The Manger of Incidentals

October 20, 2006 at 4:46 am 7 comments

Jack Gilbert


We are surrounded by the absurd excess of the universe.
By meaningless bulk, vastness without size,
power without consequence. The stubborn iteration
that is present without being felt.
Nothing the spirit can marry. Merely phenomenon
and its physics. An endless, endless of going on.
No habitat where the brain can recognize itself.
No pertinence for the heart. Helpless duplication.
The horror of none of it being alive.
No red squirrels, no flowers, not even weed.
Nothing that knows what season it is.
The stars uninflected by awareness.
Miming without implication. We alone see the iris
in front of the cabin reach its perfection
and quickly perish. The lamb is born into happiness
and is eaten for Easter. We are blessed
with powerful love and it goes away. We can mourn.
We live the strangeness of being momentary,
and still we are exalted by being temporary.
The grand Italy of meanwhile. It is the fact of being brief,
being small and slight that is the source of our beauty.
We are a singularity that makes music out of noise
because we must hurry. We make a harvest of loneliness
and desiring in the blank wasteland of the cosmos.

The Adam Zagajewski poem we ran a few days ago, reminded me of a lovely online feature the New Yorker ran a while back, which featured an audio recording of Zagajewski reading ‘Praising the Mutilated World’, but also included a piece by a poet named Jack Gilbert, who I’d never heard of before and who has since become one of my favourite poets.

You know the expression “talks softly but carries a big stick”? It fits Gilbert perfectly. Gilbert is that rarity – a poet who is quiet but not understated, graceful but not formal; his poems are both profound and conversational, insightful and familiar. Gilbert marries a tone of self-meditation to an attention to detail, creating poems that are always impactful, but never flamboyant. These are poems of ideas – often latching on to some stray fact and turning it into a larger metaphor, as he does in ‘In Dispraise of Poetry‘, or in ‘Theoretical Lives’:

All that remains from the work of Skopas
are the feet. Sometimes not even that.
Sometimes only irregularities on the plinth
that may indicate how the figure stood.
Using the feet, or shadows of feet,
and the exact diagrams of German professors,
learned men argue about what arms
were doing and how good the sculpture was.
As we do with our lives, guess whether
the woman was truly happy when it rained
and if her father was really the ambassador.
Whether she was passionate or just wanted to please.

(from The Great Fires)

And yet, as Gilbert writes elsewhere, “Our lives happen between the memorable.” and mingled in between the intelligence of Gilbert’s poetry is the pitch-perfect tone of a true master of his craft. These are poems that, when read aloud, echo perfectly both the depth and gentleness of Gilbert’s writing, its essential wisdom.

All in all then, Gilbert is a poet of fine sensibilities and finer distinctions; one who, for all the richness of his language, assists us by making our worlds a little clearer.

The poem above is a good example. It’s quintessential Gilbert – a litany of comparisons and contradictory truths that in the hands of a lesser poet would rapidly have become cloying. In Gilbert’s hands they take on the ring of the Truth. A description not of a scene or a feeling, but a finely crafted narrative of life itself.



Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Jack Gilbert.

Tao Te Ching (Chapter 14, An Extract) Virtue

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Facetious Feline  |  October 22, 2006 at 6:30 am

    Musically powerful, intellectually trivial.

  • 2. Space Bar  |  October 26, 2006 at 3:45 pm

    huh? what happened to the herbert? did i imagine it?

  • 3. blackmamba  |  October 26, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    space bar: nope you did not. some changes to the post and it saved itself as a draft. herbert is back online.

  • 4. Archana  |  October 27, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    the emotions that have evoked such poetry, i thought, could not possibly find expression, until i read the poem.

  • 5. Murdock  |  December 18, 2006 at 10:20 am

    By giving recognition to Gilbert, you are not refusing heaven. :-)

  • 6. Nothing Spaces » Synchronicity & Transcience.  |  February 21, 2011 at 2:44 am

    […] I’m slowly understanding what it means to be OK with that. He puts it brilliantly in “The Manger of Incidentals“: We are blessed with powerful love and it goes away. We can mourn. We live the strangeness […]

  • 7. Synchronicity & Transcience. | Nothing Spaces  |  July 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    […] I know it’s not the central, all-encompassing theme of this surprisingly dense (90 pages!) collection, but it really helped me get through a lot of stuff, and let go of a lot of attachments. I have been welcoming the idea of momentary things, and being at peace with the reality that they might go. I know it sounds kind of bad and dismissive and defeatist, but this idea comes from a good place. For example, in “The Lost Hotels of Paris,” he writes: “But it’s the having not the keeping that is the treasure.” There is an awareness of the fleetingness of things, and I think I’m slowly understanding what it means to be OK with that. He puts it brilliantly in “The Manger of Incidentals“: […]


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