Transgressions: Selected Poems by Jack Gilbert
Bloodaxe Books, £9.95
Review by Luke Kennard
Gilbert is one of those beautiful curmudgeonly American recluses who has published four books in fifty years. He’s written great lines like, “The horse wades in the city of grammar.” and
…how frightening it must have been before things had names.
We say peony and make a flower out of that slow writhing.
(From ‘They Call it Attempted Suicide’)
This is the first time Gilbert’s work has been available in this country – or, at least, it would be if all of us didn’t buy our books on import from Amazon anyway. Let’s put it another way: this is the first time Gilbert’s work has been available in Waterstones.
The Waterstones where I grew up used to stock a whole shelf-load of Charles Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press titles. This was odd because it wasn’t a big poetry section by any means – in fact apart from thirty plus large-format 200-pagers of Bukowski’s unedited, self-published, seemingly endless poems about drinking and masturbating, all they had was the collected Pam Ayres, "The Nations Favourite Love Poems" and then BANG! you were in Theatre and Criticism. I guess this was in the days of relative autonomy and the store manager was a big Chuck fan. I don’t recall a single volume ever leaving the premises, but the edges were all smudged black with casual thumbing.
Jack Gilbert is described as “defiantly unfashionable” – this isn’t just a blurb platitude: it’s a fact about Gilbert’s image. But it’s a troubling fact: see, the thing is it’s always been fashionable to be defiant. And in Gilbert’s case it’s doubly troubling: we are to believe he is unfashionable although he has won two of the hippest lit awards in the States, the Yale Younger Poets Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Whoa there, blurby! Really unfashionable is some guy who eats dogfood and publishes his poems on paper aeroplanes.
Gilbert makes a lot of direct references to ancient mythology (which usually sets my teeth on edge, but here not so much) and has that big John-Fante-Chuck-Bukowski style arrogance – never wholly unattractive – a kind of ‘I’m a godamn writer’ swagger. So exactly who Gilbert is defying probably depends on who you think of as fashionable – and whether you think of “fashionable” as a slur. Maybe he’s anti-academic. But not anti-Yale. (Which is about as academic as they come.) Maybe he’s anti-post-avant. Is post-avant fashionable? I don’t even know who I am anymore. [Sobs.]
What I think the blurb means here is that Gilbert is “defiantly unfashionable” as far as the avant-garde are concerned (or so the blurb conjectures) – and the avant-garde, as any fule kno, define themselves by being defiantly unfashionable (“fashionable”, as they see it, meaning prize-winning, university-lecturing, magazine-publishing poets with nice hair). “Defiance” is the watchword, kids. Naturally, there is nothing less fashionable than wanting to appear fashionable. So if anything, Gilbert is defiantly fashionable. All of this shows, I think, the rhetorical force of Ron Silliman’s “School of Quietude” carping. It’s not going to sell any books on either side, but it sure fuels a lot of anger, bitterness and boredom. Anyway, fuck politics (which in poetry world just means sour grapes or wounded defence of your greenhouse – and probably couldn’t be further from the mind of a poet who has lived as rich and full a life as Gilbert. Did he piss away every evening posting bitchy messages on discussion forums? Hell no! He was getting drunk and married and cheap properties on Greek islands! If ever a better case against the internet has been made it’s this one.) – let’s dance.
‘In Dispraise of Poetry’ is from the 1962 collection "Views of Jeopardy":
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly meant worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
Now, I don’t have much patience with the complaints of poets, but the elephant story is wonderful, right? My wheelie bin just blew over. I’ll be back in a second.
Some of Gilbert’s other 1960’s poems are a bit 1960’s:
Two girls barefoot walking in the rain
both girls lovely, one of them is sane.
Yes, those are bongos you can hear – and over there is Ken Kesey feeding your teenage daughter acid. So the 80’s come as a relief:
That’s what I remember most of death:
the gentleness of us in that bare Greek Eden,
the beauty as the marriage steadily failed.
Sometimes all you have to do is mention stuff:
Monolithos was four fisherman huts along the water,
a miniature villa closed for years, and our farmhouse
a hundred feet behind. Hot fields of barley, grapes,
and tomatoes stretching away three flat miles
to where the rest of the island used to be.
The unusual “hot fields” acts as a kind of oven here, cooking up the images that follow it. Actually, that sounds silly. Never mind. The whole of Gilbert’s second collection "Monolithos" is full of this kind of understated, well-chosen description – so that his reflections in ‘Trying to be Married’ are genuinely touching; on witnessing his wife in the moonlight: “How fine she is. How hard we struggle.” At its best, Gilbert’s imagery is subtle, unsentimental and hard-won. “They were cutting the spring barley by fistfulls / when we came…” that sort of thing. And I love “…our hearts in their marvellous cases…” And even the shimmer of Beat poet arrogance doesn’t completely ruin the following:
Apollo walks through the deep roads back in the hills
through sleet to the warm place she is.
Eats her fine cunt and afterward they pretend
to watch the late movie to cover their happiness.
