432 pp., $35.00
The Severe Sensualist
So long and with such passionate commitment did Jack Gilbert identify with poetry—and not only with poetry but with the fierce purity (of language, of life) that for him signaled poems at their best and truest—that for some it may have seemed a sad but well-timed end when he died in November 2012, surrounded by friends in Berkeley, from complications from pneumonia and after a struggle with Alzheimer's. He was 87. It was a culmination of a life independently lived, with much of it willfully lived at a distance, even as the appearance of his Collected Poems, published earlier in that year by Knopf, culminated a half century of Gilbert's writing. The book ranged from Views of Jeopardy—his first poetry collection, which made him, briefly, a hip, handsome literary celebrity—to a handful of uncollected poems. With that work of decades collected, what was left to do? What was the end of life (in terms of overriding purpose) as the end of life approached? To live the moment and be true in it, maybe. And, increasingly in his later books, to take seriously thoughts of God, whatever God is or means.
The culmination at once of Gilbert's life and poetry can be seen as fitting, for he always seemed to feel assured that he was a capital-P Poet. He embraced fully the discomforts but also the glories that were the job requirements—passion and isolation, the heights and depths of a life carved down to essentials, but essentials that were in the poet's mind of the greatest extravagance. At times Gilbert even sounded like a prophet of sorts, albeit one of personal experience, of the days and years rightly, honestly spent. "I had a lot of luck," he said in a 2005 Paris Review interview. "But I was also very, very stubborn. I was determined to get what I wanted as a life." He was a prophet who for long stretches forgot the nation needful of hearing, which is any prophet's primary audience. He may not have minded the pairing of his life and his poems, then, but he would have strong opinions on which deserves—nay, must have precedence. As he puts it in one poem in Monolithos, "Not wanting to lose it all for poetry. / Wanting to live the living."
Ideally, as the Gilbertian outlook would have it, one should be active and engaged in an authentic life in an exotic place—"I didn't visit places; I lived places," he said once when asked if he felt like an expatriate when living abroad. And as with travel, so with writing: you are simply doing poetry rather than talking about it, or referring a little pathetically to what your poems may get for you and what other poets are getting. The opening poem in his first book registers this ambivalence toward the art he loved. "In Dispraise of Poetry" speaks of the King of Siam who punished a courtier he disliked by giving him a beautiful white elephant: "to care for him properly meant ruin," yet it was worse to neglect or mistreat the elephant. "It appears the gift could not be refused," the poem concludes dryly, ushering readers forward into a collection that was now framed as a product of a poet at times intense and inspired and at other times begrudging and resigned. Pondering Gilbert's stance, I recall a comment by Wendell Berry. "From our constant and increasing concerns about health, you can tell how seriously diseased we are," he remarked in a 1994 speech "Health is Membership." Disease, Berry explained, makes us conscious of the state of our health, whereas health "is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness." Likewise, for Gilbert poetry emerged as a natural product of noble living. Focus on the heart's mysteries and the poetry will take care itself, and there indeed is a naturalistic element in the direct statements and often spare, clean lines of Gilbert's poetry.
For him, the choice was easy: life, and in multiple interviews he disdained lesser poets, and lesser livers of life, those who sought out experiences merely for the sake of accruing material for their poetry. "I'm not going to farm my heart," he said in one interview in 1995, on the occasion of receiving the Lannan Literary Award. He also spoke of the "tough life" of his peers who attended endless dinners and readings in New York's or Boston's literary scene. "And they were right … for them." They deserved their success, he said, but for him this public, traditional acclaim required too high a price. "You call that happiness?" he asked. Such views did not always earn Gilbert a warm reception in the poetry world, and sometimes he could sound like a recluse who is comically out of touch, as when he declared in that Paris Review interview, "I think poetry was killed by money." Most American poets, working on the margins of popular culture and rarely achieving the kind of success that they would think of, a little exotically, as "commercial," would beg to differ. But then again, Gilbert was judging by a different scale, by a standard compressed to essentials. Better to seek out life for itself, he says, in so many words, in so many of his poems. "Life, as the ultimate unity, lies at the basis of the poeticized," writes Walter Benjamin, and Gilbert agreed.
The life this poet chose for himself, however, was the sort that most of us find easily admirable and worthy of the attendant sacrifices … as long as it belongs to someone else. Faraway settings (Italy, Copenhagen, Greece, Japan), frugality, long periods of solitude, a restlessness that precluded certain relationships and ruined others, even as that wary stance was punctuated at times, as if by a lightning strike, with three great loves in his life. Yes, it is easy to respect from afar the lone poet of the old type, as if he were emblazoned on a poster, even one sometimes unapologetically haughty and prickly, and endlessly hungering after Beauty and crying out on Love's cruelty.
