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A Peripatetic Fool

On Jack Gilbert and The Great Fires

Fair warning: not only will this be one of my Lengthy posts, it will be on the subject of poetry. 

Now that I have cleared the room, we can begin.

Back in the mid-1990's NPR’s All Things Considered (I think it was) had a poetry correspondent, whose name I no longer recall, who would turn up once a week to discuss a new volume of contemporary poetry.  Because this was radio, it was necessary to read aloud excerpts from the collection in question on the air, so the poetry could actually be appreciated in its most potentially effective form.

It was through one such report that I first became aware of The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert.  I tracked down a copy (unlike most poetry, it has remained in print) and it has been ever since on the short list of books to which I return on at least an annual basis.

In those long ago days when serious poetry coverage was something that was done even by a mass market outlet such as Esquire magazine, Jack Gilbert was a Name Poet at least briefly, but he has preferred (or been obliged, I can’t be sure) to keep a low public profile.  He won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1962 for his first collection, Views of Jeopardy and was nominated for the Pulitzer that year.  In the intervening four decades, he has published only two other collections, Monolithos (1982) and The Great Fires (1995).  He has spent a good deal of time overseas, particularly in Japan and on one or more remote Greek islands.  His wife, Michiko Nogami, died of cancer in 1982; her dying, his grief and the love out of which that grief springs are the most consistent threads running through The Great Fires, which also alludes among many other things to Gilbert’s youth in Pittsburgh, to long periods of solitude (mostly on that Greek island), and to a passionate love affair at an unspecified time in Denmark.  The poems collected here were written from 1982 to 1992.  Each seems to interlace or bind with others in the book such that the collection as a collection has an impressive structural integrity and cumulative strength.  Being in danger of telling you only how I am affected by these poems, I need to try to explain how they work and why I feel so strongly about them.

Strict meter and rhyme have virtually no place in Gilbert’s methods.  Nor is this purely “free” verse, as each poem tends to be consistent in line length on the page and in the ear.  Only two poems in the book are divided into stanzas, and only a handful run longer than a page.  There is little in the way of showy vocabulary: most of the poems have the feeling of having been turned and adjusted by careful degrees to their sparest elements, using the most direct words that will serve Gilbert’s purposes.  In the poem “Ruins and Wabi,” he begins with a contrast between the harshness of the life and the beauty of the photographs that came out of the Storyville district of New Orleans, before shifting to a consideration of the essential, describing as he does so much of what strikes me as best in his poetry.

* * * It takes a long time to get
the ruins right.  The Japanese think it strange we paint
our old wooden houses when it takes so long to find
the wabi in them.  They prefer the bonsai tree after
the valiant blossoming is over, the leaves fallen.  When
bareness reveals a merit born in the vegetable struggling.

That reduction to essence is a recurring theme, and there are repeated considerations, and embraces, of what remains when one has been winnowed down by time, by tragedy and by the other business of living.  In “Dante Dances,” Gilbert offers vignettes of the poet’s love for Beatrice -- a subject that has a strong emblematic place in my own view of the world, so perhaps I am biased toward this poem -- each described in terms of a dance.  In the concluding stanza, Beatrice is long dead, Dante is old, with his great work behind him.

We see Dante as an old man.  He is a dancer who can
manage only the simple steps of the beginning.
He dances the romance lost, the love that never was,
and the great love missed because of dreaming.
First position, entrechat, and the smallest jumps.
The passionate quiet.  The quieter and strongest.
The special sorrow of a happy, imperfect heart
that finally knows well how to dance.  But does not.

That image of dancing without movement recurs in the conclusion of “To See If Something Comes Next,” which begins with the silence and the “dry smell/ of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere” on that Greek island and “he” -- apparently Gilbert (these poems come with none of the coy denials that, for instance, John Berryman attached to his Dream Songs) -- seemingly wondering whether the stillness and isolation mean he will not produce any more poetry. Then,

Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next
is a dance.  If he stands still, he is dancing.

Much of Gilbert’s poetry works in straightforward ways, with their effects being dependent on the care with which he has positioned a phrase or chosen an image.  In “Finding Something,” for example, he sits outside the house in which Michiko is dying, listening in case she needs him and anticipating the next time he must help her to the chamber pot.

She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

[There was a quotation from an essay by Auden (“The Vision of Eros”) that I was going to insert here, as being a good assessment of Gilbert’s approach to love, but the book containing it has gone temporarily missing; perhaps another time.]

I would not want to give the impression that Gilbert’s poetry is consistently downbeat or that it is in any way "depressing."  In fact, a small number of these poems (though not the strongest in the collection) seem to have been intended to raise a chuckle, or at least a wry grin.  The portentously titled “Prospero Dreams of Daniel Arnaut Inventing love in the Twelfth Century,” for example, gives an almost rube-goldbergian history of the origins of perfume in the course of its nine lines, involving deer, flutes and helicopters [in the 12th Century?]; “Lovers” is made up almost entirely of a joke involving peasant women, a man in need of the loo, and architecture; and "The Lives of Famous Men" finds Gilbert on his Greek isle reminding himself that he must cook the mackerel that night because if he does not "it will kill me tomorrow/ in the vegetable stew.  Which is twice/ wasteful."  As a group, though, the poems of The Great Fires are full of the tragic sense that life is short, that everything ultimately goes wrong, but that the living of that life -- and perhaps the making of art, on which Gilbert is not often explicit -- makes all the difference, as in the concluding lines of “Tearing it Down:”. 

* * * Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.

I conclude with my favorite Jack Gilbert poem, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”, a meditation on language in which virtually all of the ideas are right on the surface.  It is not a “difficult” poem, but it and the other strong poems in this volume are no less admirable, in my view, for their directness.  You should read this book, you really should, early and often.

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite.  Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong.  We say bread and it means according
to which nation.  French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure.  A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment.  I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can.  Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling.  And maybe not.  When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records.  But what if they
are poems or psalms?  My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton.  My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey.  Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body.  Giraffes are this
desire in the dark.  Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map.  What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.


Roger Hagan

Thank you for your essay on Jack Gilbert. After his fine two poems in last week's New Yorker, I found your site. I'll explore it and Gilbert further.

Roger Hagan

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