Posts filed under ‘Jack Gilbert’

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

Jack Gilbert

Listen (to Gilbert read)

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Who hasn’t hoped for lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can? Most of us, at one time or another, have breathed life into words, only to see them turn into monstrous Frankensteins that get it all wrong. Isn’t lovely then to be convinced that what we feel must not be something unique and inexpressible but amber or cinnamon?

The reading is from the most recent Poetcast.


February 15, 2008 at 1:22 am Leave a comment

The Manger of Incidentals

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.


October 20, 2006 at 4:46 am 7 comments