Gilfillan, Merrill (C.) 1945-
GILFILLAN, Merrill (C.) 1945-
ADDRESSES: Home—Boulder, CO.
CAREER: Poet. Feature writer for Denver and Boulder newspapers, c. late 1970s.
AWARDS, HONORS: Major Hopwood Prize, University of Michigan, 1967; PEN/Martha Albrand Award, 1989, for Magpie Rising; Ohioana Fiction Award, 1994, for Sworn before Cranes; Western States Book Award in creative nonfiction, Western States Arts Federation, 1999, for Chokecherry Places.
To Creature (poetry), Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1975.
Light Years: Selected Early Works, 1969-1972 (poetry), Blue Wind Press (Berkeley, CA), 1977.
River through Rivertown (poetry), The Figures, 1982.
Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains, Pruett (Boulder, CO), 1988.
Moods of the Ohio Moons: An Outdoorsman's Almanac, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 1991.
Sworn before Cranes, Crown/Orion (New York, NY), 1994.
Satin Street: Poems, Asphodel Press (Wakefield, RI), 1997.
Burnt House to Paw Paw: Appalachian Notes, Hard Press (West Stockbridge, MA), 1997.
Chokecherry Places: Essays from the High Plains, Johnson Books (Boulder, CO), 1998.
Grasshopper Falls (fiction), Hanging Loose (Brooklyn, NY), 2000.
The Seasons (poetry), Adventures in Poetry/Zephyr Press (Brookline, MA), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: In works like Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains, Moods of the Ohio Moons: An Outdoorsman's Almanac, and Grasshopper Falls, Merrill Gilfillan pieces together poetic observations, highly visual descriptions of landscapes, and small essays that explore the American Midwest. "Gilfillan successfully evokes the aura of wind through prairie grass, of empty open places where ordinary events take on universal significance simply because they are the only human dramas being played on the plains' vast stage," observed David Starkey in Studies in Short Fiction.
Gilfillan was born in 1945 in a part of Ohio that marked the geographic onset of the Appalachian Mountains. The magical boundary near his door instilled in him a sense of awe toward the landscape, which would emerge as perhaps the strongest characteristic of his fiction and poetry. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1967, he went on to attend the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he earned an M.F.A. After graduating, he moved to New York City, and then to Colorado in the late 1970s.
Gilfillan's first book of poetry, To Creature, appeared in 1975. After two other volumes, he wrote the anecdotal essays for Magpie Rising: Sketches from theGreat Plains, which earned positive critical reviews as well as the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. Moods of the Ohio Moons: An Outdoorsman's Almanac appeared in 1991, followed by another collection of essays, Sworn before Cranes, in 1994. In these eighteen sketches, Gilfillan presents characters from the Plains landscape, many of them Native American, who go about their business in brief set pieces in which landscape sets the mood and tone and little, if any, conclusion is attained. In one, for example, an elderly man attends a constant round of funerals in the environs around his town of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.
Other parts of Sworn before Cranes present the clash between Native American culture and the white world. Ruben Bear, in "A Photo of General Miles," wonders about his grandfather, who was an esteemed scout for the U.S. Cavalry but may have been a collaborator as well during the Indian Wars. In "The Committee," a Native American tribal council meeting discusses setting down policy to handle the influx of spiritualityseeking tourists who come to their town for mystical enlightenment. Some of Gilfillan's tales are brief, others develop a bit more in time and space, but as Ray Olson noted in Booklist no matter the length all are marked by "photographic clarity and poetic intensity." Olson, who called the volume "astonishing," also declared that Gilfillan's "chastity of diction, an ear for nuance, and a transparency of vision" rank him alongside such wordsmiths as Ernest Hemingway. A Publishers Weekly reviewer was equally positive, finding that "each tale evokes a quiet heroism, and none fails to affect the reader," and praising Gilfillan's "easy naturalism" and "elevated metaphors . . . which seem to tap a new vein of the American literary heritage."
In 1997 Gilfillan published his first book of new poetry in several years, Satin Street. The title belies the focus within, with most of the work evoking the mysticism and expansiveness of American Plains states like Montana and Nebraska. Often, they touch upon the encroaching civilization and the disappearance of some of that beauty. The last section of the book is a prose poem, "Mouth of the Whosis," dedicated to Ted Berrigan, under whom Gilfillan studied at Iowa. "Deceptively simple, these poems reveal new beauties with each reading," attested a Publishers Weekly contributor.
The following year, Gilfillan wrote another series of essays published as Chokecherry Places: Essays from the High Plains. These sketches take the reader to some remote corners of Wyoming, Colorado, and the Dakotas. Again, Native American culture and tradition play a large role, as do the unusual animal species that populate the region. Gilfillan continues to be fascinated by the physical landscape and writes of the rugged rock formations, buttes, and other geographic challenges. He describes such as places that "house and shelter the talisman and nurturing myth, the tap-root metaphysics of any geography."
Gilfillan wrote several more story-sketches that were collected in Grasshopper Falls. Set in the Great Plains, the tales chronicle the history of the area, delve into Native American lore and contemporary culture, and do not flinch from presenting the hardships of the past and sometimes the brutality of the world. The title story presents a Native American family who, while on a hike, discover a shack where an old man has come to die; they try to determine his identity. In another, a boy goes camping one summer with his literary-minded, storytelling uncle, but the older man is becoming senile. The Black Hills residents who gather on a hot day in "Men in Shadow" also recount three tales, all interconnected and one dating back to 1928. "A feeling for life on the Great Plains and a respect for fictional resonances lend Gilfillan's 15 stories a quiet glow," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer, which also commended his "precise, glistening prose." A Kirkus Reviews critic singled out "Men in Shadow" as a construct that "allows Gilfillan to show his considerable gift as a raconteur." All of the stories, Kirkus Reviews declared, possess "tone, texture, and detail that keep them invariably interesting and humane."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bloomsbury Review, July, 1989, p. 8.
Booklist, February 15, 1994, Ray Olson, review of Sworn before Cranes, p. 1059.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2000, review of Grasshopper Falls, pp. 905-906.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 5, 1991, p. 14.
National Review, April 29, 1988, p. 44.
New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1988, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1991, p. 69; March 1, 1993, review of Sworn before Cranes, p. 40; February 21, 1994, review of Sworn before Cranes, p. 232; August 25, 1997, review of Satin Street, p. 66; June 26, 2000, review of Grasshopper Falls, p. 48.
Studies in Short Fiction, spring, 1996, David Starkey, review of Sworn before Cranes, p. 292.*