Gilbert was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, the "ruined city of steel" whose "heroic girders and iron rivets" would inspire poems throughout his life. In "Searching for Pittsburgh" he describes
… The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth … .
"Primitive Pittsburgh," he calls it. He remembers growing up in a large old home on the city's outskirts, and exploring its three floors with no parents around. Later he worked as a steelworker, exterminator, and salesman. He did not graduate from high school, yet managed to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh, where he soon encountered among his classmates the poet Gerald Stern. It was Stern who most encouraged Gilbert's own early poetic efforts. Soon, the latter poet made his first trips abroad, working briefly for the Herald Tribune in Paris, living there in a cold mansard. In Italy he met Gianna Gelmetti, his first love and one of the heroines or muses occupying his poetry till the very end. Her sister convinced Gilbert that he had no prospects and was not a worthy suitor of Gianna, and so he moved on, a choice that clearly haunted him later.
Returning to America, he spent time in New York but mainly settled in San Francisco, where for seven years he was, by his own description, a hippie who did not do drugs. He was a member of Jack Spicer's influential "Poetry and Magic" workshop, and worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams. He spent time with Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg, who made the trip to Gilbert's spare cottage in the woods near Sausalito. Once there, he shared an early draft of Howl with Gilbert, who was managing to live like a hermit while still involved in San Francisco's 1950s Beat scene. The cottage outside Sausalito is a very different residence from what we might have first imagined, and Gilbert's temperament—as a recluse, as a young working man from Pittsburgh—was at odds with the place and time.
We catch glimpses of this in some of his early poems, perhaps most pointedly in "Malvolio in San Francisco," where the Shakespearean mask of the title character barely conceals Gilbert's own alienation from and disdain for his surroundings: "Two days ago they were playing the piano / with a hammer and blowtorch," the poem begins. "Next week they will read poetry / to saxophones." It becomes quickly noticeable that this more introverted speaker has grown tired of festivity ("They laugh so much. / So much more than I do.") This tension leads to aesthetic differences, as the laughers disapprove of the speaker's poetry. Their advice is memorable: "You should turn yourself upside down / so your ass would stick out, / they say. / And they seem to know." Would anyone expect this humor, this cutting restraint, in a poet such as Gilbert? I am hard-pressed to imagine any neo-formalist today skewering the Beats so effectively. Indeed, the second half of this poem finds Gilbert posing as the arch-classicist poet. "The first-rate seems unknown in this city of easy fame," he writes, and contrasts the second- or third-rate he encounters with Phidias, Athena, and Orpheus with his own "stubborn alien smell." The poem that follows, "Orpheus in Greenwich Village," takes the ancient mythic singer as its contemporary artist figure; what if he descended to Hell, the poem asks, and the beasts he intended to calm with his music had no ears? The present poem ends in punchy fashion, with the Malvolian speaker declaring, "I long for my old bigotry," and for his more considered judgments, we might add, and for a world of judgment, and rewards for mastery, too.
"Malvolio in San Francisco" appeared in Gilbert's first book, Views of Jeopardy, which won the 1962 Yale Younger Poets' Prize. It possesses a quality and range rare for first books, even if a few moments—Rilkean imitations and baroque verses ("Poem for Laura")—feel predictable. Numerous poems express the romantic longing that would become a signature feeling throughout Gilbert's career. Some poems recall the author's past relationship with Gianna in Italy: "I turn all night with the thought of her mouth / a little open, and hunger to walk / quiet in the Italy of her head, strange / but no tourist on the streets of her childhood." At times lines can sound like bad rock-ballad lyrics ("It's this love of you / that grows in me / malignant"), but many others have an apt, urgent quality to them: "In the cold streets / your warm body. / In whatever room / your warm body." These may remind you of something out of Lorca's folk poetry, or, in our own day, some of folk singer John Gorka's songs, like "I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair." There is a seasoned, simple Troubadour element here that an evident neo-Romantic writer such as Gilbert is capable of pulling off well. To his credit, some poems show him to be not unaware of his own amorous postures, as in a pair of "Don Giovanni" poems.
A different kind of revaluation of romantic attitude occurs in a poem entitled "The Abnormal Is Not Courage." Compared with the above examples, it is altogether more surprising and memorable, and remains one of the most widely cited of Gilbert's poems. Here is how it begins:
The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers.
