Jack Gilbert

November 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

One of my favorite poets died yesterday in Berkeley, CA. Jack Gilbert was 87 and had Alzheimer’s. It was the sort of death where you can say it’s a tragedy only because death is. I didn’t know him and he had plenty of adulation both early and late in his career (the middle, not so much), but now I wish I’d written him a note, when I first discovered him in 2005. I don’t remember what drew me to his fourth book, Refusing Heaven. Nobody told me about him. But somehow I found it, read it, and I should have said: thank you. Thank you for being brilliant. For hewing to exactly what you wanted to say, not spending one extra word. Thank you for making that outworn subject—love gone wrong—feel like a place to find wisdom and to express that other love, the one we use to communicate with friends and strangers.

I copied several articles and interviews about him yesterday, intending to read them and craft an essay about his life. I don’t feel like doing that now. I know he was an expatriate, lived all over the world, sought solitude and was lonely, loved women and lived with grief. I know his wife died young. That’s enough to know for now, though I will read the articles and interview and obituaries. His achievement makes me remember what poetry is for: not to move us or teach us (though that’s very fine), but to show us what new and durable craft can be made from the unchanging heart.

There are writers you love because you can find so many meanings in their work, interpret them a hundred different ways and not be wrong—writers who delight you with the fecundity and shape-shifting of imagination—and others whose power is to never be misunderstood.

I probably wouldn’t have gotten along with Jack Gilbert. I’m too much the first sort of writer, fishing, magpie-ing, putting things together one way and another, looking for comedy, looking for drama, hoping people like it, hoping something sticks; but I would have adored him anyway. His truth is not mine and it is mine. My sorrows go squishy, but they have their own tenacity. The sinews of his poems make me feel my own muscle. Words can do things.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gilbert. I wish I’d met you. You were a very great man.

Tear it Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

–Jack Gilbert

The Un-Divorced

August 2, 2010 § 5 Comments

The New York Times has an article called “The Un-Divorced,” about couples who live apart for years but don’t divorce for various reasons, inertia and money being the most important. Since I’m in that situation with my husband, who lives in Florida while I live in New York, I would like to add my two cents (which is all I would have without him).

I treasure living alone, but it helps to have a man around, a few days a month, who considers himself part of the household and will therefore cut the cats’ toenails, sew up the rip in the comforter, and defrost the refrigerator. He also sends checks and reads everything I write. He gives me his old iphones when he buys the new model. He provides health insurance.

I scour the Internet for the family Christmas presents, remind him of his children’s birthdays and offer advice on his work woes. I remember his parents when they were younger than he is now, and his children before they had children. I remember his children in diapers. I sat at his kitchen table at 17 and listened to all the grief and confusion a young man with four children feels when his family comes apart. He listened to my advice then, too. What I remember is being glad that his obsessive focus on his lost marriage meant he didn’t notice how pathologically shy I was.

And he sat with me many nights in my 20’s when I was drunk, talking about the family deaths of my childhood and all the other events of my short life that were numinous with a meaning I didn’t understand, which I can now summarize for you: love. He listened to me say, “I wish I was dead” over and over in my 30’s and never once told me how scared it made him.

But he still leaves the milk out every single day and leaves the keys in the apartment door (on the outside). Missing each other helps. Seeing other people, both of us, is a good thing, except when it isn’t. I’m not going to pretend we’ve got something that works smoothly. I’ve never gotten beyond the stage of life where you’re thrilled when the car makes it all the way home and nothing has blown up while you were out.

Today my husband went home to Florida and I like being alone and I’m lonely. I’m still trying to figure out what I want besides all the things I used to have, including the blue dress with the zipper down the front that I wore in 5th grade. I want there to be lots of lions and elephants in Africa, and plenty of fish in the sea. I want everyone I care for living close by, but separate quarters for all. I want a common room like we had in boarding school, where you can loiter when you need company but are too conflicted to make a phone call. It would probably be a good idea to add a nurse’s station. And a place to buy milk.

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
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? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

–Jack Gilbert

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