Andrew Lakritz and Eileen Cronin
GRIEF AND GRIEVANCE: READING DAGOBERTO GILB THROUGH ROBERT FROST
After A.E. Robinson submitted his final work King Jasper, a book length poem, his publisher coaxed from Robert Frost an introduction. Frost's first attempt at an "appreciation" nearly failed to mention Robinson or his poem. His second draft referenced Robinson's work, though not King Jasper. It was 1935, a time when leftist intellectuals were writing in the New Masses and the CPUSA was busy organizing labor and the dramatic arts were propagating a new kind of engaged theater experience. In Clifford Odets' play Awake And Sing! , one of his characters exclaims "If this life leads to a revolution, it's a good life" Otherwise it's for nothing." No doubt Frost felt, if his Introduction is any indication, boxed in by all this sentiment toward revolution and revolt. In his introduction, he writes of grief as opposed to grievance, complaining that what the age seemed to want was a literature of complaint and resentment. He contrasted that straw man with grief, the true subject of poetry:
But for me, I don't like grievances. I find I gently let them alone wherever published. What I like is griefs and I like them Robinsonianly profound. I suppose there is no use in asking, but I should think we might be indulged to the extent of having grievances restricted to prose if prose will accept the imposition, and leaving poetry free to go its way in tears. (p. 743, Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, New York: Library of America, 1995).
Frost appears to be setting himself, and Robinson, up against the voices of engaged, left-leaning activist writing, what he elsewhere in his introduction dismisses as "palliative," while he and Robinson were writing poems that would be lodged in the culture permanently. His dichotomies in this essay are best understood, however, as a bad guide to Frost's, and Robinson's, own work. Frost's poetry often partakes of grief, and grievance, in perhaps asymmetrical measure, the one pulling on the frayed edges of the other, and his poetry often serves as its own best theory of reading, not being satisfied with easy dichotomies as Frost allows himself in his prose.
Dagoberto Gilb, a fiction writer from the opposite end of the United States, the Southwest, has much in common with Frost, a New Englander. Gilb is a late starter, having published his first book of short stories, Winners on the Pass Line and Other Stories in 1985 at age 35. Frost's first book of poetry, A Boy's Will, was published in 1913, when Frost was 39. Both writers did a variety of things before becoming full-time writers, including factory work and farming (Frost), construction work (Gilb), and teaching (both), on the way to becoming a writer. Both writers take as their subject matter ordinary people in dramatic situations, and both have made powerful contributions to language, what Frost called the "sound of sense", but what could also be called more simply the music of the human voice speaking.
Gilb's story "please, thank you," is written almost as a stream of consciousness exploration of a man, a Mr. Sanchez, suffering from the effects of a stroke and trying to recompose the world around him, and his place in the world. The voice is authentic and urgent, describing the people coming into his room in a constant stream, asking him questions, angering him with what he takes are the racist assumptions that lay behind their questions, and the convergence of the dark prospect of mortality he is facing, and the place in the world he occupies culturally, ethnically. Both grief and grievance are in the recognition that death, and the assumed casual racism of the hospital staff, both threaten to erase the character suffering from this illness.
i knew what they were thinking. i was someone who didnt matter, who didnt count much. In the large, i know its true. I am a name, just another, one they think is foreign even, when there are so many hurting, but then, so what? I accepted it always, in my life, but now too? It makes me mad.
It's not that he doesn't count –he doesn't count "much," in this view of himself through the other's eyes. He learns later that their assumptions about him, that he is Mexican, did not come from some racist assumptions the staff hold, but because earlier he had spoken gibberish to the staff in answer to basic questions –he learns this from the reporting of his daughter who visits later and gives him another view of himself, from her perspective. "daddy, im telling you, you weren't making sense, you couldnt talk." It takes him awhile to hear this, but eventually he does. The stroke disrupted his language and colors his response to the staff there to help him.
Later he slides down the chute of conspiracy. He tells his son "what i notice, i tell my son, is that all the help is black or brown until its like from two in the morning to six. those are the crazy people hours." His son doesn't buy it, and calls him out on it. The struggle the man experiences, is that between impatience and patience, between grievance and grief, and his work with the physical therapists and speech therapists are all designed, it seems, to test his patience, and grow it. Robert Frost writes "Grievances are a form of impatience. Griefs are a form of patience" (p. 743). Toward the end of Gilb's story, Mr. Sanchez recounts an encounter with Erlinda, a custodian from Mexico who speaks in Spanish. She tells of an encounter at Walmart where a lady screams at Erlinda, who is speaking Spanish to her daughter, which is unsettling and confusing to Erlinda. She wants the man to help her understand the encounter, what did she do wrong? The recovering man doesn't know, but he believes that Erlinda is "slow," which is not to say she's Mexican, or because she speaks Spanish, but "because she is slow." And he admits "i wouldnt want to be behind her in a line, and not at walmart." The rage he feels earlier in the story about how he's being treated, and the assumptions he thinks people have of him because he speaks Spanish and therefore must be "from mexico and just crossed" is now turned to puzzlement and sympathy about his friend Erlinda, a kind woman who is comfortable speaking Spanish with him. She wants to know what he thinks. He gives her the wisdom to have patience, to ignore the "stupids," "why dwell on that ugliness? youre fine now" says Mr. Sanchez. And that's the last she'll ever say to him because he leaves he hospital in the next hour. The story starts in Frostian impatience and grievance, and resolves to grief and patience, a recognition that "Im not good at goodbye." Yet the racism and prejudice and bigotry that underlines the narrative like a fault line in the ground, or a line in the sand, doesn't go away, doesn't get truly resolved. It remains in tension with its opposite.