For the past four decades Pittsburgh-born poet Jack Gilbert has been fashioning bitterly honest poems about "adult concerns," as he calls them -- poems about love and betrayal, grief and longing. Gilbert's 1981 collection Monolithos read like a record of his tumultuous and intense years with the poet Linda Gregg. The Great Fires, published in 1994, was more of a funeral dirge, mourning the death of Gilbert's other great love, Michiko Nogami, with whom he lived for more than a decade.
And so now, another decade later, we have Refusing Heaven, Gilbert's latest wintry volume, dedicated to both Nogami and Gregg, containing poems remembering the former and praising the latter. Some of these verses were written in the Robert Francis house near Amherst, a sturdy wooden structure reminiscent of Thoreau's cabin. Not surprisingly, the work completed during this period navigates between the wild loneliness of old age and the warmth of nostalgia. In "Winning on the Black," Gilbert describes the passage between the two:
The silence is so complete he can hear
the whispers inside him. Mostly names
of women. Women gone or dead. The ones
we loved so easily. What is it, he wonders,
that we had then and don't have now,
that we once were and are no longer.
It seemed natural to be alive back then.
Soon there will be only the raccoon's
Tracks in the snow down by the river.
While many poets spin this kind of personal mythology into their work, Gilbert's poems never come with a whiff of the confessional -- he is not asking the reader to collude with some search for forgiveness or even meaning. In this sense, Gilbert's forbearers are not the confessionals with whom he overlapped, but the romantics -- Keats, Shelley and Byron -- except there is something darker and woollier to his work.
Like them, Gilbert writes out of and about the heart; only his heart is not loyal and true, just fierce. In "Being Young Back Then," the poet recalls racing to post a letter which he hopes will win back his absent girlfriend, and then walking the slow way back to his apartment so that he can stand under another woman's window: "Longing for/ her and dreaming of the other one."
This is not your typical love poem, but then again Gilbert is unusual among poets who write on love. There is a plangent quality to his passion, as if he knows how quickly it deteriorates into something less kind. "He moves toward her," Gilbert writes in "Adults," a poem which unfolds in eight short lines, "knowing he is about to / spoil the way they didn't know each other."
We do what our bodies say because we must, and what lingers are the things Gilbert described in his last volume as the great fires -- memory, yes, but mostly love and grief, and their offspring: regret. "By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M" describes how this combination is born.
For eleven years I have regretted it,
regretted that I did not do what
I wanted to do as I sat there those
four hours watching her die. I wanted
to crawl in among the machinery
and hold her in my arms, knowing
the elementary, leftover bit of her
mind would dimly recognize it was me
carrying her to where she was going.
One would have to search hard to find nine lines which un-zipper the heart so quickly. Indeed, this seems to be Gilbert's specialty: telling us what we need to know in the most essential, unadorned fashion possible. "Keats / would leave blank places in his drafts to hold on / to his passion," writes Gilbert here, reminding us once again of where he comes from. It is not a ridiculous comparison. Gilbert, 80, has given what might be his last volume: Its blank places are few and far between.