Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven

I’m half way through Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and my favorite poem so far is the very first poem in the book:


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 that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m having a hard time getting back to serious reading and haven’t felt like tackling some of the longer works I have sitting on the shelf like H.D.’s Collected Poems or The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz. So I looked back on my Amazon Wish List and downloaded this work on my Kindle.

I was amazed that, sight unseen, I had chosen a work that began with “Sorrow Everywhere. Slaughter everywhere.” It felt that Gilbert was speaking directly to me, had somehow read my mind at this very moment, just as he had when I read “The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992” and added this work to my list in response.

Although at times I find his poetry too cerebral, perhaps too pontifical, (personal weaknesses I’ll sometimes admit to) poems like this one resonate with me, particularly lines like “Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not/ be made so fine.” Beauty is for me the saving grace in a world too often lacking in it, particularly in man-made places like the “cages of Bombay.”

For me the most powerful line in the poem, though, is “To make injustice the only/ measure of our attention is to praise the Devil,” perhaps because I’ve never quite thought of it that way. Too often I feel guilty when I’ve focused on beauty rather than devoting myself to helping to solve the world’s problems or redress injustices. Perhaps man’s greatest strength is the ability to make “music despite everything.” I’m certain that my love of the blues can be tied to that truth.


As noted earlier, I’m finding the current political air distressing, to put it mildly. I can barely bear to watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, much less what tries to pass as real news shows.

It probably doesn’t help that my previous political and environmental activities have resulting in a landslide of emails crying out desperately for help, and more money than I’ve ever had. I finally had to relegate Care to Causes to the Spam file, probably because all the causes they led me to are also sending requests for time, money, and action.

I do continue to explore the many sources of our political and economic crisis with a friend, using Google Documents to share articles worth considering and offering comments on what we’re reading. It seems like an effective way of exploring a new area, rather than just reading on my own. Unfortunately, understanding and examining the problem doesn’t necessarily make me feel better, or more hopeful of actually solving it.

My normal reaction would be to simply load up the car with camping and photography gear and head out. But even the weather around here has been depressing, with constant rain, and more predicted as far out as meteorologists care to speculate.

So, instead, I’ve immersed myself in a new video game, Dragon Age II, one place where I am still capable — with enough effort and time — of defeating the forces of evil. I’ve been playing Dungeon and Dragon games — on the computer — as long as they’ve been out, a very, very long time. It’s probably one of the few games where I can still compete with kids. Amazingly, they’ve evolved into a stage where the game changes as you interact with various characters. Unlike the real world, where good intentions seem meaningless, within this imaginary world your personal actions affect how other characters react to you and, to a certain extent, at least, how the game evolves.

Playing Dragon Age II does nothing to help improve the world, and the money I spent on it should probably have gone to one of those many charities or causes that give ending up in the virtual trash, but it has reduced my stress and might even help me pass the time until Friday’s five-year colonoscopy. At the very least, the stress produced from being unable to defeat a virtual dragon is easier to dispel than the distress caused by Tea Partiers who seem determined to eliminate anything in our society that might help someone less fortunate than ourselves while rewarding those who already have more than they can ever consume.

Now that I’m playing the game for the third time, though, it too is beginning to lose its attraction, and I’ve actually started reading a book of poetry and Conrad’s Lord Jim, so this vacation from blogging should be ending soon.