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossible and with form. They rode in sunlight.
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act …
This striking opening image stands as equivalent, in a military key, to Gilbert's own personal vibe of high-minded resistance to the mechanistic and modern (his heroes are instead the medieval love poets Dante and Arnaut Daniel, and—in a more complicated way—Ezra Pound). Those Polish cavaliers also represent, as we consider them in this context (as an image in a love poem), the traditions of courtly love and Liebestod. In the end, however surprisingly, the horsemen resemble Romeo and Juliet: elegant, noble, beautiful, fleeting, and doomed—or, better yet, to resort to a different Shakespeare play written in the same year as Romeo and Juliet, they are "quick bright things" that come to confusion. How wonderfully daring of Gilbert, then, to reject so resolutely that opening image, and every admirable thing it stands for: "But I say … " That declaration is characteristic of Gilbert, and this poem is stylistically in character with its short sentences or clipped speech.
That staccato effect becomes more pronounced in the final lines, but first Gilbert constructs a series of antitheses that allows him to declare, again and again, his preferred mode of love. "Not Macbeth with fine speeches," not the "bounty of impulse," but "Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh. / Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope. / The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo." Hearing a recording of Gilbert reading this poem once, I noticed his emphasis on the "Then": "Then the crescendo," as in "only then," and it is a revealing choice. Gilbert in this poem rejects shallower displays of love, which value drama but cannot sustain, as he says in the poem, "even small kindness." What he presents instead is a love grounded in genuine human regard, and what it lacks in not being meteoric or dolled up, it gains in quiet strength and commitment. It is not sub-romantic, but hyper—it asserts the necessary conditions for a higher form of lasting, deepening romance. It rhapsodizes on steadiness and clarity.
I continue to marvel at the paradoxes of this poem: how it mounts a defense of a stable marriage—"The marriage, / not the month's rapture"—yet sails sublimely above accusations of being reactionary, conservative, bourgeois, or, most damningly of all, unsexy or without passion. On the contrary, it remains a passionate poem, a celebration of a more durable, adult love, so valuing of itself and the beloved that it eschews those intensities that might burn it out. It also disdains grand shows of romance that are, in the end, bereft of love that is clear-eyed and firmly held. It favors instead, with its own charged language that nevertheless is rational and discursive,
… The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.
In my few years sharing this poem with students, I have been struck by how it so easily can become an anthem for any number of male upperclassmen, at the height of their youthful ardor but with a wish to temper their own exuberance and idealizations for the sake of a vision that offers, somehow, long-term marital happiness, with passion still residing there and resilient to mere contentment and concord. Gilbert, you might say, was way ahead of Mumford & Sons. His poem is a heady potion.
Views of Jeopardy was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, alongside books by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, and an entire issue of the literary journal Genesis West, overseen by Gordon Lish, was soon dedicated to Gilbert and his work. He also soon found himself featured in Glamour, Vogue, and Esquire. He was 37 years old. This all could have been a little much for any poet, leaving him breathless and a bit taken aback. One suspects that the sudden attention was a special kind of torment for Gilbert, given his disposition. Fame quickly grew boring, he later said on a number of occasions. Receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in the wake of this success, Gilbert split, and none of his writing turned up for a long time. He shortly returned to Europe, and from there to more remote destinations.
Gilbert's two other great loves developed and came to an end in the twenty-year interval of silence he maintained, till Monolithos at last appeared in 1982. In the mid-1960s, he relocated to Greece, to the islands of Paros and Santorini, with fellow poet Linda Gregg, whom Gilbert said much later had been the most important person in his life. They remained close, and Gregg is now in effect Gilbert's literary executor, having received from him his letters, manuscripts, and other papers. They spent five years together abroad, separating after they returned to San Francisco. Gilbert soon met and fell in love with the young sculptor Michiko Nogami. They married and settled in Japan, where Gilbert did some university teaching. In a career move that seems improbable for him, he also began to lecture in multiple countries for the U. S. State Department. (I like to imagine an American-flag lapel pin worn begrudgingly on his black Beatnik turtleneck.) The editor Gordon Lish continued to be an advocate for Gilbert's work, and helped the poet bring the book to press. In that same year of publication, 1982, Nogami died of cancer. She was thirty-six.
