Physically, it is a beautiful book: the digital version above does not capture the natural speckled grain of the tan stock, nor the comparatively luminous white print that disappears from view when you set the book flat on a table--leaving only the poet's name, black & utter in its lettering. The design rivals the hardback edition of Zbigniew Herbert's collected poems that came out a few years back. The interior font is clean, uncluttered (font wonks will note that it is Janson, also used on his book Refusing Heaven). I am grateful to have not only an index of titles but an index of first lines.
Stephen Burt made a comment to me that has always stuck, on the importance of "truth claims" in poetry: not only personal or lyric observations about the world around us, but assertions about the way the world works. Truth claims are something Eastern European poets handle very well and American poets, less so; we cling to indeterminacy and self-doubt. I love self-deprecation in a drinking buddy but in a poet, not so much. One of the things I so admire about Gilbert is his fearlessness about making truth claims even amidst a sea of everyday detail, as in this poem:
A STUBBORN ODE
All of it. The sane woman under the bed with the rat
that is licking off the peanut butter she puts on her
front teeth for him. The beggars of Calcutta blinding
their children while somewhere people are rich
and eating with famous friends and having running water
in their fine houses. Michiko is buried in Kamakura.
The tired farmers thresh barley all day under the feet
of donkeys amid the merciless power of the sun.
The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate.
All of us wane, knowing things could have been different.
When Gordon was released from the madhouse, he could
not find Hayden to say goodbye. As he left past
Hall Eight, he saw the face in a basement window,
tears running down the cheeks. And I say, nevertheless.
With the crowd-swell of rich small moments, Gilbert detonates the big lines "The beautiful women grow old, our hearts moderate. / All of us wane, knowing things could have been different."
Perhaps these poems arrive at a perfect time because my third manuscript is so preoccupied with romantic relationships, a theme demonstrably central to Gilbert's work. Much of his work centers on Michiko Nogami, a onetime student, then wife, who passed away at age 36 from cancer after they'd had only 11 years of marriage; other significant female relationships include poet Linda Gregg. "Love is apart from all things," Gilbert wrote in "The Great Fires." "Desire and excitement are nothing beside it....Passion is clearly the path / but does not bring us to love. / It opens the castle of our spirit / so that we might find the love which is / a mystery hidden there."
I fear, in writing about such a fundamental impulse, that I re-use too many images and concerns. But, while we must beware recycling, seeing all these poems in tandem reminds me that repetition is not always a bad idea, because with it comes refinement. No one gets a dance step right the first time. (If you did, it would be boring.)
Gilbert did an incredible in-depth Q&A with The Paris Review, which you can find here. Early on he says this about growing up in Pittsburgh:
"You can’t work in a steel mill and think small. Giant converters hundreds of feet high. Every night, the sky looked enormous. It was a torrent of flames—of fire. The place that Pittsburgh used to be had such scale. My father never brought home three pounds of potatoes. He always came home with crates of things. Everything was grand, heroic. Everything seemed to be gigantic in Pittsburgh—the people, the history. Sinuousness. Power. Substance. Meaningfulness."
...and then later, this:
"Oh, I like ornament at the right time, but I don’t want a poem to be made out of decoration. If you like that kind of poetry, more power to you, but it doesn’t interest me. When I read the poems that matter to me, it stuns me how much the presence of the heart—in all its forms—is endlessly available there. To experience ourselves in an important way just knocks me out. It puzzles me why people have given that up for cleverness. Some of them are ingenious, more ingenious than I am, but so many of them aren’t any good at being alive."
...I'm not going to gild the lily. You figure out for yourself if those words resonate. But for me, they do, and that is what I'm at work on these days.