Reading Jack Gilbert

I never suspect the things that hit me hardest when I'm away from home. I talk to my mother on the phone and am happy to have spoken with her, then go on with my day. I follow friends' births and celebrations on Facebook, or the BC Lions playoff run, and am content to cheer from the distant sidelines. Then I read that Jack Gilbert has died - a man whose one great book of poems was published almost twenty years ago (The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992); a man whose life had been so ravaged by Alzheimer's in recent years that his partner, Linda Gregg, would often speak of him in the past tense, admitting that "there are ways in which Jack is not here"; a man I've never met outside his books - and immediately I feel so terribly far away from the world I know and love.

Earlier this year Marta and I drove to Seattle's poetry-only bookstore, Open Books, in large part to pick up a copy of Gilbert's recently released Collected Poems (yes, I could have ordered it on Amazon - call it a pilgrimage, if you wish). It is all five of Gilbert's books (four inferior books sandwiching The Great Fires) followed by some new poems and wrapped in hard cover. It is thick and heavy and intimidating. So that summer I took it hiking.

The trip went badly. Working off of some poor intel re: steepness and trail conditions, what we planned to be a two-hour bike ride (with camping panniers loaded with tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, Collected Poems, etc.) into the campsite, instead turned out to be a bike-pushing-and-dragging thirteen hour marathon that spread over two days (with an improvised overnight stop). We had started the trip with a larger group, but had become separated, and so camped and hiked without the equipment to cook food or purify river water. When we made it to the campsite we were so exhausted that we abandoned most of our plans for day trips. For the rest of our stay in the South Chilcotin Mountains, Marta read novels and swam and basked in the sun. I read Jack Gilbert's Collected from cover to cover.

At times it was a difficult read. At times it felt like work. Like many poets, after a while many of his poems begin to appear as parodies of his earlier work. About three-quarters of my way through the book, I put it down, picked up my notebook, and wrote:

A Jack Gilbert Poem

Gianna is like Linda.
And also Michiko. They are dead
or will be, and what's the difference,
really? But there is pleasure in them,
and a pleasure inside that pleasure.
And a pleasure inside the memory
of those pleasures. It is like
the old Greek woman carrying
firewood up the hill outside
my window who knows, despite it all,
that Spring is coming.
It is also like Pittsburgh.

So sometimes the book would drag on. But then, suddenly, "Alone". But then "Relative Pitch". But then "Tear it Down". But then "The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart". That last one one of the foundational poems in my life. A little bit of bedrock for my writing, and world view, and mental and emotional well being. And that's enough for one book, isn't it? Even one as thick and heavy and intimidating as Gilbert's Collected.

The truth is that part of why I like to travel is to get away from the poetry world. To get away from poetry, almost. The poetry world often feels like a two hour bike ride that turns into a thirteen hour nightmare. The poetry world often feels like four hundred pages of bloat and repetition for thirty pages of wonder. The poetry world often feels like work. But then...

Thank you, Jack, for reminding me.


daniela elza said...

Thanks for this post, Rob.
Have you thought of writing in other genres?

I do not think I have read Jack Gilbert, but I will surely read the poems you recommend. Cuz lately that is also how I feel about the poetry world, and I do not feel like going through another 400 pages of it. Cuz I think I have done a marathon of more that a 1000 pages this year, and we are not talking Rilke here.
Some days that world feels so small and depressing but mostly because we forget what poetry is, and somedays, well, some days there is nothing in the world I would rather be doing more.
Take good care out there. I miss you both.

theresa said...

An interesting post, full of rich observation -- but I can't agree that the other Gilbert books are inferior. Monolithos? A stunning collection, esp. when read in tandem with Linda Gregg's Too Bright to See.

Rob Taylor said...

Thanks Daniela and Theresa, for your thoughts.

I'll admit I've read The Great Fires 3 or 4 times, and Monolithos only once, so I'll have to give it another look.

And in general, I wasn't meaning to be overly critical of Gilbert's other books (I hope it doesn't come across that way). Instead, I was aiming to compare the transcendent with the good - an unfair comparison for the good, it's true.

If The Great Fires hadn't been written I'd probably be praising Monolithos here. It's certainly my second favourite of Gilbert's.

I'll give it another look once I'm back at home with my library. And I'll try for Linda Gregg's book as well.

Thanks again, you two - and yes, Daniela, get reading!

Daniel Karasik said...

Belatedly: thanks for this, Rob! Don't think we've ever compared notes on Gilbert, but he's one of my favourites (at times I would've said my favourite) too, and The Great Fires is the book. The latest-written poem that snuck into my own collection is an elegy for him written immediately (like, immediately) after I heard the news. What a strange breed of loss it is.

Rob Taylor said...

Thanks, Daniel. I'm looking forward to reading the poem.