Poet Jack Gilbert wrote his first book of poetry in 1962, Views of Jeopardy, which attracted considerable media and critical acclaim and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And then – retreat and isolation, almost as if the attention was too overwhelming for the then 37-year-old (and what do you for an encore?).
In the intervening years, Gilbert continued to write and publish in various journals, and produced several other volumes of poetry, including Monolithos (1984), The Great Fires (1994), Refusing Heaven (2005), Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh (2006), Transgressions (UK, 2006), and The Dance Most of All (2009). He’s now 84, and lives in Northampton, Mass.
My introduction to Glibert’s poetry has been The Great Fires, which falls approximately in the middle between his triumphant first volume and the works published in the current decade. His poems are lyrical and clean, like clear ice. They suggest a distance, a separation. The poet is sitting on the side, detached, watching and not participating. From “The White Heart of God:”
The snow falling around the man in the naked woods
is like the ash of heaven, ash from the cool fire
of God’s mother-of-pearl, moon-stately heart.
sympathetic but not merciful. His strictness
parses us. The discomfort of living this way
without birds, among maples without leaves, makes
death and the world visible. Not the harshness,
but the way the world can be known by pushing
against it. And feeling something pushing back.
The whiteness of the winter married to this river
Makes the water look black. The water actually
is the color of giant mirrors set along the marble
corridors of the spirit, the mirrors empty
of everything. The man is doing the year’s accounts…
And there’s a reason for the detachment – the poet, and the poems are haunted. All of these poems, some directly but most indirectly, even the ones about an affair with a Danish woman named Anna, are about the death of Gilbert’s wife, Michiko Nogami, in 1982. The poem in the collection that bears her name:
Michiko Nogami (1946-1982)
Is she more apparent because she is not
anymore forever? Is her whiteness more white
because she was the color of pale honey?
A smokestack making the sky more visible.
A dead woman filling the whole world. Michiko
Said, “The roses you gave me kept me awake
With the sound of their petals falling.”
Haunted and haunting, indeed.