Gilbert’s The Great Fires

I just finished reading Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992. Although it’s only 90 pages long, the book impressed me enough that I put two more of his books on my Amazon wish list even though I’m still not sure how much I agree with what he has to say.

Nor am I sure that I understand exactly what he is trying to say in his poetry. There are two very clear motifs running through this volume of poetry. The dominant motif, the one I most question, is clearly found in


Barrels of chains. Sides of beef stacked in vans.
Water buffalo dragging logs of teak in the river mud
outside Mandalay. Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome.
The mammoth overhead crane bringing slabs of steel
through the dingy light and roar to the giant shear
that cuts the adamantine three-quarter-inch plates
and they flop down. The weight of the mind fractures
the girders and piers of the spirit, spilling out
the heart’s melt. Incandescent ingots big as cars
trundling out of titanic mills, red slag scaling off
the brighter metal in the dark. The Monongahela River
below, night’s sheen on its belly. Silence except
for the machinery clanging deeper in us. You will
love again, people say. Give it time. Me with time
running out. Day after day of the everyday.
What they call real life, made of eighth-inch gauge.
Newness strutting around as if it were significant.
Irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.
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.

Pittsburgh, and particularly its steel mills, is a major symbol in Gilbert’s poetry. It’s hard to dismiss the image of giant furnaces pouring out molten steel as a symbol of passion. And it’s those passionate feelings, both of love and of loss, that Gilbert seems to yearn for. Perhaps that’s not too unusual considering the number of hit songs written about falling in love or losing love. Would country western, much less the Blues, even exist without those themes? Although I wouldn’t question that there is a real sense of being “alive” in such moments, I would question whether that is “the real,” and the only real.

Strangely enough, another motif in Gilbert’s poetry can be found in this reaction to Michiko’s death:


I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmatian. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on the lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.

For someone who wants to feel the “magnitude of pain,” the narrator seems remarkably fond of these quiet moments. Of course, it’s precisely these quiet moments that most appeal to me. Perhaps I’ve spent too many days alone with my Skye who greets me with joy when I return home from the Y, and then is usually content to lay with his head on my lap as I watch television. It’s hard to be quite as passionate as you used to be when you get older, and nothing seems quite as urgent as it did when you were young. The only thing you miss is youth itself.