Gilbert, Jack. Refusing Heaven. March 2005. Knopf. 200 p. ISBN-13: 978-1-40004-3-651. $25.95
for Prairie Schooner
By Wittgenstein’s watch, our eldest poets circle back to the theme of homecoming as inevitably as they age. Artists, the old fools, can only retire into the cult of yesteryear. The theory would have us believe what Philip Larkin wrote: those who dwell in memory’s "lighted rooms" must be hoping to screen out signs of the blank last "days of thin, continuous dreaming." Jack Gilbert, often retrospective in his slim fifth book Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005), may play into this proposition, but the work remains—provocatively—just beyond its ambit.
A master among us at seventy nine years old, Gilbert locates much of his new work in old haunts—Italy, the Greek islands, the lost hotels of Paris. With that in mind, we scan the subject matter—bridges made by memory, gazes held and broken, lives lived, loves lost, the incantatory effect of hard-won solitude—as just the airy nostalgia that might have raised the philosopher’s hackles. "But it’s the having / not the keeping that is the treasure," counters Gilbert. The close attention Gilbert lavishes on his slow, simple life resets the pace at which most of us might otherwise read, in effect doubling our return on his remembrance. Memory and the present state of mind work inextricably, the poems insist. Gilbert is chary of underestimating this link; he takes pain to trace it strictly, as if pressed to run live wire through dry brush. Having the Having begins with the principal metaphor for remembering, knots in string, but moves immediately into a catalog of what the knots cannot quite connote:
I tie knots in the strings of my spirit
to remember. They are not pictures
of what was. Not accounts of dusk
amid the olive trees and that odor.
Memories are not the pictures, not the trees, not the indeterminate odor. Gilbert continues: memories are not a woman’s body, not her memorable mouth, but at least they provide the imperfect means to it all:
They cannot describe, but they
can prevent remembering it wrong.
Where another poet might strain a single metaphor to bear a stock of memories (Jarold Ramsey’s The Tally Stick: "I have carved our lives in secret on this stick / of mountain mahogany the length of your arms"), Gilbert applies no such pressure, fires no false glaze to bond what Ramsey calls a life’s "lengthening runes." Gilbert’s figures for memory—knots, pictures, paths, blazons, bells—change over the course of the poem, an admission of the trouble we have tagging and retrieving what has mattered to us. We can’t help but strip memories with the sands of time. The final lines mimic the touch-and-go flux of the mind, returning to the metaphor with which the poem began:
Two more knots
This end of the line—three stressed syllables— is a small rhythmic swell. Then the simple fragment of held memory slides out of consciousness, felt in the words themselves as the slip of triple consonance falls loose below the last knot—at the end of just and then at the beginning of straight and string:
and then just straight string.
Burning (Andante Non Troppo) begins as elegantly as Having the Having ends. The title sets the pace, with the heat generated by burning tempered by the Italian andante non troppo, a participial phrase for moderate musical tempo. Gilbert scrambles haptic and auditory cues to slow us down; the poet writes against rapidity. To ignore Gilbert’s parenthetical counsel is to burn through the work and pillage for profundity. Trained as mercenaries after meaning, we still fall prey. Most reviews of Refusing Heaven to date carve out the same powerful passage, significance come by easily: "It is the pace of our living / that makes the world available."
Pulled from the poem, each neat phrase tastes good, keeps its own octosyllabic time, perhaps by design. Restored to their context, however, the complete lines vary, eleven and twelve syllables each, and fulfill a greater purpose—transitioning from brief abstraction into slightly longer lines that continue figuratively:
the body’s lion-wrath or forest waiting,
it is always brash self-sabotage that holds off "what the mystery of us knows," always "our gait of being that decides / how much is seen." Our drives and desires can obscure insight, as Gilbert emphasizes in an unexpected contrast between the architecture of old Italian churches and that of modern buildings:
The grand Italian churches are
covered with detail which is visible at the pace
people walk by. The great modern buildings are
blank because there is no time to see from the car.
The passive verbs in this passage lay us bare, demonstrate our complicity to development, our disregard for what we work so hard to build. Slowing down, Gilbert suggests, is an evolutionary precept antedating us by millennia, as old as the river rocks of Kyoto:
A thousand years ago when they built the gardens
of Kyoto, the stones were set in the stream askew.
