By David Madden
Special to Magazine
September 08, 2012
By Jack Gilbert
Knopf, $35; 408 pp.
Jack Gilbert’s “mother was the daughter of sharecroppers,” his “father the black sheep of rich Virginia merchants.” Their son became the merchant of pure being, in poems he sold reluctantly, letting 20 years pass between volumes.
Most of Gilbert’s poems are about women and ordinary things experienced in many countries and cities, and his attitudes and convictions concerning sex and poetry. “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell,” in his first book, Views of Jeopardy, in the Yale Series of Younger Poets,” declares, in Giovanni’s voice, Gilbert’s attitude toward women. “How could they think women a recreation?/ Or the repetition of bodies of steady interest?... /I would not have lost so much for recreation.” Giovanni himself could have written Gilbert’s line: “The truth is goddesses are lousy in bed.”
In “Cherishing What Isn’t,” Gilbert remembers. “Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this / long life, along with a few others.” They, the music, the dancing most of all, “will end with my ending.”
Gianna was the love of his life. Distancing himself from himself by using “he,” Gilbert remembers “Gianna’s virgin body helplessly in love./ The young man wild with romance and appetite./Wondering whether he would ruin her by mistake.”
Linda Gregg, now a famous poet, has been his love and his friend for half a century.
He is sometimes reluctant to make what matters “part of literature”—“Linda getting up from a chair” in Monolithos on the island of Rhodes. Gregg ends her poem “Together in Greece,” “I went to him with that singing in me.” Gilbert laments the end of their love: “the song, suddenly, /has gone out/of me.”
Repotting his late Japanese wife’s avocado plant, Gilbert discovers a single strand of her hair. Michiko became “a dead woman filling the whole world.”
In life and in poetry, Gilbert has sought value in everything; he has aspired to make every moment matter. About a woman who so indifferently offers her naked body to men that “she is invisible under the glare of her nudity,” Gilbert wonders, “Is there a danger she/might feel that nothing significant happened?”
Gilbert moved among the Beats in San Francisco, knew them all, but he was not of them. He ends “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” convinced that what matters, what is of value, fundamentally, “is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”
Never into drugs or alcohol, Gilbert has always been a man of intense, unaffected curiosity about people, places, things, and ideas. “If we are always good does God lose track/of us?” But unable to engage in chitchat, Gilbert has never been drawn to hanging out with poets. With the ideal face and voice of the poet, a man of no fixed abode, of few possessions, when he came to visit you, he came by bus, greeted you carrying only a battered, fat briefcase. Happily always on the move, he could say of himself in Pittsburgh, where he was born, in Italy, where he fell out of a tree into near death, in San Francisco, New York, Paris, London, Greece, Sweden, “I wake to freshness. And do reverence.”
Gilbert used to eat his lunch in a cemetery beside a tree that grew out of a grave. “I liked to think of someone eating what was left of my heart and spirit as I lay in the dark earth translating into fruit.” All his life Gilbert chose the solitary life moving around the world, purely living, loving, writing. In old age, living in a room in New England, he writes, “I say grace over everything.” Now he lives in California again, Gregg watching over him again. An early poem sums up Gilbert’s view of his life, still true at 87. “This I have done with my life, and am content./ I wish I could tell you how it is in that dark/Standing in the huge singing and the alien world.”
David Madden’s most recent novel is Abducted by Circumstance. His 11th work of fiction, London Bridge in Plague and Fire, will appear in late August.