Jack Gilbert

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When the poet Heather McHugh suggested I read the poems of the American Jack Gilbert more than five years ago I had never heard of him. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Rarely anthologized and with only three books of poetry published in a 35 year span until Refusing Heaven which won the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award, he was a well kept secret. With two more books published in 2006 and 2009 he is far better known. At long last. He is a poet of deceptive simplicity. His poems stay in the light from the fire of his keen observations but always pull in a lot of dark from the night beyond. He never lets himself or his reader get off easily. I can’t resist his plain diction, the way he surprises, the way he inspires me to live harder, live more. His own life is well documented in his poems especially the great loves of his life which include his former wife, the poet Linda Gregg and Michiko Nogami his second wife who died aged 36 of cancer. His poems of witness to Michiko’s dying and death burn with a tender anguish.

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as children,
vacations and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

from The Great Fires, Alfred A. Knopf, .New York, 1994 – p. 56


Bella fica! (beautiful fig, fine sex) the whore said
in the back streets of Livorno, proudly slapping
her groin when the man tried to get the price down.
Braddock, the heavyweight champion of the world
when Joe Lewis was destroying him, blood spraying
and his manager between rounds wanting to stop
the fight, said, I won the title in the ring,
I’m going to lose it in the ring. And , after more
damage did. Therefore does the wind keep blowing
that holds this great Earth in the air.
For this the birds sing sometimes without purpose.
We value the soiled old theatres because of what
sometimes happens there. Berlin in the Thirties.
There were flowers all around Jesus in his agony
at Gethsemane. The Lord sees everything, and sees
that it is good despite everything. The manger
was filthy. The women at Dachau knew they were about
to be gassed when they pushed back the Nazi guard
who wanted to die with them, saying he must live.
And sang for a while after the doors closed.

from The Great Fires, 1994 p.35

Beyond Beginnings

How could he later on believe it was the best
time when his wife died unexpectedly
and he wandered every day among the trees, crying
for more than a year? He is still alone and poor
on the island with the wild flowers waist-deep
around his stone hut. In June the wind will
praise the barley stretching all the way
to the mountain. Then it will be good
in the harvested fields, with the sun nailed
to the stony earth. Mornings will come and go
in the silence, the moon a heaven mediated
by owls in the dark. Is there a happiness
later on that is neither fierce nor reasonable?
A time when the heart is fresh again, and a time
after that when the heart is ripe? The Aegean
was blue just then at the end of the valley,
and is blue now differently.

from The Great Fires, p. 77

The Abnormal Is Not Courage

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers.
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
the bravery. Say it’s not courage. Call it passion.
Would say courage isn’t that. Not at its best.
It was impossible, and with form. They rode in sunlight.
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not MacBeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore’s heart; the bounty of impulse,
and the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
that is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

from Monolithos, Alfred A. Knopf, .New York, 1982 – p.3

The Lost Hotels of Paris

The Lord gives everything and charges
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while. We are
allowed to visit the hearts of woman,
go into their bodies so we feel
no longer alone. We are permitted
romantic love with its bounty and half-life
of two years. It is right to mourn
for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
when we used to be. My mansard looking
down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
and me listening to the bell at night.
Venice is no more. The best Greek islands
have drowned in acceleration. But it’s the having
not the keeping that is the treasure.
Ginsberg came into my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets its right even that much.
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.

from Refusing Heaven, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005, p.53

The Secret

There is an easy beauty in the bronze statues
dredged up from the ocean, but there is a worth
to the unshapely our sweet mind founders on.
Truth is like a pearl, Francis Bacon said.
It is lovely in clear light, but the carbuncle
is more precious because its deep red shows best
in varied illumination. “A mixture of a lie
doth ever add pleasure.” When the Chinese made
a circle of stones on the top of their wells,
one would be a little skewed to make the circle
look more round. Irregularity is the secret
of music and to the voice of great poetry.
When a man remembers the beauty of his lost love,
it is the imperfect bit of her he remembers most.
The blown-up Parthenon is augmented by its damage.

from The Dance Most Of All, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009

Finding Something

I say moon is horses in the tempered dark,
because horse is the closest I can get to it.
I sit on the terrace of this worn villa the king’s
telegrapher built on the mountain that looks down
on a blue sea and the small white ferry
that crosses slowly to the next island each noon.
Michiko is dying in the house behind me,
the long windows open so I can hear
the faint sound she will make when she wants
watermelon to suck or so I can take her
to a bucket in the corner of the high-ceilinged room
which is the best we can do for a chamber pot.
She will lean against my leg as she sits
so as not to fall over in her weakness.
How strange and fine to get so near to it.
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.

from The Great Fires, 1994, p. 13


I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

From The Great Fires, p. 19

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