Gary Barwin on Merrill Gilfillan

by Merrill Gilfillan

What a face
on that barred owl
dead beside the road —

Rolled it over to see.
Round, jolly, cowled. Lightly
concentrically ringed.

The calm cosmonautical
with the simian fey.
Fox sparrows
sing. “We hated to be apart.

Even for five minutes.”
The dreams come down —
Extra! Extra! —

from the cedared hills
across scant pasture
and April brambles

to the leaky
treehouse on the knoll
beyond the stream.

from The Seasons Merrill Gilfillan, Adventures in Poetry/Zephyr Press ($12.50)

This is one of those poems that, because of its perspective and intensity, makes the natural seem hyperreal or maybe surreal, certainly full of symbolic or near mythic significance yet permeated by a very real and present emotionality.

The owl, rolled over, is like a body. The anthropomorphism of “jolly” and “cowled” makes the owl the body of some kind of monk. I wonder about “lightly/ concentrically ringed” – the phrase comes off as clumsy. What might this point to—it’s round, but then, being dead, is somehow misshapen, clumsy, even though it is fey? I do like that “simian fey” line. I think that’s Tina’s older brother. Her younger sister is Auto De La. The concentric and the cosmonautical. I’m put in mind of the roundness of the space helmet. The owl travelling on a celestial voyage to that place of perpetual mouse-coloured twilight where owls’ souls fly after death.

“We hated to be apart.” It is a lovely moment. Is that the narrator or the birds? Birds calling to each other is like that. “We hated to be apart.” We need to be together if only in this song which spans trees. A delicate, touching anthropomorphism, I think. But it works both ways. We are like fox sparrows. Our memories, our shared childhood rituals call to each other across our different lives, across time, even if treehouse leaky with forgetting, regret, and the dreamy imprecision of napping reverie. “We hate to be apart.”

“Extra, extra!” Dreams as news. I like the idea. I initially questioned the phrase. I know it is supposed to be jarring. It is different than anything else in the poem and is followed by carefully nuanced lyricism. At first it seemed a bit clichéd and banal here; however upon further consideration, I like its modulation of the overall lyricisms of the poem, its rupture of the reverie. I’m ready to hear it as the news of dreams waking the narrator, like a flock of birds diving low overhead, dream birds flying into the leaky treehouse of the mind. Dreams and memories are news that stay news, even if they’re only ‘human interest stories.’

This is, in one way, a simple poem (the narrator sees a dead bird, then has nap in treehouse – or maybe the dead bird is part of the dream) but it also has a range of other aspects inside it. The loss/nostalgia of “we hated to be apart” brings us to consider the death of the owl as paralleled by the loss, or even death, of a lover, sibling, friend, or maybe just a return to a youthful treehouse and the remembering of a past loved one which seems to come from the cedared hills, from the world itself

Owls are always a rich symbol or image, whether of wisdom, knowledge the supernatural, or death. This particular owl, being both cowled and cosmonautical, has otherworldy resonances yet has the pathos of a victim face down on the side of a road. The turned-over owl looks up with a face that is both other yet affecting, both calm and fey, cosmonautical and simian, moon allusive and animal real, which I’d say, is as beautifully subtle and nuanced definition of memory, loss, regret, and dreams as one is likely to find by the side of any road.

A few years ago, Stuart Ross and I began a short-lived listserv called “Poem Chomsky” to discuss our reading of specific poems. Sometimes, encouraged by Richard Huttel, our small group of intrepid readers sent in poems without the author’s names on them in order to explore the meaning of context and expectation. Stuart contributed the poem from Gilfillan a poet from Colorado, who I’d never heard of (Stuart included the poet’s name.) The above, cleaned up for public viewing, developed from my response.
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. His music and writing have been published and presented in Canada, the US, and overseas. He received a PhD in Music Composition and was the recipient of the KM Hunter Foundation Artist Award for his writing. Seeing Stars, a YA novel, was a finalist for both Canadian Library Association YA book of the year, and an Arthur Ellis Award. His poetry includes Outside the Hat and Raising Eyebrows (both Coach House) and, with derek beaulieu, frogments from the frag pool (Mercury) His fiction includes Doctor Weep and other strange teeth and Big Red Baby. The Briefcase Hand, a new poetry collection, is forthcoming from Coach House. Lives in Hamilton, Ontario and teaches music at Hillfield Strathallan College. He can be found at and

See my conversation with Gary Barwin here and my review of Frogments here.

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