Dan Gerber knows intimately about the fleeting transience of our time on Earth, and, as a poet, he writes with a meditative passion about life, death, nature and friendship.
His focus on words may be attributed to an early need for speed as a race car driver melding into the curves at 185 miles per hour. In his 20s, he crashed his Peregrine race car into a wall at Riverside International Raceway in California. He could see everything in slow motion, a face in the stands, the bright sky and the two cars attempting to snuff out his life as he spun out, helplessly on the track.
Mortality has a way of focusing your thoughts.
His new collection of poetry, “Particles:
New & Selected Poems,” elicits life and death in the natural world. This is evident from the poem “New Life,” about a tiny red spider on a notebook page, to the poignancy of the poem “Old Books.”
In “Old Books” he writes: “My life companions, showing their age.
/ Spines peeled back, bindings frayed, stacks / of brittle leaves, kept with tape and rubber bands, / though what they’ve said and to say still / quickens the world behind my eyes, / and in a cloud that shadows me … .”
He may as well be writing about his old friend and fellow poet Jim Harrison, who died this past year.
Which he does on the following page in the poem “To Jim from the River” about two friends fishing “through what seemed an endless river … .”
In a telephone conversation with Gerber, from his home in central California, we talked in a wide-ranging conversation about racing, race legend Carroll Shelby, about his time at MSU and old friends.
He said it was an amazing time on campus for writers. The confluence of students who would be successful novelists and poets was mostly “happenstance.”
“There were easily 15 students who went on to become published novelists and poets,” he said.
Included in that number were his pals Harrison, Tom McGuane and Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist Richard Ford. He and Harrison would go on to found the legendary literary journal, the “Sumac Reader” in 1968 and McGuane would join them as fiction editor one year later.
“I didn’t have a close friendship with Harrison on campus. It wasn’t until we began reading each other’s books and corresponding that the friendship developed,” Gerber said. “In 1966, Jim published his first book ‘Plainsong’, and I was astounded.”
Gerber said when Copper Canyon Books asked him to put out a collection of his poetry, he was momentarily stunned.
“It’s a daunting task going back over 50 years of work. Jim Harrison called it a ‘brain peeler,’” Gerber said.
He said he selected a lot of poems about his father, and that he found after reviewing them that they were like the “theme music of my time.”
“They were nostalgic, but that was not always good,” he said. “In some cases, I wrote poems to exorcise things I wanted to stop being obsessed about and I could let go.”
Gerber recalled the last time he went fishing on the Yellowstone with Harrison.
“We finished up near Big Timber and Jim, his usual self, said we should stop and have a beverage. Afterwards, walking down the street, Jim said we should take another trip across country like we used to, even though we both knew we wouldn’t,” he said.
Gerber’s poem “Nostalgia,” originally in his last collection “Cassiopeia,” seems to speak directly to that conversation.
“We are drawn to the past / because we think it knows its future.”
Gerber will give a reading and sign books at the MSU Library on Tuesday.
Dan Gerber book Signing Tues., Oct. 24 7 p.m. FREE MSU Library Green Room (4 West), 366 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing.msustatewide.msu.edu (517) 353-8700.