"The heart / never fits / the journey. / Always / one ends / first," Gilbert writes in "Islands and Figs." In a personal context, the lines poignantly point toward Nogami's death, but in the lyrical world of Monolithos, they contribute to a stark, painful meditation on how love sometimes breaks down, becomes untenable and mysterious in its ruined state. The short poem "Walking Home Across the Island" ends, "It is hard / to understand how we could be brought here by love." An author's note explains the book's title, that it means "single stone" and refers to a small hill behind Gilbert's and Gregg's home in Greece. He adds, "It is the tip of a non-igneous stone island buried in debris when most of Thíra blew apart 3,500 years ago." That reference to eruption has always seemed to me, in its sudden destruction, a counterpoint to the slowly disintegrating love dramatized in Monolithos. First the bang, then the whimper.
The book's first section reprints sixteen poems from Views of Jeopardy, and the second section, "Monolithos" proper, begins with a poetic narration of a ninety-foot fall that crushed Gilbert's spine. The poem presents "an amubulance going / to my nearby death," but soon this physical brush with death transforms into relational and emotional elegy—"That's what I remember most of death: / the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden, / the beauty as the marriage steadily failed." (That adverb feels especially loaded, in light of the affirming steadiness in "The Abnormal Is Not Courage," the poem that opens the book.) One short poem, "Meaning Well," captures the marital dissolution in progress, in the mode of dark parable:
Marrying is like somebody
throwing the baby up.
It happy and them throwing it
higher. To the ceiling.
Which jars the loose bulb
and it goes out
as the baby starts down.
Many of the Greece poems in Monolithos feel like entries in a notebook dedicated to sensory perception, the most simple objects and motions: fisherman huts; "The smell of her arms. Stillness. Windstorms."; the "wrong" side of the island without cars and people; "pale olive trees"; cicadas in those trees briefly raging; "Linda getting up from a chair." A few poems find the speaker beyond the Grecian break-up, back in America and newly attuned to its qualities: "I hear the maples and vast elms again." Still, the longing continues, and the acknowledgment that the heart (which in Gilbert's poetry almost always is preceded by that "the") is irrational in its searching. "But Apollo is not reasonable about desire," counters one poem, and late in the book, "Pavane" imagines love's more seasoned version: "The real love that follows / early delight and ignorance. / A wonderful sad dance that comes after."
Monolithos is finally a book about divestment, marital, personal, and otherwise. Gilbert would later speak of this state as "that scraped life." Yet the book is not free of his romanticist flourishes. It is front and center when Gilbert writes, "Summer, the rain, oh Lord, the rain / hammers us into a joy / which we call divinity." And it is there too as one speaker recalls "Stumbling into love, / bewildered by the storms of me." Overall, though, Greece as a setting becomes the surgical table where the scalpel work happens: "In the stillness, the sun grinds him clean," ends the poem "Getting Ready." Fortunately a direct awareness of living by one's priorities, or necessities, emerges from this brutalized, pared-down state—"Stripping everything down till being was visible," he would write in a poem ten years later. In other words, few distractions exist for the one who has been eviscerated or feels dispossessed of everything. One of the moments in Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim approaches Gilbert's position, when Rabbbi Moshe Lieb says, "How easy it is for a poor man to depend on God! What else has he to depend on? And how hard it is for a rich man to depend on God! All his possessions call out to him: 'Depend on us!'" There is also the promise that these incisions will lead to new flourishing. Gilbert describes this process in one poem about Copenhagen as "learning to flower by tightening," and he later finds a fitting doppelganger in Marco Polo, returning from his journey with gems stitched into the lining of his tattered coat.
Monolithos was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and for many readers, it ranks among the most important collections of postwar American poetry—there with, say, Bishop's Geography III and Lowell's Life Studies, Plath's Ariel, Galway Kinnnell's Book of Nightmares, and Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck, John Ashbery's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Louise Gluck's Wild Iris. These early books by Gilbert have remained scarce and cherished, often fetching eye-popping amounts when copies do become available, and the 2012 Collected edition is valuable not least for making his early poetry accessible and in print again.
Gilbert again went silent for many years, or nearly so. He published one chapbook, Kochan, a widower's collection in memory of Nogami. The epigraph, in Chinese ideograms from an anonymous 8th-century work, translates as, "When I saw your face, I wanted always to be seeing it." Some of these poems eventually appeared in The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992, which appeared in 1994. The book's best-known poem, "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart," finds Gilbert embracing to a new degree the opulence of the world's objects and the language by which we attempt to appreciate them. The poem, though, feels like an affirming, all-embracing exception to the book's shaken universe. Gilbert still displays his distancing attitude from the poetry world that nevertheless makes a place for him. "Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry," he writes of in "Measuring the Tyger," and then embraces the loss that haunts The Great Fires as at least authentic experience, however painfully faced. "I want to go back to that time after Michiko's death / when I cried every day among the trees. To the real. / To the magnitude of pain, of being that much alive."
