Is Jack Gilbert the great refusenik of the last 40 years of American poetry? He has after all refused to pursue a career in academia; refused to issue a book every three or four years; refused, for much of the time, to live in the United States. Yet it seems, with this fourth and presumably final book, Gilbert has joined the crowd. Refusing Heaven teems with prosaic, sometimes wry ruminations on the big issues: mortality, love, memory. While the Gilbert tics abound -- abruptly end-stopped sentence fragments; images welding the abstract and the concrete; the frank statement of intent or affect -- the sharp eyes are mostly absent; the once acerbic tongue turns more frequently to elegaic cliche than to vibrant insight; and thick blocks of pontification overwhelm the sudden appearance of lines in which an outward look at the world, or an image which might suggest rather than declare, are a welcome -- and surprising -- break. In a traditional review -- such as my earlier looks at Gilbert -- the critic would at this point begin to point out the flaws and strengths of the poems before him, providing the evidence to support the already offered conclusions. In this case, however, I will not do so. Instead I will offer you one of Gilbert's poems in its entirety and then a fairly mercilessly cut version of the same poem, a proposition of what this volume might have done if Gilbert had edited himself (or allowed himself to be edited) more critically. Here is "Not the Happiness but the Consequence of Happiness", a poem for which the problems begin with the title:
He wakes up in the silence of the winter woods,
the silence of birds not singing, knowing he will
not hear his voice all day. He remembers what
the brown owl sounded like while he was sleeping.
The man wakes in the frigid morning thinking
about women. Not with desire so much as with a sense
of what is not. The January silence is the sound
of his feet in the snow, a squirrel scolding,
or the scraping calls of a single blue jay.
Something of him dances there, apart and gravely mute.
Many days in the woods he wonders what it is
that he has for so long hunted down. We go hand
in hand, he thinks, into the dark pleasure,
but we are rewarded alone, just as we are married
into aloneness. He walks the paths doing the strange
mathematics of the brain, multiplying the spirit.
He thinks of caressing her feet as she kept dying.
For the last four hours, watching her gradually stop
as the hospital slept. Remembers the stunning
coldness of her head when he kissed her just after.
There is light or more light, darkness and less darkness.
It is, he decides, a quality without definition.
How strange to discover that one lives with the heart
as one lives with a wife. Even after many years,
nobody knows what she is like. The heart has
a life of its own. It gets free of us, escapes,
is ambitiously unfaithful. Dies out unaccountably
after eight years, blooms unnecessarily and too late.
Like the arbitrary silence in the white woods,
leaving tracks in the snow he cannot recognize.
And here is a severe edit, a restitching of lines in which imagery functions as something other than simply an intellectual or sentimental tool:
He walks the paths doing the strange
mathematics of the brain, caressing her feet
for the last four hours, watching
her gradually stop. The coldness
of her head when he kissed her just
after. Tracks in the snow
he cannot recognize.
Or the reader might prefer this more comprehensive version by Ken Sparling:
he wakes up silence
birds not singing
he will not hear
his voice all day
remember the brown owl
wake the frigid
morning a sense
of what is
silence his feet
a squirrel scolding,
a blue jay scraping
something of him
days in woods
hand in hand
into the dark pleasure
we are rewarded
walk paths strange
mathematics of the brain
multiply the spirit
In any event the reader, rather than spend much time with Refusing Heaven, would do better to seek out, or return to, the central achievement of Gilbert's substantial career, the books Monolithos, which Knopf needs to restore to print, and The Great Fires, available as a Knopf paperback.
Refusing Heaven: Knopf, March 2005, $25.