As newcomers to this city are told, you can't credibly claim to be a Pittsburgher until you've lived here, oh, a generation or so. And yet, one could argue, neither can you really know the place until after you leave.
A unique and stirring test of the latter proposition is Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh. It's a chapbook-sized collection of 20 poems by Jack Gilbert. Born here in 1925, and raised in East Liberty, Gilbert left town as a young man. While he now resides in Northampton, Mass., he's lived much of his life outside the U.S., notably in Paris and Greece.
Some of the poems in Tough Heaven are set in Pittsburgh; some detour here; and others seem barely to do that. So it's too much to call this volume a collective portrait: The verses, culled from three larger collections published over the past quarter-century, are better seen as a series of brilliant sparks by which we can glimpse a now-vanished mid-century city, and consider its formidable formative influence on a single soul.
After graduating from Peabody High School, Gilbert attended the University of Pittsburgh and held jobs including steel-mill worker. Indeed, mill imagery laces these lines no less thoroughly than the mills' products apparently do the poet himself; at least three times he refers to girders holding up his soul. In "A Taste for Grit and Whatever," Gilbert writes:
... Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God's head
torn apart by jungle roots? Maybe
growing up in that brutal city left him
with a taste for grit and whatever it was
he saw in the titanic rusting steel mills.
But Pittsburgh is both less and more than a place of mythological proportions, where a boy once lived through "[s]ummers the size of crusades" and winter promised a "geological length of cold." It's less, because on one level Pittsburgh is simply where Gilbert grew up, and where he implicitly sets a brief parable about a boy ignoring a man who's fallen ("Chastity"), or a young man is transported via big-band radio to an exotic ballroom in New Jersey ("The Lost World"). Yet it's more, too, because the city and its imagery became a benchmark by which to assess his future experience.
"The mills are eaten away," he writes in "Refusing Heaven." "He needs them even though they are gone, to measure against." The poem, which begins "at early Mass in winter," might be set in Pittsburgh, but it isn't. Instead, the city is referenced as something that Gilbert won't surrender, though his stubbornness set him "against the Lord." In "Measuring the Tyger," brief recollections of locales more exotic ("Pantocrater in the Byzantium dome") give way to 10 lines of mill scenes ("Incandescent ingots big as cars"). The poem ends up to concern Gilbert's grief over the death of his second wife, the poet Michiko Nogami ... a grief that left "[w]hat they call real life" feeling like "eighth-inch gauge," a mere surface compared to the "adamantine three-quarters-inch plates" of an earlier, lustier time.
One of poetry's special powers is to find the spiritual amidst the material, and vice versa. Here Gilbert particularly excels, and ... despite Holmes I. Mettee's beautiful 1925 cover photo, of J&L's Pittsburgh Works at Hazelwood going full steam ... it's not all about steel. "Who's There," a poem about time's blurring of identity, summons Pittsburgh through the trees whose "lush whispering" Gilbert knew on summer nights. In "Steel Guitars," a boy's first, tentative taste of the erotic, at a traveling carnival in a railyard, delves into the mystery beyond the flesh on display. In "The Spirit and the Soul," Gilbert again summons images of Pittsburgh, its freight trains and ice-ripped streets, before plunging into a reckoning with the ethereal that is yet bodily: "What lasted is what the soul ate."
A thematic collection such as this bears a risk, not for the poet so much as for the reader: One is tempted to read each poem only to await the inevitable Pittsburgh reference, obtrusive as a Hitchcock film cameo.
Gilbert's Pittsburgh, it's true, is limited by his mere generation of long-ago experience here, and then perhaps grown bigger in his imagination. But his tone is searching, and he is keen to avoid sentimentality. He describes someone "Looking at Pittsburgh from Paris," with "[t]he boat of his heart ... [d]rowned as a secret under the broad Monongahela River." But Gilbert knows, as he writes in "Tear It Down," that "going back toward childhood will not help."
"We find out the heart only by dismantling what / the heart knows," he writes. "The village is not better than Pittsburgh. / Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh."
What Song Should We Sing
By Jack Gilbert
The massive overhead crane comes
when we wave to it, lets down
its heavy claws and waits tamely
within its power while we hook up
the slabs of three-quarter-inch
steel. Take away the ponderous
reality when we wave again.
What name do we have for that?
What song is there for its voice?
What is the other face of Yahweh?
The god who made the slug and ferret,
the maggot and shark in his image.
What is the carol for that?
Is it the song of nevertheless,
or of the empire of our heart? We carry
language as our mind, but are we
the dead whale that sinks grandly
for years to reach the bottom of us?