On the other hand, when he remembers Nogami living, he misses most of all the everyday things that are most easily forgotten: "I have lost two thousand habitual / breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about / her is the commonplace I can no longer remember." Many poems recount Nogami's last days, and the couple's facing them, with painful details fiercely told. We learn of the "faint sound" she made when she wanted a piece of watermelon to suck to slake her thirst, or the bucket in the room's corner, "the best we can do for a chamber pot." The dying one leans on her love as she goes. "How strange and fine to get so near to it," Gilbert writes.
Some poems, such as "Recovering Amid the Farms," record the widower's isolation and emotional convalescence with dignity and, in this poem's case, even a little wit and liveliness at the end. The simply but ironically titled "Married" narrates Gilbert's grief-stricken search in their apartment for Nogami's hair, following her funeral. The poem, however, refuses to be only poignant, but takes a surprising turn in its middle that is as courageous as it is compromising: "But after other Japanese women came, / there was no way to be sure which were / hers, and I stopped." It is a blunt-force statement of one letting go of mourning, or at least its stage-one immediacy.
An understated spirit of carpe diem arises in some poems, as when he declares, "We die and are put into the earth forever. / We should insist while there is still time." It becomes clear that new love is the thing best seized, and this stance relates nicely to the book's other disquisitions on love, including poems—perhaps bracing for some readers given its primarily elegiac aspect—for or including Gilbert's earlier loves, Gianna Gelmetti and Linda Gregg (the Collected volume is dedicated to all three women). The title poem sounds like a love poet's riff on the epistles of John: "Love is apart from all things. / Desire and excitement are nothing beside it. / It is not the body that finds love. / What leads us there is the body. / … Love lasts by not lasting."
Other poems have to struggle against lines and images that seem like too-familiar furniture in a Jack Gilbert poem: Lines such as "Grief makes the heart / apparent as much as sudden happiness can" seem proverbial in the less desirable sense. "The world is announced by the smell of oregano and sage in rocky places high up," begins "Steel Guitars," and this reader at least can't help but respond with, "Well, here we go again." A few poems feel like territory already well charted, even if they are powerfully rendered. "A Year Later" contemplates again the end of the poet's relationship with Linda Gregg, and declares it a "purity that looked / like beauty and was too difficult for people." Some poems narrate liaisons, while others speak of awaiting the heart to moderate, to be free or at least protected from love, a "wilderness in the mind." Finally, though, the wish is untrue to the Gilbertian ethos, and the last few poems of The Great Fires find their speakers steady again and more forceful in their praises and wishes. "Let me at least fail at my life," implores the speaker in "I Imagine the Gods," wishing in the last line for his heart to be "feral." There remains a mournful cast here, as a solitary, still grieving person eats figs in a stony field, but a capacity to look ahead begins to emerge.
More than another decade passed before Refusing Heaven (2005) appeared, and with this book the literary establishment caught up again with Gilbert and bestowed its laurels and approbation. Several poems were published in The New Yorker before the book was released, and eventually it was awarded the National Book Critics' Circle Award. It was Gilbert's first major book prize after a number of nominations. "A Brief for the Defense," one of the collection's most regarded poems, finds Gilbert again occupying his high declarative mode:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because it's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. …
Some lines in this powerfully affirming poem strike a note for human endurance, and for whatever it is in us that allows us still to embrace the world in which we often suffer, or, if we're lucky, in which we can settle for a knowledge of others' suffering. As the speaker says later, "We must admit there will be music despite everything." This line enjoys authority because of its begrudging quality—"We must admit … " Another pair of lines troubles me, though, and I may as well use them to illustrate a contest that Gilbert's poetry and the example of his poet's life have demanded from me as a reader over the years. In the poem, Gilbert mentions laughter in Calcutta's terrible streets, and women who laugh in cages in Bombay. He next writes, "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, / we lessen the importance of their deprivation." I resist this formulation in a visceral way, not only for the initial connection between one's own happiness and another's suffering, but also for the further implication that we, in seeking happiness, in any way reduce the plight of those suffering. It feels, to put it plainly, grossly self-absorbed, and with an ethical sensibility that is gauchely out of perspective.
