Julie Christine's Reviews > Collected Poems

Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert
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it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry, best-of-2015, read-2015

Although no relation, writer Elizabeth Gilbert has been singing poet Jack Gilbert's praises while on the tour circuit to promote her new book, Big Magic. Gilbert-she deems Gilbert-he the "poet laureate of her life".

Jack Gilbert died in 2012 at the age of 87, and I wonder what he would make of his new-found fame; he, so determined to live a life apart, under the radar, untouched by ambition.

I call it exile, or being relegated.
I call it the provinces.
And all the time it is my heart.
My imperfect heart which prefers
this distance from people. Prefers
the half-meetings which cannot lead
to intimacy. Provisional friendships
that are interrupted near the beginning.
A pleasure in not communicating.
And inside, no despair or longing.
A taste for solitude. The knowledge
that love preserves freedom in always
failing. An exile by nature. Where,
indeed, would I ever be a citizen?
~Spring

This one of the last poems I read in Collected Poems and it joins a host of others I have tagged, for it speaks of my soul. My imperfect heart which prefers this distance from people. Prefers the half-meetings which cannot lead to intimacy. The introvert who is often disappointed by intimacy . . . a taste for solitude. A poet who knows my heart.

Yet, deep bonds are possible, though few and far between. Jack Gilbert writes often of his second wife, Michiko, who died of cancer when she was just 36 and they'd had barely ten years together. That singular devotion ripples through much of his work, which is quiet, reflective and unironically, unabashedly poetic.
People complain about too many moons in my poetry

Gilbert's poetry speaks often of place. His hometown, Pittsburgh, and his later years in New England, are grounded in American sensibility and industry. Yet, he wandered for years in Europe, living in Greece and Italy, as well as a span of time in Japan, and the sensuality of these cultures—the textures of food and sea, of hillsides and heat—shimmers in his work.

But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.
Cucumbers and longing. The busy-ness of life that causes us to miss the pleasures of cucumbers and the solace of night.

The poet writes of things that poets write of: grief, sex, despair, God, autumn leaves, seafood, snow. His language is is beautiful and clear, a clarion of profound emotion expressed like a stream of the clearest water.
There was the scraping
sound in the piles of dead leaves on the lavish veranda.
And occasionally the bright sounds of broken glass.
All of it a blessing. The being there. Being alive then.
Like a giant bell ringing long after you can't hear it.

He is a romantic
The arches of her feet are like voices
of children calling in the grove of lemon trees,
where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds.
~Finding Something

but always clear-eyed, always aware of the paradoxes in life, the ever-present shadow of suffering, chased back by the bright, white light of the wonder of being alive. I treasure this collection for the many ways he enters a thought, a theme, through the simplest of objects and precision of language. His poems are short- most a page or less-drops of water beading on skin. He allows for quiet observation, for simplicity that resonates.

This collection contains Gilbert's most famous poem, A Brief for the Defense, which makes me think of so much of his poetic contemporary, and another favorite of mine, Richard Hugo. Men born between world wars, coming of age in the beatnik years, their voices that shaped by the contours of land, isolation, sadness and freedom that no longer exists in this hyper-connected world.

A Brief For The Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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Reading Progress

July 9, 2015 – Shelved
July 9, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
July 9, 2015 – Shelved as: poetry
October 6, 2015 – Started Reading
October 7, 2015 –
page 21
4.86% "I have been easy with trees\n too long. \n Too familiar with mountains\n Joy has been a habit. \n Now \n suddenly\n this rain. \n \n -"Rain""
October 10, 2015 –
page 56
12.96% "The heart\n never fits\n the journey.\n Always\n one ends\n first.\n \n 'Islands and Figs'"
October 12, 2015 –
page 123
28.47% "I went to sleep by the highway\n and woke just before dawn, \n to see people drifting toward me\n across the fields. Silently\n getting into trucks. \n Blurred like first love. \n Another inappropriate beauty\n I leave out of what I am making. \n \n 'Mexico'"
October 15, 2015 –
page 174
40.28% "The arches of her feet are like voices\n of children calling in the grove of lemon trees, \n where my heart is as helpless as crushed birds. \n \n From 'Finding Something'"
October 24, 2015 –
page 255
59.03% "'Flying up, crossing over, going forward. \n Passing through, getting deep enough. Breaking\n into,finding the way, living at the heart\n and going beyond that. Finally realizing\n that arriving is not the same as being resident.' \n from "Exceeding""
October 26, 2015 –
page 277
64.12% "'Can you understand being alone so long\n you would go out in the middle of the night\n and put a bucket into the well\n so you could feel something down there\n tug at the other end of the rope?'\n \n From, 'The Abandoned Valley'"
October 29, 2015 –
page 345
79.86% "There was the scraping \n sound in the piles of dead leaves on the lavish veranda. \n And occasionally the bright sounds of broken glass.\n All of it a blessing. The being there. Being alive then.\n Like a giant bell ringing long after you can't hear it."
October 30, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
October 30, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
October 30, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Peter (new) - added it

Peter Oh my these few poems you've shared sure speak to me too. Look forward to finding this; I've not gone wrong following your suggestions so far and no expectation of this being any different!


Julie Christine Peter wrote: "Oh my these few poems you've shared sure speak to me too. Look forward to finding this; I've not gone wrong following your suggestions so far and no expectation of this being any different!"

Peter, his work is just so lovely. I hope you find this soon!


message 3: by Sonja (new)

Sonja That's so funny
I discovered this book through Big Magic too


Julie Christine Sonja wrote: "That's so funny
I discovered this book through Big Magic too"


How lovely, Sonja!


Michael Great review, Julie! I like the idea of Gilbert's poetry as "a stream of the clearest water."


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