Poetry, Politics, and Passion

by Valerie Miller
Joan Gillette’s sister

Note: These remarks were delivered at a ceremony honoring Joan Gillette which took place at Common Ground on May 8, 2017.

Jack originally asked us both if we would like to read a couple of poems for Joanie, but no two poems could cover what we wanted to say in tribute to our sister, so – as you can see – we’ve taken another route. My part includes excerpts from several poems – some of which are intended to describe Joanie – some to speak for the voice she has lost.

I am calling it: 

Poetry, Politics, and Passion

I begin with a poem I found years ago – author unknown – but it beautifully connects Joanie with today – and this celebration in her honor – at Common Ground.

No ray of sunshine is ever lost
but the green which it awakens into existence
needs time to sprout.

And it is not always granted
for the sower
to see the harvest.

All work that is worth anything is done in faith.

Throughout all of her 38-year teaching career in New Haven, Joanie was passionate about poetry and serious writing.

  • She believed in the power of words – to change people’s perspectives – and empower them to act
  • She was inspired by the writers and poets who addressed difficult subjects, who drew connections between the natural world and the human spirit, who tackled the fundamental themes of the human condition.
  • She challenged her family, her peers, and her students to stand up and speak out.

These are three short excerpts from poems that feel as though they speak in Joanie’s voice:

~ from Mary Oliver

I don’t know -exactly- what a prayer -is.
I do know how to pay attention, -how to fall down
into the grass,- how to kneel down – in the grass,
how to be idle – and blessed, – how to stroll through the fields …
Tell me, – what else should I have done?…
Tell me, – what is it you plan to do
with your one- wild and precious – life?

~ from May Sarton

I would like to believe when I die –
that I have given myself away- like a tree
that sows seed every spring – and never counts the loss,
because it is not loss, – it is adding to future life.
It is the tree’s way – of being.
Strongly rooted perhaps, – but spilling out its treasure – on the wind.

and from Dawna Markova:

I choose to inhabit my days;
to allow my living to open me, – make me less afraid, –
more accessible…

I choose to risk my significance
so that which came to me – as seed
goes to another – as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom
goes on – as fruit.

Joanie was passionate about politics.

  • She ate the New York Times for breakfast – and could remember, and quote from, an editorial – a week – or a month- or a year later – well-informed would be an understatement!
  • She was conversant with the causes and issues of current events – local, – national, -and global – and could out-talk any of the rest of us – with her knowledge of the facts. (She did – occasionally lose an argument to our American-historian father, – though I don’t think she would admit it!)
  • She cared deeply – about human rights, – civil rights, – and women’s rights:

One Thanksgiving, she brought us Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” – in which Maya lists the names of all the ethnicities and religions that make up our country, – and charges us all with these words:

Lift up your faces, – you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, – despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived,- and if faced
With courage, – need not be lived again…

Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, – yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space – to place new steps – of change…

(We have read this poem every Thanksgiving since.)

Joanie was passionate about peace

  • She believed that speaking truth to power – through writing – and non-violent protest – could make a real difference.
  • She spoke- and marched – against the war in Vietnam.
  • She was convinced that people of different backgrounds and ethnicities could learn from each other, and work together to create a better, and more peaceful, nation – and world.

She loved the feistiness of the poet / activist, Grace Paley , who wrote:

It is the responsibility of society- to let the poet – be a poet.
It is the responsibility of the poet – to be a woman…

It is the responsibility of the poet to say- many times:
there is no freedom – without justice
and this means economic justice – and love justice…

It is the responsibility of the poet- to be a woman
to keep an eye on this world- and cry out like Cassandra,
but be listened to – this time.

and she would be proud to know- that her legacy is still so connected to the values of Common Ground, as stated by Melissa Spear -in her recent reflection entitled Combatting Misinformation

Common Ground stands in solidarity- with all those working to promote justice, equity, and inclusiveness by opposing oppression in all its forms…Common Ground is committed to performing its work – with humanity, and with love – for all of our community members regardless of where they come from, what religion they practice, or what their immigration status is.

It is clear to us that while Joanie’s voice may be lost to her illness, her spirit and vision are alive and well, at Common Ground.


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