Remembering Gail Burgess Nochimson
In early March, David Nochimson walked into the Antioch Los Angeles Library to meet with MFA in Creative Writing faculty member, Victoria Chang. Under each arm, he clutched a heavy box of poetry books. Remodeling his house, he’d undergone the difficult task of deciding what books to keep and which to give away. How was he to decide? He surveyed the stacks of poetry that belonged to his late wife and Antioch poetry alum Gail Burgess Nochimson and selected a few of his favorites, and a few of hers, to keep—through Gail, David had developed not just an ear for the genre, but a craving for poetry in his soul. As for the rest, he boxed them up as a donation to the University because they had meant so much to Gail. It felt good, he says, to share what she cherished, and to leave, even eight years after her death, a legacy in her name.
Among the books were three copies of Gail’s own book of poems, No Rooms In Heaven, self-published posthumously in her honor, one of which made its way by mail, into my hands, several states away. When it arrived, I felt a spark of something fantastical. How easily we take for granted the magic of holding a book in our hands, the miracle of reading that allows us to enter into a communion of sorts with the writer, defying the physics of time and space, defying death itself. I never got to meet Gail Nochimson but having read her poetry, it feels wrong to say I don’t know her.
In her poem “Rain,” I felt her curiosity to engage the line between the light and the dark; in “Demolition,” I inherited her capacity to meditate on life’s details until they yielded the profound; in “July 6, 1944,” I sat with her as she reflected on her life and considered the meaning of fate.
Of the latter, David makes special note, calling the poem, “particularly great.” A narrative poem, the piece is a deviation in style for Gail who usually wrote in short lines with curated breaks, but in telling a childhood story, the form of this different type of poem makes sense.
On July 6, 1944, Gail begged her mother to go to the Ringling Brother’s Circus while it was in their hometown of Hartford. Her older brother, flagging his authority, insisted the family go see Snow White instead. Gail protested in an eight-year-old’s way, calling the whole lot of her family unfair. But while they sat in the theater, watching the fairy tale unfold, the circus tent caught fire: with 7,000 people trapped inside—hundreds would end up dying.
“She wrote the piece at Antioch, all those sixty-five years later, looking back on a childhood event that still defined her, but with the maturity of a woman with a lifetime of experiences,” David says. “The poem works on so many levels—as a premise, that it’s not always good to get what you ask for, as a reclamation, of life as precious, and as a poem.” After speaking with David, I re-read the poem, this time out loud, and as the words tumbled out, I felt their rhythm anew, as if Gail were telling me the story herself.
In piecing together who Gail was, by her poetry and in conversations with those who knew her, she was revealed to me as bigger than life, with the timeliness that anoints only those artists for whom art comes as a higher calling. Although all chapters of her life were a part of her, she could not be reduced to any of them: she was not her childhood in Hartford or her impressionable years in Florida, not her modeling career in New York City or her artistic life in Los Angeles. But by the time Gail arrived at Antioch to become a part of the Cobalt cohort, it was as if she existed by the full force of her sixty-nine years, finally thriving as who she truly was all along: a poet.
“Gail had lived long enough so that she wasn’t confused about what she was going to school for—she was going to school to be the best artist she could be and to write the poems that made her life more complicated, not less,” says Gail’s former mentor and then Antioch poetry faculty Jenny Factor. “She didn’t just want her life to change her poems, she wanted her poems to change her life.”
Heavily indebted to Keats’s concepts of Negative Capability, Gail wrote not away from uncertainties but toward them, not in fear of contradiction but in its favor. Or, as Keats himself wrote, “with a … sense of Beauty [that] overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” To hear Jenny describe Gail is to hear unconventional praise for a student. Jenny says Gail wasn’t one to follow the rules: she didn’t turn in packets on time or write what she was “supposed” to be writing. But she wrote as if in reverence, writing every day, laying five, six, seven poems out on her writing table at the same time, working on whichever piece it was that called to her and never the other way around, following the pace of the poem until it became her own. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why I read her book out of order, skipping from front to back, that poem and then this. I wonder if Gail wrote with such service to her poems as to imbue them with the power to be read on their own time and no one else’s.
When I think about Gail Nochimson—a woman and a poet, I feel grateful to have come to know her, albeit posthumously—I wonder about her legacy which, although now preserved in a shelf’s worth of books in Antioch’s library, is so much larger. Which is to say, I encountered Gail like a still-living-gift, as a poet so imbued with the zeitgeist of her poetry that her pages overflow with what I can only call generosity. But what is one to do with such a present?
As a new student to Antioch’s MFA program in creative writing, I find myself charged with the call of the University’s social justice mission which, at first, I took as a call to action, a call to a cause, a call to make the world a better place. But after coming to know Gail, I wonder if I’ve gotten it all wrong and if the call isn’t considerably subtler—to listen, to be impressionable, to embrace contradiction, and to unlearn what I think I know to make way, simply, for what is. Perhaps I would be best served to remember her that way, too, to think of her life, and her death, as in her poem, “Gone to Seed:”
To say, “She’s gone to seed”, is quite unfair
To all the gardens dying, lacking care,
And all who lose their beauty, wit and power,
As if a seed does not contain a flower.
By Sarah Haas