Perhaps the saddest elegy of all is the one fate writes of our own demise, anticipated, acknowledged, postponed, denied, rejected--finally, unavoidable. The full weight of what we cherished, were given to experience, to know, to accomplish, is served up as a conclusive summary--what we thought to say, or tried to, over and over again, over years of chances, is telescoped into relief--but, like the soldier on Bierce's Owl Creek Bridge, the release into emptiness leaves nothing but a false memory, another version of the story.
For the better part of his life, Jack Gilbert rejected the standard literary career, in favor of a kind of spiritual retreat, choosing a modest life, an attention to the detail of living privately, intimately, over the theatre of approbation and congeniality, of ambition and guile. One's tendency is to regard this renunciation as a virtuous sacrifice, but the benefits of aesthetic celibacy aren't what Gilbert was after. For a poet as committed to convulsive finalities and verdicts as Gilbert is, the drama of epitaphs is irresistable:
OVID IN TEARS
Love is like a garden in the heart, he said.
They asked him what he meant by garden.
He explained about gardens. "In the cities,"
he said, "there are places walled off where color
and decorum are magnified into a civilization.
Like a beautiful woman," he said. How like
a woman, they asked. He remembered their wives
and said garden was just a figure of speech,
then called for drinks all around. Two rounds later
he was crying. Talking about how Charlemagne
couldn't read but still made a world. About Hagia
Sophia and putting a round dome on a square
base after nine hundred years of failure.
The hand holding him slipped and he fell.
"White stone in the white sunlight," he said
as they picked him up. "not the great fires
built on the edge of the world." His voice grew
fainter as they carried him away. "Both the melody
and the symphony. The imperfect dancing
in the beautiful dance. The dance most of all."
The concluding sentence is the title of the last collection. The imagined dialectic is typical, along with the elliptical phrases, and the occasional unexplained detail. God may be in the details, but we should guard against investing too much in the fleeting metaphor, the convenient simile, since these are transitory, like our bodies, and not to be trusted.
Though Gilbert returns again and again to the sirens of eroticism, it is to preserve a commitment to a feeling, rather than as a memorial to the flesh, that stirs his classical turn of mind.
DREAMING AT THE BALLET
The truth is, goddesses are lousy in bed.
They will do anything it's true.
And the skin is beautifully cared for.
But they have no sense of it. They are
all manner and amazing technique.
I lie with them thinking of your
foolish excesses, of you panting
and sweating, and your eyes after.
The bird on the other side of the valley
sings cuckoo cuckoo and he sings back, inside,
knowing what it meant to the Elizabethans.
Hoping she is unfaithful now. Delicate
and beautiful, making love with the Devil
in his muggy bedroom behind the shabby office.
While he is explaining the slums were there
when he got the job. And the Buicks burning
by the roads in the dark. He was not the one
doing the judging, he says. Or the one pointing down
at the lakes of burning lead. He is feeding
her lemons. Holding shaved ice in his mouth
and sucking her nipples to help with the heat.
In the end, such performances are like elegies to the submission which love requires of each of us. Women and men give of each other, set aside embarrassment and jeopardy in the quest for a reason to trust, an excuse to feel, beyond the limits of bodies, the freedom of pure energy. The most difficult duty--the "gift that could not be refused" (the white elephant of "In Dispraise of Poetry")--demands of the artist total dedication, that one give up all the fruits of decadence and materiality, in exchange for the favor of the gods. The search for truth--since that is what the dedication means--will come down to an argument between the having of experience, and the understanding of it. The process of that argument will be difficult, will involve submitting to the tortuous maze of language, its false leads, dead-ends and charming diversions.
He is watching the music with his eyes closed.
Hearing the piano like a man moving
through the woods thinking by feeling.
The orchestra up in the trees, the heart below,
step by step. The music hurrying sometimes,
but always returning to quiet, like the man
remembering and hoping. It is a thing in us,
mostly unnoticed. There is somehow a pleasure
in the loss. In the yearning. The pain
going this way and that. Never again.
Never bodied again. Again the never.
Slowly. No undergrowth. Almost leaving.
A humming beauty in the silence.
The having been. Having had. And the man
knowing all of him will come to the end.
When I learned recently that Jack Gilbert was living nearby in Berkeley, in a care facility, I was urged by a friend of the poet to pay him a visit, to see whatever I might do to assist him in his present situation. Within a minute or so of meeting him, in a quiet corner room overlooking a balcony on a residential street, I realized that he was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, well along. The poet's hair is white, and he is of slight build, with piercing blue eyes. As I spoke, there was a sense of dislocation, since he was unable to respond in a way that confirmed understanding, I had the distinct sense of talking either to someone in a coma, or to a ghost, of the shadow of a once-proud, once profoundly perceptive intelligence. "You don't know me," I began, "but someone thought you might need something. Is there anything I can get for you, any errand done, any contact, anything...?" He shook his head. Someone, he said slowly and uncertainly, would be coming soon, very soon, to take him away from that place. The intensity, I thought, of his mind was somehow still present, the fund of memory, that fine sensibility, survived somewhere beyond, behind the wall of incomprehension which was gradually, inexorably rising before his consciousness. But that is a commonplace of misapprehension, that the deterioration is a barrier, rather than a decay of the actual matter of being. Do I trespass on the privacy of suffering by reporting this encounter, or is it the occasion for a tribute to the heroism of defeat?
"I want pity from no one for a pain
I would share with no man"
--quoted by Paul Blackburn, in a poem published near the end of his life (he died of cancer at age 44).
It's like something I've thought of doing for a long time: a poem which would begin with the lines "I've waited all my life, to write this...." If only I could finish it.