In such moments, Gilbert's inadequacies become painfully visible. The style is persuasive, but the thought is not always convincing, or it gives out at its farthest reaches. "Imagine if suffering were real," he writes in a poem in Monolithos. What? The reader then finds herself at risk of, to quote Thomas M. Disch on Kenneth Fearing, "falling out of love" with a once adored writer. But then again, one of the joys of rereading is for an admired text to be again put to the test, and, conversely, to see if the older self can live up to the sympathy and passion, the fresh eyes and impressionable mind, of the younger reader that he was. Other great works operate in reverse: the greatness of Lear, it increasingly seems to me, lies in the fact that it always seems far ahead of you, no matter the age or circumstance of reader or reading. A work like that is always waiting for you to catch up. Its deigning to look back at you constitutes both an act of mercy and a most intimidating challenge.
Some readers found that Gilbert's final single volume of poetry, The Dance Most of All (2009), was less powerful overall than its predecessors, and I was one who thought so. He had set a high standard, after all. Nevertheless, admirers of Gilbert's writing will find poems here that extend the old glories of the earlier work. Early in The Dance Most of All he announces his literary precedents, the Chinese poets with their "immaculate pain" (Wang Wei particularly, who will also appear in the current book's closing section of uncollected poems), and the Ovid of the late poetry of exile.
A few final themes or preoccupations in Gilbert's writing seem equally present across both Refusing Heaven and The Dance Most of All. One group of poems evokes the Wordsworthian recluse, a mountain lion in winter, let's say. A speaker says, "It is so quiet I can hear the air / in the canebrake," while others wash with cold water by kerosene light, or clean lentils from the back of the cupboard when money has run out. One, planting bean seedlings, makes you think, "Well, that's the perfect activity for him." Yet this recluse still encounters the far-flung world. A poem such as "Exceeding the Spirit" rides along on its unblinking details of a landscape torn by civil strife. It brings to mind recent work by the reporter-poet Eliza Griswold. Another strong note is one of victorious resignation, a resignation that feels no need to concede anything. What does that mean? It is best conveyed by certain assertions in these late poems, often closing them: "I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph," one says, and in another, an elegy for an old friend, the speaker is walking and "Thinking / love is not refuted because it comes to an end." In "The Sirens Again," an early poem, Gilbert writes that we must get past that noticeable singing in order to reach an "honest severity." We hear in such places Gilbert's brand of stoicism, more admirable for sounding so rare today, in poetry or in life.
And all the more able to be admired, I should add, because of moments of surprising wit or levity in these later books. These moments feel like foam moose-horns atop the sober philosopher, contemplating the skull in his upraised hand. It is easy to imagine that Gilbert would care the least for humor in his writing. In one three-line poem, he writes: "The Greek fishermen do not / play on the beach and I don't / write funny poems." That's to say, you don't play where you work. Poetry, for Gilbert, is a laboratory of the spirit, or a killing floor sometimes. It is not a stage for stand-up or a child's sandbox. But even this poem rejecting humor is funny, isn't it? "The Friendship Inside Us" begins with its own randy humor: "Why the mouth? Why is it the mouth we put to mouth / at the final moments? Why not the famous groin? / Because the groin is far away. / The mouth is close up against the spirit." That adjective "famous" is priceless, and worth a cartload of less subtle efforts at lyrical humor. The earlier "In Umbria," about a silently sweet half-interaction between a local adolescent girl and "The American," enjoys its likewise light touch, this one flavored with an even rarer comic tenderness rather than archness or wryness.
Less effectively, moments of over-attention—such as a detailed description of a saucepan—feel unintentionally comic; we observe the doddering hermit and the inane drift of his attention. There is also something tiresome in these late poems' knee-jerk search for and defense of the "second-rate," the unenhanced and unimproved. When one speaker says that best Greek islands are now ruined by "acceleration," I don't doubt that it is true in light of Gilbert's life there decades ago, but it still sounds like poetry written by the grumpy Grandpa in The Simpsons. The low moments in these last two books usually involve a willingness to use what will do, often something welcomed before, and so a seemingly safe fixture. The description "Palladian" noticeably reappears. Elsewhere the Gilbertian intensity has slackened, as when we are told, surely a little awkwardly, "There is silence / in the countries of her body," or hear of "A place only the wind knows, the kingdom / of the moon which breathes a thousand years / at a time." This is all huff-puff, and of too little interest linguistically or narratively. There is also something bathetic in the following—"the dance is known by dancing, / and the lasagna is realized by eating it" (lasagna? realized?) —and what are we to do with this statement? "Our excess is measured, our passion / almost deliberate." I would wish to feel indicted by such a statement, if it were better said, but this wording is harmless.
