Dan Gerber has been many things—a journalist, race car driver, teacher, and corporate executive of the multimillion dollar Gerber Products Company, just to name a few—but if there is one thing that has remained constant throughout these callings, it is his passion and spirit for poetry.
Much of Gerber's poetry speaks of what he knows best, his family and nature. While these themes may sound mild on their own, Gerber writes with such delicate, simple conviction that I cannot help but be captivated by his sublime world. Reading his work is akin to entering a state of transcendence, in which the reader suddenly understands what Romantic poets such as William Blake and Percy Shelley meant by the word “awe” and how inseparable nature and the soul truly are. As such, it is not too surprising that Gerber says, “To me, poetry is a religion, as well as an art. I define religion as the way one lives one’s life, and I knew that if I stood a chance of living an authentic life, this was how I would have to do it.” He certainly seems to live his life through his poetry, sharing his observations and meditations on everyday elements ranging from the minute to the complex.
One good example is his piece, “Plum Rain,” from his 1999 book, Trying to Catch the Horses, in which he writes:
The pit, like the soul
that isn't inside the body
but still is the body,
pops out into my fingers,
and the short stem
I fish from between my teeth
points back to the tree,
the sun and the rain
where the plum and I
began this fatal longing.
Gerber gives the plum a soul and it becomes a tragic creature who, along with the narrator, is broken by desire. The body and soul should be inseparable, yet he presents this idea in a way that makes the reader question whether the two are really as bound as they seem. This is not a verbose poem, but it is not the words themselves that need to strike the reader, it is the ideas they suggest.
Similarly, in “Driving Home,” Gerber slows down a simple moment in life and takes the opportunity to contemplate the elements of that moment on a deeper, philosophical level:
My friend’s daughter, the pianist,
whose index finger, lost to sarcoma,
I can’t replace,
my daughter whose breast, I can’t replace,
my dear friends whose murdered son
I can’t replace,
all over which
I’m at this moment suffering,
though they may be,
at this moment, not.
Closer to home,
I pull off along the side of the road,
staunched by the fleeting, incomparable
of the world in which everything happens.
Gerber begins with the image of a perfect, peaceful day. The reader, then, is surprised when the poem takes on a thoughtful but elegiac tone. He plays with the different levels of balance, bringing the poem from blissful to a turning point when he begins to think about the afflictions that have affected him and those he knows, and finally ends the poem in awe of the world, leaving the reader to ponder the consequential helplessness of man.
It is this sense of balance that gives Gerber's poetry such depth of emotion. He smoothly perceives the harmony between nature and man, reality and transcendence, and body and soul, and is able to examine these concepts without overwhelming the reader. The result, instead, is a masterful blend of imagery and insight that prompts the readers to look within themselves to find their own balance.
His poem “Tarawa” recalls The Battle of Tarawa, part of World War II. The opening lines clearly set up the poem so that the reader knows he is referring to an historic event: “This is a story about what happened in '43- / there are twenty thousand and twenty-seven / stories like this.” It can be difficult to write about historical facts because of the limitations they may seem to present in retelling a story that has been told before, yet Gerber goes beyond this, ending the poem from a fresh perspective. He writes:
how the frightened bonefish
trapped by the tide,
shot through our legs. We never thought
of fish in the sea and how
this was their home though not their war,
and not ours either, though
we were swimming in it.
Historically, American ships were unable to get close to the island of Betio because of the low tide and the coral reefs that surrounded the island. Instead, the marines waded through chest-high water, allowing the Japanese to attack without much reciprocation. Gerber hints at these actions, but focuses on the mentality rather than the physicality of the moment. This poem subtly raises the questions, how can water or land be owned? And what irrevocable damages are being done in order to claim ownership? From the beginning there is a sense of remorse. By telling the reader how many stories there are, the narrator downplays his own. He, however, does not make the story about himself, but rather about getting caught up in something bigger than himself and looking back on the possible consequences of being involved in a war that he feels is not his own.
Gerber writes with clarity, though he often takes on subjects that, indeed, seem bigger than himself. He is able to dissect memories and history with precision and affix them with a meaning or image relatable to almost all. With broad themes but meticulous details, Gerber is able to bring the reader into his world, where poetry becomes religion.