Poet Jack Gilbert's time of triumph and loss

BERKELEY — In a spacious, humane skilled-nursing home, a man sits with his elderly neighbors arrayed in their wheelchairs as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing. Several guests arrive to see the man, and after the last note of "Cheek to Cheek," one of them takes up a microphone and reads a poem.

The reader, startled by a resident's pained moans of distress, stumbles over a word or two of "Looking at Pittsburgh From Paris." He finishes, and the man brightens in his chair and points at his heart, mouthing to a visitor holding his arm, "Me?"

Yes, Jack Gilbert. That's yours.

The poet is 87 and small in his wheelchair, mostly unable to talk, his brain diminished by disease. He is dying. But as for anyone with Alzheimer's or its variants, the end has not come quickly. It is a long receding.

The visitor holding his arm is the most important person in his life, one of his three great loves, the poet Linda Gregg. Now 70, she has visited regularly from Manhattan since Gilbert's declining health required his move west in 2009 from Northampton, Mass. Away from him, she speaks of Gilbert alternately in the past and present tense. "Well," she says, "there are ways in which Jack is not here." Still, Gregg and others closest to him say his mind and personality, if only remotely accessible, persevere. Steven Rood, another friend and poet, says Gilbert "is acutely aware of what's going on in his life, including the tragic nature of it. So it's an ongoing grief."

But this is also a time of triumph for Gilbert. His "Collected Poems," released this year by Knopf, is a hard-won achievement at the end of a difficult path, carved by a stubborn devotion to his art. A book release celebration was held at Pegasus Books in Berkeley in May, with Gregg, Rood and others reading and Gilbert in attendance. Based on many accounts, the place was packed, and the honoree beamed and even applauded.

Not only does the new book remind us of Gilbert's high place in modern American poetry, it is spreading his work to a wide readership: The "Collected" is a bestseller. Its initial printing sold out in two weeks, and it spent 30 weeks on the Poetry Foundation's list of bestselling contemporary poetry books, peaking at No. 1. Four of the uncollected poems included in the book were published in the May-June edition of the American Poetry Review.

The satisfaction of having Gilbert's five original collections gathered into a single volume makes "Collected" an important literary event, all the more because his two earliest books have been essentially out of print for decades — 1962's "Views of Jeopardy," a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize; and 1982's "Monolithos," a Pulitzer finalist.

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If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. / We must admit there will be music despite everything.

— "A Brief for the Defense"

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Of Gilbert's favored words, probably none conveys better the poet -- his life, his work, his ambitions for both -- than magnitude. "Poetry, for me," he declares in a 1965 essay, "is a witnessing to magnitude." In poems he sings of a "magnitude of pain, of being that much alive," and "a magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace."

It is a preoccupation with enormousness, with fortitude and consequence, rooted in the old Pittsburgh of his youth. City of great girders and caldrons, streetcars and locomotives, broad rivers trisecting it and flames towering above it. The former steel mill worker ingested this and distilled it into a guiding aesthetic for how to live and how to write about living.

It led him to Paris, Italy and Greece, to San Francisco, New York and New England; through the celebrity that attended his first book in 1962 and his swift rejection of fame or a university career; through the obscurity and poverty of his Aegean exile; through a life lived precisely how he wanted to live it, while producing a poetry of intellectual weight, stark clarity and emotional incandescence.

Living and writing, though distinct for Gilbert, are never much separated. Regarding both he rails against the mediocre, the inconsequential or, in steel terms, that "made of eighth-inch gauge." His work displays a kind of 18th century formalism and moral concern — what defines a life well lived is a frequent subject. So are lust, love and death, and daily chores. Gilbert the man is ever-present, but, crucially, his gaze is not inward, but fixed on the concrete world of objects and events. As with the ancient poetry of China and Greece — important influences — his poems seek out the colossal within the quotidian. Everyday grandeur without grandiloquence. "The marriage / not the month's rapture," he writes."The beauty / that is of many days. Steady and clear."

A good poem, Gilbert believes, should "detonate" inside the reader. In half a century of his poems, the reverberations are frequent and shattering: "Pewter," with its train of epiphanies punctuated by the refrain "yes, my King." In "Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell," the deceptive melody and repetition of "cripple with beauty and butcher with love." Or in "Married," set after the funeral of Michiko Nogami, another of his three loves, the image of him crawling around their apartment hunting for strands of her hair, and of finding one a year later while repotting her avocado.

At Gilbert's readings, audience members were known to burst into tears. After one reading, Gilbert once recalled, a man walked up to him, without introducing himself, and said, "I want you to know that you've been keeping me alive since 1982," then abruptly left before the poet could respond. This story might sound like vanity talking, except that those who have known Gilbert for years tell many such stories. Gilbert readings, they say, often drew large crowds of people who were not poets. They tended instead to be ordinary people, interested in serious literature and looking for the illumination of a heart they recognized as their own.

*

What if the heart does not pale as the body wanes / but is like the sun that blazes hotter each day / on these immense, perishing fields? What then?

— "Getting Ready"

*

After the impromptu reading at the nursing home, Gilbert is animated. He listens attentively to whoever speaks to him and does his best to respond. His sounds don’t quite form into words, though occasionally a string of rhythms indicates sentences, paragraphs even. "Jack, thanks for talking so much," says Gregg. "And forgive us for not understanding as well as we should," adds Bill Mayer, a poet and longtime friend.

A reporter is among the group. An interview is impossible, but a few yes-or-no questions are attempted. Gilbert is asked if he still has the desire to write, whether there are still poems alive inside of him. "Sure," he says, the clearest word he would utter during the one-hour visit. He nods for emphasis. "Yes."

"Now if we just had a way of getting them out," says Mayer.

In 2005, an 80-year-old Gilbert told the Paris Review, "I think I should write something about getting old. It's never been explored properly." In the ensuing years, he tried to write bits of poems longhand even as his dexterity faltered. The lines in red ink spiraled around on the page, but the words couldn't be deciphered. More recently, he still attended meetings of a Bay Area poetry workshop  he and Gregg founded in 1966, doing “a sort of zen clapping” when he approved of a poem, Mayer says. When his verbal skills were stronger, Rood recalls, a doctor tested his mental acuity by asking him to identify certain objects. The doctor pointed to a lamp, and Gilbert responded, "That's the thing that lets me see." A pen was held up: "That's the thing you write poems with."

As dinnertime arrives at the nursing home, Gilbert is served a grilled cheese sandwich, soggy, to enable him to swallow. He is seated with three other residents, including a woman who says to no one, over and over, "They don't know what to do with me. What can I do? They don’t know what to do with me. What can I do?"

A recent Rood poem, which casts Gilbert as the speaker, resonates: "You can't imagine / how strange it is / to see my death so visible / in these old people / in the dining room. / Eating whatever is put / in front of us by kind aides. / You can't imagine my grief. / That these are the last / things I will do."

For a poet who chose a Greek island exile with little more than his art and his beloved, Linda Gregg, it is tempting to see this great silence of Gilbert's last years as an exile of a cruel sort: Santorini with no white stone houses, no Aegean, no farmers and goats, and Linda an apparition he can sometimes recognize, sometimes not.

Yet this is a poet who advised that "to hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat / comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth / all the years of sorrow that are to come." So it is tempting too to take him at his word.

john.penner@latimes.com

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