Much better, one page later, to hear that clearer note we seek in this poet: "We learn to live without passion. / To be reasonable. We go hungry / amid the giant granaries / this world is." The lively rhythm, the cropped speaking, the child-like dimension of "this world is"— here we find a poet showing no signs of depleted resources. This poem, "The Danger of Wisdom," later marshals negative examples of the passionless: "Keats starved / himself to death because he yearned / so desperately to feast on Fanny Brawne," a passage that looks all the way back to Gilbert the young poet's fascination with Keats' longing in "Letter to Mr John Keats," in Views of Jeopardy. He is more gnomic there, but the thematic use of Keats' example remains the same across the career.
Sometimes Gilbert dramatizes this struggle at maintenance, whether of outlook or of skill, by composing often energetic poems about difficulties with poetry writing (he memorably calls one poem draft an S.O.B.!). In another example, he shadows himself as an aged singer of Verdi: "He knew how better / than anyone, but finally didn't have the strength / for Othello." All of these facets—the inconsistency, the admission of struggle—contribute to the great pleasure that comes with encountering late Gilbert at his best. The reclusive note reaches its peak, or maybe better to say its challenging nadir, in "The Abandoned Valley." Its speaker puts a bucket in a well in the middle of the night in order to "feel something down there / tug at the other end of the rope"—this is no idealized solitude, or at least not constantly. Being alone sometimes deposits you on an emotional precipice, or lip of a deep well, with the threat but also the allure of black water below. Gilbert does manage always to come through to the other side, "What freshness in me amid the loneliness," he writes elsewhere. Such statements make us gladder because we have been given glimpses of the earlier, uncertain circumstances, the harder stints alone.
Gilbert's powers of elegy stand out the most, and feel most immediate. "By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M." recalls Nogami's final morning, and it is so exquisite and heart-breaking in its directness that it demands full quotation:
For eleven years I have regretted it,
regretted that I did not do what
I wanted to do as I sat there those
four hours watching her die. I wanted
to crawl in among the machinery
and hold her in my arms, knowing
the elementary, leftover bit of her
mind would dimly recognize it was me
carrying her to where she was going.
This poem represents Gilbert getting it just right, but other poems approach the same topic and attempt the same voicing less memorably. (In this case, the poem "Immaculate.") And that really is ok. Who would not gratefully accept the first poem if it takes a mixed pairing to ensure the first's existence? The first by itself fully exemplifies another poem's statement about grief late in the book: "We lose everything, but make harvest / of the consequence it was to us."
A few of Gilbert's key preoccupations become more pronounced in these last two books. To say that Gilbert values the sensual and the body (women's bodies especially) and the joys of physical intimacy is not saying anything new. His Collected edition, as one reviewer observed, "is not short on nipples and thighs." Gilbert's enthusiasm assumes different contours, though, as he writes again about the body's joys later in life. First of all, it is a relief to find him, unlike a number of older male poets who sometimes write like twenty-year-olds in seventy-year-old bodies, willingly subscribing to a reality principle on the matter. In the age of Viagra, he seems comfortable with sexual humility: "romance seems a little bit silly" for senior citizens, he told one interviewer. "To be sexual takes a lot of work." He frames some of his more physically focused poems through older figures, such as grey-haired Trojans who long to experience youth again, and the loves of youth: "Those famous women like honeycombs. Women moving / to the old music again." This is not to say his writing on the subject is now tepid stuff, soft-lit and reminiscent. On the contrary, see the wonderfully carnal "Duende" in Refusing Heaven, or a counter-poem in the last volume, where the speaker is surprisingly disappointed by his daydream of making love to goddesses: "They are / all manner and amazing technique." What he means is, the physical, mortal body is not there. There is no panting and sweating, not enough "foolish excess." Occasionally he can still be his excessive self—"We are allowed / women so we can get into bed with the Lord, / however partial and momentary that is"—but it is more common for reality and memory to reign.
