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Jack Gilbert Was Not Afraid

February 4, 2013

Last year was a big one for the poet Jack Gilbert: he published his Collected Poems and then he died. Beyond one or two poems encountered along the way he never really came to my attention during his life. But those two events flushed out his poems from the literary underbrush and, like a lot of people I suppose, I liked what I saw of them. He was a man apart, old-fashioned in a way but not retro. He was not afraid to write boldly, live boldly, and assert his own vitality at every turn. A poet of the heart and soul, straight-up, without evasions. You don’t have to go chasing after him, he brings it directly.

So here are two of his poems. The first one is here because I like it. The second one too, but I also include it because I have a soft spot for the city of Pittsburgh. Like many notable Americans — Gene Kelly, Gertrude Stein, Andy Warhol, Billy Strayhorn, Rick Easton, Kenneth Burke, Annie Dillard, Jeff Goldblum, Evelyn Nesbit, Perry Como and Pittsburgh Slim — Gilbert was the proud product of Pittsburgh, and though he left the city as young man and ended up traveling far and wide in the world, Pittsburgh never left his poetry.

 

Transgressions

He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

 

Searching for Pittsburgh

The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning the Earth.
Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.

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