Rich rewards of life well-observed
A thousand years ago when they built the gardens
of Kyoto, the stones were set in the streams askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in.
Thus Jack Gilbert writes in his magnificent fourth collection, “Refusing Heaven.” In these elegant poems, he shows the value of patience. The reader must slow to negotiate the dense philosophical and moral issues these poems present: the nature of loss, the utility of solitude, the reconciliation of faith and suffering.
Like the gardens, this careful treading is rewarded with stunning vistas and masterfully crafted works of heartbreaking beauty.
Gilbert, 79, is the author of three other collections. His first, “Views of Jeopardy” received the 1962 Yale Younger Poets Prize. A consummate craftsman, Gilbert labored 20 years on his second, “Monolithos,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992" was published in 1994.
As poetry increasingly falls into two categories (confessional-style and experimental language poetry), Gilbert refuses the modes of either; rather he forges his own path with writing that is at once intellectually dense and profoundly human. His work radiates with humility and awe, and he brings an intellectual heft that is often lacking in contemporary poetry.
W.H. Auden wrote that poetry makes us “more aware of ourselves and the world around us.... I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient; I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive.”
Like Auden, Gilbert is concerned with raising awareness without guiding it too forcefully. Rather than declare answers, he stubbornly asks how to be human in a world of loss, violence, failures and suffering.
With clear vibrant language, the poet creates a sense that you are sitting across the table from him discussing how he found joy after his wife’s death, or what he learned about forgiveness from a dead friend. But he doesn’t linger on the personal; it is merely a touchstone for wider moral discussions.
Gilbert has often been called a poet of loss but these poems are rich with having -- the Mediterranean sun, catching a fly ball, the lessons of solitude.
In these poems, loss, as well as solitude and absence, create rich possibilities. There is a dogged refusal to “get over” loss; instead Gilbert sees beauty within it, not in spite of it.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed?
The poem ends:
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Gilbert fiercely defends the material world even with its failures because it offers such a possibility.
In the magnificent opening poem, “A Brief for the Defense,” he faces the intractable question of balancing joy with an acknowledgment of suffering. In this meticulously crafted argument, delight is a duty:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
Gilbert’s poems sometimes approximate Zen edicts and in others he argues with Western theology, but ultimately he builds his own scared philosophy, crafting his own spiritual practice that involves listening to cicadas, cleaning lentils, honoring his loneliness and defying, while loving, God.
Then the poem will break away, entering saturated images honoring the richness on Earth. He refuses heaven because "[w]e have already lived in the real paradise,” as he writes in “Getting Away With It.” The poem ends:
A child in the outfield waiting
for the last fly ball of the year. So dark
already it was black against heaven.
The voices trailing away to dinner,
calling faintly in the immense distance.
Standing with my hands open, watching it
curve over and start down, turning white
at the last second. Hands down. Flourishing.
Elizabeth Hoover is a writer whose reviews have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the Brooklyn Rail.