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.