Maybe hating classical reference in contemporary poetry makes me an inverted snob: maybe that’s what I am. It especially gets under my skin when combined with a self-consciously demotic register. It started and finished with Eliot. End of story. But just when I’m cursing Gilbert for getting the ludicrous “fine cunt” stuck in my head (being sung in madenning falsetto by a man with a twisty moustache and a trilby) I’m utterly stunned by something like ‘The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon’:
What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.
Woo! Yeah! That confidence, that Giant-of-American-Literature vibe is totally persuasive here – just like it is with Raymond Carver’s verse. My favourite of Gilbert’s 80’s poems is a tiny little thing called ‘Games’ which perfectly mixes the playful and the furious:
Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.
That one is going in my teaching scrap-book – which is more or less the highest accolade I can give. In Gilbert’s 90’s collection, "The Great Fires", this plain-spoken wisdom is combined with a eulogistic sensibility – following the sudden death of his wife, Michiko. These are poems rich with the sweetest correlations:
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.
Bam! There are plenty of hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments in "The Great Fires". It’s great, isn’t it, when poetry is as good as a film or a novel or some music: when it gets over its inferiority complex and isn’t just poetry about films, novels and music; when it’s actually just good poetry? Of course it is: that was a rhetorical question.
Remembering his Chinese friend
whose brother gave her a jade ring from
the Han Dynasty when she turned eighteen.
Two weeks later, when she was hurrying up
the steps of a Hong Kong bridge, she fell,
and the thousand-year-old ring shattered
on the concrete. When she told him, stunned
and tears running down her face, he said,
‘Don’t cry. I’ll get you something better.’
It’s really hard to make happiness readable or interesting. Even despite the fact that we’re probably too squeamish about money in this country to understand the Chinese attitude to gifts, the above poem is gorgeous, somehow poignant and uplifting. Gilbert achieves joy in the face of agony and personal tragedy. At one point he writes about the abbot of a monastery giving him syrup-water and cake as a kind of treat – but Gilbert can barely stand it: it is far too sugary. Gilbert observes that this is a simple misunderstanding of pleasure due to inexperience; the idea that joy is born of undilluted, uncontrasted sweetness. I’m not going to quote from that poem directly as I really like the way the central image has stayed with me. The only exception to this superb writing is the collection’s title poem, ‘The Great Fires’. Maybe I have no soul, but lines like this:
Love is apart from all things.
Desire and excitement are nothing beside it.
It is not the body that finds love.
What leads us there is the body.
What is not love provokes it.
What is not love quenches it.
make me want to bring up Coldplay or Keane. Read it again: can you hear the one-finger piano line, jangly guitars and soupy production in the background? Part of Gilbert must be aware that this is the syrup-water of poetry. If he wanted to seduce me, he’d better start waxing lyrical about the arches of my feet and avoid telling me what love is altogether. It’s moments like these where the Giant of American Letters strut starts to feel obtrusively like a strut. Still, it’s only the occasional passage that feels emptily ponderous to this sarcastic smart-arse. And Gilbert is wise; probably wise enough to reject being called wise; his wisdom shines out of every other poem. Soon the seer is back with his concrete specifics:
…A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
That’s better, right? And you have to love the simple Walden-of-the-90’s feel to ‘The Edge of the World’:
I light the lamp and look at my watch.
Four-thirty. Tap out my shoes
because of the scorpions, and go out
into the field. Such a sweet night.
No moon, but urgent stars. Go back inside
and make hot chocolate on my butane burner.
I search around with the radio through
the skirl of the Levant. ‘Tea for Two’
in German. Finally Cleveland playing
the Rams in the rain. It makes me feel
acutely here and everybody somewhere else.
He’s not trying to do any more than evoke the simple pleasures of solitude – and it works. Another good decade, then. "Transgressions" concludes with a set of poems selected from Gilbert’s most recent collection, "Refusing Heaven" (2005). The sheer force of these poems is breath-taking. As you can probably tell, he’s not a poet afraid of drawing grand conclusions from the mistakes and the baffling detritus of everyday life:
…We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
There is a powerful sense of weighing-up to these last poems. The writer reflecting on his life and his craft. And I guess Gilbert is famous enough to get away with name-dropping:
Ginbserg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
(From ‘The Lost Hotels of Paris’)
‘What I’ve Got’ depicts the poet crawling around his house, completely isolated and suffering some severe and debilitating fever.
No telephone and nobody going by out there in the field
I could call to. And God knows what I had. Realised
I was on all fours again. Interesting, something said
as I dragged myself onto the bed. Interesting?
another part said. Interesting! For Christ’s sake!
It’s odd – the poets who make it across the Atlantic and those who don’t. Why do we insist on the loveless, lowest-common-denominator brutality of Bukowski and his imitators? Why do we sell him to our students on the flimsy pretext that poetry doesn’t have to be about flowers and clouds? We could have it so much better. Jack Gilbert deserves to be more of a household name in this country – and this selected should go some way towards addressing that.
© Luke Kennard, 2007