”

The poem is an example of the poetic sensibility I would have spoken of if asked about Gabrielle’s poetry — these so-called political poems carried her fierce reaction to the hypocrisies and criminality of government especially, poems such as “Nixon’s Blood” and “Washington April 1975” (“This winter of our rulers’ discontent”). Here is an untitled poem from her second book, written in the years of the Vietnam War.

I never knew the Whore of Babylon
but I’ve met Uncle Sam
and he’s a pimp

around my corner
girl child hookers
brood of ten generations
of sales and rapes
love and toil
meet their promised land
. . .
Six blocks west
Uncle Sam’s daughters
from elm lined streets
from homes now called slums
type their days away
single bar their nights
collect antiques on weekends
fill their
efficiency lives

It is what I remembered — again not the poems themselves but the tenor of her work. In rereading this work I encountered the expressive personal poems that had not stayed with me. I’ll quote from “Two Tunes,” which I think is among the best — it opens with a warm summer night, lovers “still as a sculptured form,” a mocking bird pierces the silence, a man stirs readying to leave, as the speaker — we assume it’s the poet — tries “to hold him in the fold”:

The singing stopped as it began;
no flap of wing
no stirring in the tree.
He walked off quickly
full of new aims
her eyes followed him
her figures settling
to vanish in the moss bed.

The bird resumed the same two tunes
marking the man’s retreat
and woman’s fall.

When the song stopped again
he was gone
she picked up her body
like a dress
and walked away.

I say “best.” Why? For me, because of the last three lines: they kick us into a startling metaphor that is naturally grounded. The British critic John Bayley once said that poets often write to cheer themselves up –— if they’re lucky, they cheer up the occasional reader. What cheers me in “Two Tunes” is the startling end: I love the unexpected simile that gives the subject of the poem such an emotional clarification.

Many of these self-expressive poems you have a sense are of the poet cheering herself up — yes, they tug at us for a moment, especially those that relate to older female and male relationships, if not couplings. There is “Frog Prince” for example, which has a self-deprecatory humor:

Few frogs I’ve kissed
have come up princes
sloths, poodles, armadillos, tomcats (nocturnal)
rabbits
and the young of various species

don’t look for princes
and you won’t kiss frogs
who will come up
is who is kissed

And there is that directness of feeling as in “The Hollow Woman, “A Grave Subject” (“you don’t get old/ just dilapidated”), “To a Young Lover.” These are poems of writing, it seems to me, of cheering oneself up — for example, “Sidewalk Café”:


Lunch with him
..............with whom
I’d supped and breakfasted
we make talk on city street

an unhinged preaching black mn
panhandling

a driven white man
hinged to Cadillac cigar briefcase

..............we touch
through our laughter
..............we part
for our 9-5


* * *

Gabrielle was born in Berlin in 1920. Jewish, her family was prescient not only to recognize what was happening to Jews with the Nazi takeover of Germany but they were fortunate enough, and lucky enough, to get out, in 1936, two years before Kristallanacht (The Night of the Broken Glass). She looked back in a short poem and from the perspective of the war in Vietnam in “Decline of the West.”

I was a good German
ineligible for the Hitler youth
I cannot say how good
had I been Aryan

I am a good American
I’m eligible for the clubs
I have not joined

I’ll help
the white cowboys
..............white hats
in the white house
ride their manifest destiny
in the western sunset
I am a good American

Survival in Prehistory has several pages from a memoir that didn’t find a publisher. The title is And If I Haven’t Died, I’m Still Alive, which is the literal translation from Grimm’s Fairy Tales that we know as “they lived happily ever after.”

I arrived in New York in 1936, like most settlers, on a boat. Unlike most, I crossed the ocean not in chains, not in steerage, but second class on H.M.S. Beregaria. . . . Mother and I were not “wretched refuse from the teeming shore,” but, nevertheless, “yearning to breathe free,” or, as it turned out, to breathe at all. We were refugees, not immigrants, as we learned, a subtle but potent class distinction then.

The book includes a poem about going back to the New York of her childhood:

NEW YORK RETURN

Visitor now
still the journey home
harbor of refugee immigrant
first locus of relief
delight and shock
America

walk on Times Square
more pressure cooker than melting pot
a stir of hope
blues ooze from a shop
evoke Lincoln’s warning of
wringing our bread from the sweat
of other peoples’ faces

I saw boys playing stickball
on a dark corner of Hell’s Kitchen
they touch more than their brothers
in the Little Leagues

New York
are your dirty streets seedbeds?


She soon made her way to Chicago where she did an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago and a master’s in the history of culture. She married, had a child, divorced, remarried, moved to Washington in the early 50s, following her husband who took a research position at NIH, had two more children, divorcing again in 1967. In the 60s she worked for the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, where she was the Washington area executive director. In the early 70s she worked as a research consultant with the Smithsonian and was a research specialist and bibliographer with the American Association for the Advancement of Science — there are others. I refer to these because they suggest an active life, not in the college classroom, which is the daily world of so many poets in the US, but in the world, including DC high schools where she occasionally taught. And it is out of this daily world that Gabrielle Edgcomb made her poems. I was happy to reengage with her poetic sensibility in Moving Violations and Survival in Prehistory — given that these books are not easily available, I hope the poems I’ve quoted here will give you glimpses into my take of that sensibility as well.

 

 

Bibliography
From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, Krieger Pub. Co., 1993.
Man-made Lakes: A Selected Guide to the Literature. An Aid to Planning Multi-disciplinary Research

.............. on New African Reservoirs. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1965.
Moving Violation, Some of Us Press, 1973.
Survival in Prehistory, Working Cultures, undated. (1975-1979?)
Marx on Suicide, edited and with introductions by Eric A. Plaut and Kevin Anderson; translated by
..............Eric A. Plaut, Gabrielle Edgcomb, and Kevin Anderson, Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Links
PBS Television: "From Swastika to Jim Crow" http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fromswastikatojimcrow/



Merrill Leffler has published two collections of poetry, Partly Pandemonium and Take Hold. A third book, Mark the Music, will be published in spring 2009. With Moshe Dor, he recently guest-edited an issue of Shirim with their translations of poems by the late Israeli poet Eytan Eytan. Leffler is the publisher of Dryad Press (http://www.dryadpress.com).

 

Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.

 

To read more by and about this author:
Merrill Leffler
Leffler's Introduction to Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall 2000)
Leffler on O.B. Hardison, Jr.: Memorial Issue
Three DC Editors: Richard Peabody on Merrill Leffler: Profiles Issue
Merrill Leffler: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Merrill Leffler on Ernest Kroll: Poetic Ancestors Issue