Ben Winch's Reviews > The Great Fires

The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert
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Jul 03, 12

bookshelves: american, poetry, anglo

I like this. I like it a lot, with reservations. I've read it before, at the urging of a friend, and I liked it then too, though not enough to urge it on others. But recently I read an interview with Jack Gilbert in the Paris Review series, and by the end I was actually in tears thinking about his life and what he'd said and hadn't said about that life in his interview. This is a guy who knew Ginsburg back in San Francisco before 'Howl' - who in all probability was a mentor to Ginsburg, helping him with an early draft of 'Howl'. Who lived not in the city where the party was, but up in some derelict cabin on the outskirts, and anyway moved on quickly enough and went on to live in various parts of the world, not much caring for celebrity or money. A guy who got famous quickly and enjoyed it for about 6 months before moving on and didn't publish another book for 20 years. A serious guy.

OK, so respect. I like that kind of guy - the opposite of 'careerist'. But at the same time you can be too serious, and I guess I wonder if at times Gilbert is just that. His poems are, at their best, like arrows to the heart. In few words, with few adornments, he takes you to a place deep inside - inside him, inside you - where few poets are able to reach. In the poem 'Trying to Have Something Left Over' he speaks of a doomed affair with a woman whose baby he would take care of, throwing him up in the air and whispering 'Pittsburgh' to him each time,

So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.


Wow. I think that's beautiful. That Gilbert loves the child that much, that he loves his hometown, that in this poem he extends the gift to all who read it.

In the poem 'Gift Horses' he's also at his best:

He lives in the barrens, in dying neighbourhoods
and negligible countries. None with an address.
But still the Devil finds him. Kills the wife
or spoils the marriage.


Then he speaks of the pleasures the Devil allows us despite all this:

... Maybe because he is not
good at his job. I believe he loves us against
his will.


Again, wow. Maybe this is Gilbert's speciality: to make us glad of the concessions grief allows us. Certainly the landscape of these poems is overwhelmingly one of desolation, yet we are left with the sense of a man who knows and enjoys pleasure, and who finds it in unexpected places. Writing often of the death of his wife - in her thirties, from cancer - he clearly knows grief. Yet never does he allow this theme to overwhelm us. Instead he takes us to the places that grief has taken him - to a bare mountaintop where many of the poems take place:

... When I hit the log
frozen in the woodpile to break it free,
it makes a sound of perfect inhumanity,
which goes pure all through the valley,
like a crow calling unexpectedly
at the darker end of twilight that awakens
me in the middle of a life.


I cannot but love anyone who brings me so vividly into such moments of solitude, which I have lived myself (though all too briefly) and hope to live again. Moments brilliantly illuminating yet almost unbearable.

Alone with the heart howling
and refusing to let it feed on
mere affection.


Gilbert tells it like it is. And I like it. At times, I love it. But at the same time I can't help but feel something is missing. The language is brilliant - the polish, the precision. At times it seems about to keel over into its own parody, but each time he pulls back, just in time. Yet in this control is a sense of something withheld. Perhaps from my imperfect knowledge of poetry, I think of Raymond Carver, of his very informal, conversational take on similar themes. And though I can sense Gilbert's mastery, I can't help but feel that at his best a poet like Carver gives us more, though perhaps precisely because he does not work so hard at it. Of course at times Carver slides into self-parody, something that Gilbert never allows himself. But is there a touch of pride in this? For someone clearly so skilled and dedicated, Gilbert's ouvre is suspiciously thin. After his death, will someone uncover riches undreamed-of among his papers? I would like to think so, but I don't know if I believe it. The jury is out on this poet. A skilled practitioner, but a miser? Childless myself, alone, and having not published for 15 years, I see in these poems a warning: give more, before it's too late.

That said, I am glad for what little Gilbert offers us.
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