Whoever went quickly would fall in.
Gilbert has a way of chiding us for forgetting: it is called a leisurely pace for a reason. The pleasure of pacing shapes the poem itself, with stacks of fricatives kept close together—stones, set, stream, askew—but the poet shuffles them mischievously, only hinting at an alliterative pattern (st-vowel, s-vowel-t, st-consonant, vowel-sk-vowel). He sets sounds as close and crooked as the rocks themselves.
Gilbert makes this kind of merry in his poems alone. His meditations draw their strength from the solitary surroundings, remote provinces from which stars can be spied, where nuthatches, finches, and chickadees constitute good company, and thoughts have room to be met and mastered. Wherever it is situated, each poem resounds with the "quiet that is the music of that place, / which is the difference between silence and windlessness." In such stillness, the poet does equal justice to both lost companions and the soul in solitude, but rarely addresses the living. We imagine Gilbert read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet early on, that he may have marked up the passage, "If you can bear it so, be dead among the dead. The dead are occupied." Gilbert, in fact, responded to Rilke ninety three years after the fact in a poem called "Guilty" from his 1996 collection, The Great Fires: "I’m already one of the dead among the dead."
What results from such a stance is a collection that, even when doing the work of tender elegy for beloved dead, carries a sense of striking isolation. Gilbert’s linguistic restraint startles our social sensibilities, starkness magnified when we compare his work to that of his contemporaries. Here is the second stanza from Seamus Heaney’s Personal Helicon, in which the poet remembers peering into a favorite well:
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of the rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.
While the well’s depth initially fails to reflect back what the poet hopes to see, we still feel the lush satisfaction in the child’s play. Elsewhere, Heaney alludes to anonymous elders who would keep him from the wells; he fringes the sites with ferns and foxgloves, waterweed, fungus, even a rat that slaps across his reflection; he slides in time to differentiate the young boy from the mild adult author he has become. Heaney populates his five stanzas to achieve a happy chaos against which we can fully see the "big-eyed Narcissus," the spell of his own image. Gilbert’s poem shares no such fascination with the self. It is five lines long, not five stanzas. It telescopes neither forward nor backward in time, but hovers over one well in a silent, isolated moment. A bucket is lowered, but we get none of the rich and rackety plummeting Heaney recalls. The Abandoned Valley asks only that we appreciate the desperation for contact that we must assume will be made:
Can you understand being alone so long
you would go out in the middle of the night
and put a bucket into the well
so you could feel something down there
tug at the other end of the rope?
Gilbert’s collection echoes with this relentless spirit of inquiry. In the title poem, Gilbert goes so far as to contest mortality if it means we must surrender all we have lived. The narrator chooses "against the Lord. He will not abandon his life." He remembers the mills "where he became a young man as he worked" and regrets:
The mills are eaten away, and eaten
again by the sun and its rusting. He needs them
even though they are gone, to measure against.
If we must submit to death, we will at least pack our memories with us. Such loyalty to this life seems only sensible, yet by Gilbert’s design the logic quickly fails. The poet measures his life against structures twice worn away, mills long gone. The narrator collapses into abstraction:
He is like an old ferry dragged on to the shore,
a home in its smashed grandeur, with the giant beams
and joists ...
From these figures of destroyed glory and retired utility, Gilbert veers into some of his most spectacular language, images that sink brightly into the surreal. After dedicating much of the book to the treasures of having, the sacred remembered, the lost recalled, Refusing Heaven draws the eye to the illusion of thought and the unreliability of all we romanticize with our meager memorials. We cannot stop time. We cannot live in the now. We cannot refuse heaven, nor can we embrace life. The man’s interests in this poem are as impossible and absurd as:
… a wooden ocean out of control.
A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.
Here is where the poem ends. Yet, if we return to the first piece in the collection, A Brief for the Defense, we remember what Gilbert said to begin with. We might be forgiven for permitting ourselves the brave little luxury of hope:
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.
Delight in the midst of hell on earth, despite fading memories, over rocky ground—Gilbert does not shy from the clichés that furnish memory’s rooms. It is the acoustics he alters in the rooms that, as Pound urged they must, make it new. Love, longing, loneliness—Gilbert’s is a common vernacular. But the poet arranges the mental venue to access what, after we have heard it, seems the only sustainable song, the "music despite everything."