… who died last week, includes this poem.


He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Well, I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. They give out, says Blair, with a “warning wail” about, Gilbert says, “the brevity of life.”

Jack Gilbert is famous (among poetry types) for having had so much “greed of time, of being” that early in his career he turned his back on America, and the poetry world (in which he had already had high-profile successes), and lived pretty much alone on Greek islands. As “Trangressions” makes clear, Gilbert’s recognition of life’s brevity catalyzed a determination to be, not so much to do. He wrote some – not many – books of poems, but mainly he placed himself, open and ecstatic, in life. He lived, as it were, a microscopically intense existential ongoingness in one of the earth’s most intense settings.

Many of his poems arise from this peculiar ontological arrangement, this hyper-focused sensitivity to passing objects, moods, weather patterns. Undistracted by work, family, and social life, untethered by ideology or faith, Gilbert produced strange poems that starkly combine the two essentials of each human being’s being in the world: the physical universe, and the mind. His poems are both sharply clarified evocations of people and things in his sun-blasted environment, and insistent conversations with himself about his own motives in moving himself away from ordinary life, and the price he’s paid for that move.

Of course Gilbert would choose Greece for his slow sweet clear declension through time. Don DeLillo chose it too, for a few years, and saw the same things Gilbert did. In his novel, The Names, DeLillo described a Greek village in language that, put into short lines rather than paragraphs, could be Gilbert’s:

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

Realized space – that’s what the artist is after. The world’s objects and people distributed deeply and fully and feelingly so that when you look at them you see reality, you see the actual world.
In particular, you see the earth’s empty spaces inhabited, elaborated, brought to life, realized by people through use. In Greece, even nowhere is framed.

This needs to be a domestic lived reality, not the techno-phantasmagoria of the great skyscraper city. You seek elemental truths, basic daily gatherings-up, using DeLillo’s word. You want to observe this. So you could live, for instance, on the edge of a Balinese rice paddy just as easily as in a Greek village, for both give you daily and nightly visual access to the interaction of small human communities and natural beauty and bounty. Actually, Greece is better because it’s dry, without natural bounty in the way of watery Bali — you want visual access to small human communities enacting the existential drama of drawing from the earth beauty, sustenance, and meaning.

So, you’re ecstatically, aesthetically, engaged in all of this, but your consciousness – your being a person with a past, with regrets and confusions and worldly avidities – is going to bedevil you, and from the conflict between your settled engagement in a settled world and your neurotic, restless, maybe guilty self (you’re an American behaving like this, for goodness sake) will arise a poem like “Transgressions,” in which the poet talks to himself about his passion for pure being and his sense of the sinfulness of this passion.

The sin of “sloth,” “waste” — yet those were his favorite years, when he was doing “nothing important.”

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose.

Whitman loafs and invites his own and the universal soul; but Gilbert isn’t inviting. His “transgression” resides in his greedy taking of life for himself. Lust, pride, violence, the narcissism of “feeling himself feeling.” He concludes:

This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Nice the way the word shiver shivers through unshriven in that unredeemed cold… But he’s feeling it… Feeling himself feeling the cold, and that’s much more important to him than any reckoning in conventional terms of his transgressions. He wants the true world, all of it, including the true world of his mind and his body and his own ways of being. These may be ugly or beautiful but it is their being existent that elates him, lends him the only redemption he really cares about. Leave all of it alone, he writes – let the world be and let myself be. Let me watch as I become part of the realized space of the globe, and let me transgress and transgress against the higher waste of a labored existence until I come to an end.

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One Response to “A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert…”

  1. Jack/OH Says:

    Poetry’s important for practical reasons. Memory training. Aids prose composition. Rhetorical discipline. In middle age, I took up writing verse for my own amusement. I recited my own stuff once, and was thanked for saying things I hadn’t actually said. I learned a bit about communication, and promptly ditched my versifying career.

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