Sunday, May 2, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: JACK GILBERT'S REFUSING HEAVEN






















Jack Gilbert is an uneven poet, wonderful at his imagistic best, talky and preachy at his abstract worst. The chief flaw of this 92-page volume is that it contains far too many poems. Without the clutter of the so-so pieces, this could be a lean and elegant book, more in keeping with the poet’s ability to “flower by tightening.” He deserves better editing; after all, he is an important voice in American poetry, an extremely ambitious poet who tries to marry wisdom with beauty. Who else would dare conclude a poem with this statement –

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as the rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Gilbert’s unique strength is imagination, his ability to interweave the mental realm with realistic details. "Bring in the Gods" and "The End of Paradise" are among the Top Five here, as is “What Song Should We Sing.” Another interesting poem is “Trouble,” with its startling ending that blurs the boundary between reality and imagination. "The Lost Hotels of Paris," “A Thanksgiving Dance,” and “Burma” are also among my favorites, along with “Seen from Above” and "The Garden," which begins,

We come from a deep forest of years
into a valley of an unknown country
called loneliness. Without horse or dog,
the heavens bottomless overhead.
We are like Marco Polo who came back
with jewels hidden in the seams of his ragged clothes.

*
The opening of “Moreover” is simply extraordinary:

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.

Often, however, I like only parts of certain poems, and I wonder if we could have "fragments of Jack Gilbert" the way we have fragments of Sappho – for some poems, it would be a huge improvement. On page 30, for instance, embedded in an otherwise almost unbearable poem, with the unbearable title “’Tis Here! ‘Tis Here! ‘Tis Gone! (The Nature of Presence),” we find this gem:

The silence of the mountain is not our silence.
The sound of the earth will never be Un Bel Di.
We are a contingent occurrence. The white horse
In moonlight is more white than when it stands
in sunlight. And even then it depends on whether
a bell is ringing.

This would likely be its own poem in Gilbert’s earlier, tighter Monolithos. Likewise, this passage from “Horses at Midnight without a Moon” (p.63) could be a poem by itself.

We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

*

The volume’s central message, implied already in the title, is that this life is the real paradise. Even a minor poem can suddenly blossom with this message. After wading through the fog of the abstract beginning of “Prospero Listening to the Night” (fortunately Gilbert drops the Prospero persona in this volume – this is the only exception), we get to this:

What he is listening to is
the muteness of the dogs at each farm
in the valley. Their silence means no
lover is abroad nor any vagrant looking
for where to sleep. But there is a young
man, very still, under the heavy grapes
in another part of Heaven. There are still
women hoping behind the dark windows
of farmhouses.

*

Some readers might object that what we have here is the limited poetry of an isolated individual, someone who protests too much about the virtues of poverty and solitude. Gilbert is not going to convince anyone that finding yourself old and alone crowns the “good life.” Contrary to Dickey’s blurb on the back cover, I don’t think that Gilbert teaches us how to live and die. To most people, human connection is more important by far than the sound of the oars in the dark.

While Gilbert’s narcissism can become tiresome, the genuine beauty of his lyrical lines, when he does achieve that beauty, makes it worth the occasional annoyance with statements like “What interested him / most was who he was about to become” – because before it we could feast on

. . . Mortality like
a cello inside him. Like rain in the dark.

There are enough excellent poems and fine passages here that I'd recommend this book, especially to those readers who can forgive some abstraction and sententiousness. The beauties make it worth it. Just when you give up on a particular poem, you can come across this:

Reality is not what we marry as a feeling. It is what
walks up the dirt path, through the excessive heat
and giant sky, the sea stretching away.

**

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