Something to Exchange by Celia Gilbert

Celia Gilbert is the author of five books of poetry: An Ark of Sorts, winner of the first Jane Kenyon Chapbook Award and Bonfire, both published by Alice James Books, Queen of Darkness, published by Viking Press, Something to Exchange, published by BlazeVOX Books, and an edition of new and selected poems in Polish and English, Cos na wymiane, published in Poland.

Her poetry has appeared in, among other places, Poetry, The New Yorker, Southwest Review, Tin House, and Ploughshares and has been frequently anthologized.  She is the winner of an Emily Dickinson Award and a Consuelo Ford Award for her poem, "In Katmandu" given by the Poetry Society of America.


She is also a printmaker and painter.




Celia Gilbert '54

In Katmandu

Mornings, fog in the valley
ghosts the worshipers on their way
to temple. They'll pass the butcher shops
where goat heads pile up,
their lecherous grins reminders
that desire keeps us in motion
the way wind flutters prayer flags
attached to gray strings. 

On river banks where the dying wait,
exposed to the public sun,
ideas transform reality.
What's immortal ascends in smoke, the dross
descends in ashes from river to sea.
But nothing is concluded. Once the soul is judged,
the body returns to new forms, new trials. 

Now I'm reading how Tibetan monks
strip flesh from their holy dead,
feed it to the vultures,
then make sweet music from the bones.
I don't want a new life. I'm not ready
to shed the disappointments and longings
of this one. For every particle trying to let go
there's another hanging on to grief. 

Lying here, I imagine I'm an old woman brought
by her family to the river to die.
Will I be tormented by the thoughts I have now,
how things could have come to this, myself,
a daughter who failed her mother;
myself, the mother who never understood
her children?
I read the heavens grow shabby
and the gods, too, are mortal,
the brightest realm of non-being, unattainable.

Stay awake! lamas exhort the dying,
Remember! Be aware!
Enter a new birth knowing your destination. 

I don't know any more what home is.
Events hang before me round,
small, and strange as the Christmas balls
on the hotel tree the staff trimmed all day
while the guests planned their treks
up the mountains.

Dawn, or what passes for it,
thick and wet, fills the hexagons
of the wooden shutters.
No one travels without pain,
or lives without blessing.