For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jack Gilbert, please take a look at the bio link in the previous post. For those of you who know about his work or just don’t care, read on!
For a few years now one of my favorite poets has been Pittsburgh’s own Jack Gilbert. According to his bio, he is currently living in Western Massachusetts, and his work reads, for me at least, as a sensitive yet tough-minded exposition on the realities of rust, decrepitude, and the sufferings of our day-to-day lives. Yet, a sense of grace and acceptance, a tenuous dignity, belies the heartache and very real sorrow that accompanies his speakers’ lives. Enough with the lead-in! Please note the bibliographic information and if you like this piece below, I bet you’ll want to get a copy of the collection for yourself.
Gilbert, Jack. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Here’s the 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.
The stubbornness here is the speaker’s refusal to succumb to the sorrow suggested by the “sane woman,” “the beggars,” and the “farmers,” yet, at line 6 Gilbert moves into his own biography to make more poignant and power the final sentence of the 14th line. Michiko was his wife, who had died from cancer, and Gilbert manages to include her passing (by mentioning her burial city) amongst the other injustices and sorrows that befall the living. Here, then, Gilbert’s speaker is associating himself with the survivors, with those who are “waning.” And in doing so, the poem seems to suggest that, despite the “blinding,” “the power of the sun,” and seperation of friends, the speaker will accept it all without qualification, explanation, or complaint.
There’s a lot more to say, especially about form here, but I’d rather stop now, and let the piece work itself into your mind and heart. Feel free to use the comment feature to open a dialogue about this piece, what you like, don’t like, don’t get, or where I’ve misread in my scant gloss above.