For Richard Gillman,
Friend and Poet: A Remembrance
By Edward Shanahan
One of the great pleasures in the early days of my bookstore were conversations with Richard Gillman, who would come to town to visit his father, Buster, and stepmother, Marion, who were living on Hinckley Street.
Gillman, a retired college administrator, was living in Maine at the time, so his trips here were irregular, but when he came through the door with his cheerful demeanor and greeting, I could anticipate a lengthy and lively encounter.
As his visits continued we forged a friendship based on shared experiences and enthusiasms, some involving his early experience as a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, his background as a poet and his personal relationship with other poets, including Robert Frost and Robert Francis in Amherst, and Rolfe Humphries, a translator of classical verse and a poet in his own right. In fact, in 1992, Gillman edited a volume of Humphries’ letters titled “Poets, Poetics and Politics,” which was published by the University of Kansas Press.
Richard’s anecdotes and insights were sharp and telling. But he also was interested in a mutual exchange, not a one-way presentation.
Richard often told stories about his boyhood in Northampton, including his passion for creatures of the natural world, which lead
him at some point to establish a friendship with the Connecticut naturalist Edward Way Teale. Richard’s father, Buster, was an institution in the community – a well-known musician who was still performing on weekends into his 90s - and for many years the friendly elevator operator at the Nonotuck Bank building downtown on Main Street.
Richard Gillman’s interests were both broad and deep and I always felt I gained more than I gave in those early years. But over time, I began to worry, when during some of his visits, Richard’s conversation seemed to drift away from the thrust of his particular point, and when he would complain ever so slightly that he was not reading very much, apparently, it turns out, because of difficulty he was having concentrating.
Later there would be an occasional phone call when he would introduce out of the blue some thought that struck me as odd, for example, that we should organize a work-bee to help Phil Reed, a retired Gazette wire editor living in Hadley, rake his leaves.
And eventually the word came through family that Richard had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and that while its onset appeared sudden he has been steadily moving into that nether-world for some time. We would occasionally get notes with updates on his condition from his wife Karen, and the news was progressively despairing, although she remained supportive throughout the long, relentless siege.
When I read recently that he had died, I turned to my bookshelves to see if I could unearth some of the large quantity of poetry that Richard Gillman had written, and was comforted to find three volumes, “Too Much Alone,’’ published in 1965, “Lunch at Carcassonne,” with a dedication reading “For My Father, Also a Son”; in my own copy, which I got from Marion is a penned notation next to the dedication reading “and for my Mother, too, with deepest love – Richard.” Many of his individual poems are dedicated or refer to members of his family, which seemed of supreme importance to him. A number of poems were dedicated to the late John Noonan of Florence, who kept in close touch with Richard through the years.
The third volume is a thin unpaginated tan pamphlet titled “Northampton Poets,” and published in 1948, when Richard Gillman was 19 years old and listed as associate editor. The publication Vol. 1 – No. 1, contains the work of 13 poets, among them well-known Smith College poet Grace Hazard Conkling, Peter Viereck, and William Rose Benet. It also contains the following poem by Richard Gillman:
Good-bye in April
White street lights make the city hall
A gravestone, fluorescent after rain.
Above Main street, harmless almost
As you after several wines,
A last year’s leaf, or possibly a moth
Trying to be remarkable.
Together, we lean on the corner
Where wind, with razor, cuts wind
And flushes your cheeks.
As sharply, I am made alone by your good-bye.
You go to leave,
And my hobo-thoughts follow you
Square in the center of where you disappear;
And, in that moment, where you had
Stood tip-toed and I had memorized your kiss,
Nothing is, but gravestone after rain
And reckless, thoughtless wind.