The earlier Monolithos included a veritable pageant of literature's famous women—Semele, Iseult, Beatrice, Helen, Nausicaa, Cleopatra, the Sirens, Susannah—but in later poems, he concentrates his imagination on the three great loves of his life. "I wander through these woods / making songs of you," he writes, and his work proves this to be true and not artificially silly. He may be sound like a Troubadour near a stream in Provence, but he has paid the poet's fare and deserves to reside there. This focus on memory and on the imaginative work of materializing memory again, at least within the fictions of text, is a task that suits Gilbert and his strong conception of his calling well. It resembles the self-reliance that Roland Barthes apprehended in Courbet's Atelier:
Shut up in a room, the artist is painting a landscape he does not see, turning his back on his (naked) model, who is watching him paint. In other words, the poet establishes himself in a space carefully emptied of any gaze but his own.
Barthes calls the result a "complete allegory," but with Gilbert's poetry, that is going too far. The vivid rendering of his memories rejects allegory, favoring instead personality and specificity, as when he recalls walking with Gianna in the fields outside of town, and she is curiously over-dressed for the activity, walking in high heels over the plowed Umbrian earth. Gilbert captures other more literary memories as well: Ken Kesey in the woods, and a journey to visit to Ezra Pound.
Frequently Gilbert returns to memories of a natural place—the poet's native city of Pittsburgh, to Kauffman's Department Store and Highland Avenue. Growing up there gave him a "taste for grit," he determines, and he imagines the steel mills in their grand ruin, "eaten / again by the sun and its rusting." Even in a poem set in Copenhagen, he whispers "Pittsburgh" to a boy whose mother he is seeing, hoping that later in life he will hear the name of this American city and "feel gladness / unaccountably."
One of the poetry-reading highlights of my several years living in New England was traveling up Interstate 91 and hearing Gilbert read at Smith College, when he held a visiting-writer position there. He was renting a room in a friend's home nearby. The reading was worth the trip. Gilbert had the imposing, high-minded presence readers might expect, undiminished by occasional signs of decline, such as struggles to read certain lines. His voice was higher than I had expected. The chance to greet Gilbert, and thank him for the reading and his work, was important to me, almost to the point of my feeling foolish about it. Nevertheless, as the event ended, I approached him. With his shock of white hair, angular features, and intense, lively eyes, it felt like I was conversing with El Greco's St. Jerome. Having nothing better to offer, I mentioned how my family, too, hailed from Pittsburgh, McKeesport particularly. I asked him if he ever had occasion to return. The city was making a comeback, I said. Nah, he said courteously, the real Pittsburgh had been gone a long time, and he argued that current efforts at reinvention simply eliminated traces of the old city to an even greater degree. The exchange disappointed me at first, but, upon further thought, it was exactly the answer that Jack Gilbert, an Orion of the Rust Belt, would be likely to give.
Finally, readers will discover in these late books a more God-haunted outlook. In the title poem to Refusing Heaven, the speaker observes old women at Mass, and acknowledges that they are problematic to him. "He could tell by their eyes / they have seen Christ," he says, but then upholds his defiance: "But he chooses / against the Lord. He will not abandon his life." From his first book onward, Gilbert has shown sensitivity to humans' dual natures—how we are capable of beastliness, but also distinguish ourselves from the entire universe by the fact of our consciousness of both existence and its termination. We differ in two ways, then, from the "mindlessly persisting sea." As he says elsewhere about the natural world, "If all the stars were added / together they would still not know it's spring." Sometimes he partakes in theological mischief along the lines of Jose Saramago: "If we are always good does God lose track / of us?" he asks in one poem. His more genuine stance, though, seems to be a questioning one, and he willingly admits ignorance of the greater, more elusive meanings in his life and beyond it. "Surely our long, steady dying brings us to a state / of grace. What else can I call this bafflement?"
Gilbert has also has shown particular interest in how body and spirit relate. "The trouble God has is that he doesn't know if the stew needs salt," Gilbert once remarked when asked about his religious interests. "So he sent Christ." It is hard to hear the soul through the flesh, he explained, and he was in effect quoting himself, specifically his poem "Angelus" from Monolithos, which restates this dilemma with typically more boldness: "We are spirits housed in meat, / instantly opaque to the Lord." Gilbert was never afraid to use contested words like "soul" and "spirit," and in poetry today, even that is saying something. It was there in the beginning, when he ended his first book with an injunction "to do reverence," and it is there at the end. "I say grace over almost everything," he writes in his last book. He summarizes his life and his poetic journey even more succinctly in that Lannan interview discussed above: "In my opinion, I was blessed."
Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first book of poetry, The Garbage Eater, was published in 2011 by Northwestern University Press. A second collection, Fall Run Road, was awarded Finishing Line Press's 2011 Open Chapbook Prize, and appeared in 2012. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Anglican Theological Review, The New Criterion, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Yale Review.
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