It’s by Jack Gilbert. In this poem, he’s mourning the death of his wife – a lot of the poems in his book The Great Fires are about her, Michiko Nogami, a sculptor who died young.

*********************************

I Imagine The Gods

I imagine the gods saying, We will
make it up to you. We will give you
three wishes, they say. Let me see
the squirrels again, I tell them.
Let me eat some of the great hog
stuffed and roasted on its giant spit
and put out, steaming, into the winter
of my neighborhood when I was usually
too broke to afford even the hundred grams
I ate so happily walking up the cobbles,
past the Street of the Moon
and the Street of the Birdcage-Makers,
the Street of Silence and the Street
of the Little Pissing. We can give you
wisdom, they say in their rich voices.
Let me go at last to Hugette, I say,
the Algerian student with her huge eyes
who timidly invited me to her room
when I was too young and bewildered
that first year in Paris.
Let me at least fail at my life.
Think, they say patiently, we could
make you famous again. Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.

***************************************

The poem is a small dialogue with the gods who, given the anguish they put him through with Nogami’s death, have by way of compensation offered to grant the poet three wishes. The gods seem to think he’ll want the obvious ones – fame, wisdom – but he wants absurdly tiny and trivial ones. I want to see squirrels again (the poet lives on a Greek island and doesn’t, I guess, see them); I want that feeling of happiness I had years ago when, although practically broke, I was able to afford to eat a little of a delicious roasted hog… His wishes point to part of Gilbert’s philosophy: happiness lies in the little things. The big things will break you. You don’t want to bite off too much of the great hog Life; you want just a little, as in Little Pissing Street. Or in the happy-making Street of the Bird-Cage Makers (a not terribly important but possibly beauty-making activity, like poetry). Or the Street of Silence – words being another thing you don’t want to overdo. (Gilbert has produced very few books of poetry.)

Or let’s see… Gilbert tries on various other wishes he might like granted. They’re very particular things. It’s always bothered him that when he was very young he was afraid to take up the timid sexual invitation of a beautiful woman in Paris. Let that thing have happened; let me have gone into her room. Maybe I would have been a flop in bed, but “let me at least fail at my life.” Let me have tried; let me have pursued the plot of my life here, good or bad.

You can see developing a sort of theme here which involves wanting above all reality – tactile, emotional actuality. Wisdom and fame are abstractions; what the poet wants granted is the conviction of fully existing here and now. So here’s the Valentine’s Day thing:

Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present. Help me to find
the heft of these days. That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.

Grieving, he’s disengaged from the real and now, floating above his own pain. So his real wish is to love again so that he can reassume his position in the human story. Only through love do you learn – do you feel – mortality – here understood as the glorious truths of embodied existence and as the end of embodiment. Frighten me into the present – make me love another person so that I can feel, instead of this affectless suffering, the real ground of human being, suffering and bliss and all. Only then will the days become weighty again with the heft of an actual life, and the nights wild with visceral passion.

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4 Responses to “Okay, so here’s my Valentine’s Day poem.”

  1. Nellie in NZ Says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve just returned from my morning walk, easily distracted by thought from the realities of the lavender, the cabbage trees, the fussy magpies in scolding argument. Well-timed for this to appear.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    You’re very welcome, Nellie.

  3. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    Nice. Very nice.

  4. University Diaries » Jack Gilbert, whose poems I’ve featured… Says:

    [...] on this blog, has [...]

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