Gilbert’s “Moreover”

I’ve finished Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven and have noted several poems I liked, but few truly stand out, and I’m still struggling to figure out why. This poem seems representative of poems I like but doubt I’ll remember very long:


We are given the trees so we can know
what God looks like. And rivers
so we might understand Him. We are allowed
women so we can get into bed with the Lord,
however partial and momentary that is.
The passion, and then we are single again
while the dark goes on. He lived
in the Massachusetts woods for two years.
Went out naked among the summer pines
at midnight when the moon would allow it.
He watched the aspens when the afternoon breeze
was at them. And listened to rain
on the butternut tree near his window.
But when he finally left, they did not care.
The difficult garden he was midwife to
was indifferent. The eight wild birds
he fed through both winters, when the snow
was starving them, forgot him immediately.
And the three women he ate of and entered
utterly then and before, who were his New World
as immensity and landfall, are now only friends
or dead. What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.

Gilbert’s ideas certainly resonate with me. The opening lines are what initially grabbed me, and I can almost imagine myself walking around naked, or, nearly naked, in the woods to watch the moon — though I would have been out camping in the wilderness when I did that. I sometimes think I actually admire the birds because they seem unaware it’s me that’s feeding them. And, at my age, it’s hard not to agree that “Memory/ builds this kingdom from the fragments/ and approximation. We are gleaners who fill/ the barn for the winter that comes on.” As hard as I try not to, at times I seem to be living my life in the past. In other words, Gilbert ties together a lot of the elements in my life better than I’ve ever been able to do.

It’s easier for me to identify what I like about the poem than to identify why it doesn’t make a stronger impression on me. I suppose one complaint, and it may well be a personal one, is that the poem seems to rely too much on conversation rather than imagery, and the photographer in me responds stronger to concrete imagery than to ideas. I prefer the immediacy of imagery to phrases like “we are given” or “we are allowed.” I want to experience what the poet knows, not be told about it. Of course, I’d have to be an idiot not to realize it’s nearly impossible to talk about the importance of memories in the present tense.

Maybe what I’m objecting to is the very idea that I live too much of my life in the past, or in my mind, rather than in experiencing the moment. That certainly has to be one of the dilemmas that any artist or writer faces when they spend more time trying to capture a moment than they actually did experiencing that moment.

Perhaps Gilbert’s greatest strength is simply that he makes me think. There are very few poems that I just skim without coming back to and thinking over again. He engages me, and that’s the most important reason to read, isn’t it?

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.

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.

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