Senior Poetry Editor Katherine Smith continues her review of Jack Gilbert’s poetry. For part 1, click here.
Gilbert’s later books– in addition to a development of richer imagery than his earlier poems and that same existential awe– include poems that express, with restraint, lyricism, and intellect, the range of human emotion as powerfully as any I have ever read.
Gilbert’s The Great Fires is one of the great books of poetry about loss. Irvin Yalom in his book Existential Psychology explains:
There are certain inalterable, irremediable conditions, certain “urgent experiences” that jolt one, that tug one from the first, everyday state of existence to the state of mindfulness of being. Of these urgent experiences (Jasper later referred to them as “border” or “boundary” or “limit” situations) death is the nonpareil: death is the condition that makes it possible to live life in an authentic fashion.
Jack Gilbert’s poetry embodies these urgent experiences. Here in its entirety is the poem “Michiko Dead”:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
In the austerity of its diction and phrasing and the aptness of its central metaphor, this poem exemplifies the best of Gilbert’s work—which leads us through the speaker’s personal existence not to acceptance of death (that would be too manipulative, too philosophizing for Gilbert) but to what awareness and mindfulness of being look like. Awe is all.
This awe, born of “boundary” situations, is the catalyst of much of Gilbert’s work. It informs his wide range of subjects, not only the loss of his beloved wife Michiko Nogami, but , in addition, Gilbert’s hymns to old age (“Prospero Without His Magic”), to Pittsburgh (“Searching for Pittsburgh”), to poverty (“The Lives of Famous Men”), to marriage (“Getting it All”) to the joy of life (“Hard Wired,”“Thinking about Ecstasy”).