Wanting no other

Aug 24, 2005 at 12:00 am

The title of Jack Gilbert’s fourth full-length collection of poems could also serve as Gilbert’s core and recurrent poetic motto. The promise of heaven is a proposal that Gilbert, like a cocky boxer, thumbs his nose at. Though it is true that we live in a world where “Sorrow [is] everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies/are not starving someplace, they are starving/somewhere else,” it is also true that “there will be music despite everything.” For more than four decades, over the course of four books, two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Gilbert has been the singer of that sometimes sad song.

“There is laughter/every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,/and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay,” but there is very little to laugh about in the pages of this book.

Gilbert is a serious poet with serious preoccupations: death, time, grief, memory and love. He memorializes the time that he is given on earth, even if that time moves from love to grief and ends, as all things must, in death. Death is a subject that Gilbert knows intimately. His previous book of poems, The Great Fires (1992), was a book born out of the death of his wife of 11 years, the grief and great affection he felt for her.

“Michiko is dying in the house behind me,” Gilbert writes. “How strange and fine to get so near to it.”

Gilbert’s vision of the world does not end with any promise of an afterlife. There is no white light. There is only the body and its strange machinery. Time is ticking away. “We have already lived in the real paradise,” he makes this sentiment clear.

Gilbert celebrates the gift of life. If he mourns at all, it is the loss of the everyday, the parts of our lives that most of us forget. “I have lost two thousand habitual/breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about/her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.”

The poems in Refusing Heaven take us inside the heart of man, risking sentimentality in doing so, though he returns to the page and fashions poems out of a life that is lived on his own terms and at his own sweet pace. These poems are driven by a poet whose waltz is slow, and the poetic landscape is uniquely and intimately Gilbert’s, moving from the two rivers of Pittsburgh, the rusting titanic mills built up along the rivers’ banks, to the ruins of Greece and the islands of stone where he lives alone with “rock and silence.”

His poetry is like a cathedral that should be entered into once and again for years to come; it is meant to be read and reread, and to be lingered over. “When we slow,” Gilbert shows us, “the garden can choose what we notice. Can change/our heart.”

Peter Markus is a poet and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].