The Lord gives everything and charges
by taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while. We are
allowed to visit hearts of women,
to go into their bodies so we feel
no longer alone. We are permitted
romantic love with its bounty and half-life
of two years. It is right to mourn
for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
when we used to be. My mansard looking
down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
and me listening to the bell at night.
Venice is no more. The best Greek Islands
have drowned in acceleration. But it’s the having
not the keeping that is the treasure.
Ginsberg came to my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets it right even that much.
We look up at the stars and they are
not there. We see the memory
of when they were, once upon a time.
And that too is more than enough.
Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this
long life, along with the few others.
And the four I may have loved, or stopped short
of loving. I wander through these woods
making songs of you. Some of regret, some
of longing, and a terrible one of death.
I carry the privacy of your bodies
and hearts in me. The shameful ardor
and the shameless intimacy, the secret kinds
of happiness and the walled-up childhoods.
I carol loudly of you among trees emptied
of winter and rejoice quietly in summer.
A score of women if you count love both large
and small, real ones that were brief
and those that lasted. Gentle love and some
almost like an animal with its prey.
What is left is what’s alive in me. The failing
of your beauty and its remaining.
You are like countries in which my love
took place. Like a bell in the trees
that makes your music in each wind that moves.
A music composed of what you have forgotten.
That will end with my ending.
“Cherishing What Isn’t” by Jack Gilbert, from The Dance Most of All. © Alfred A Knopf, 2010.
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying” from Refusing Heaven. Copyright © 2005 by Jack Gilbert.
Poet David Bauman came to the rescue when I was looking for a sound recording of Gilbert’s beautiful poem. You may listen to David read Gilbert’s piece below, and you may also visit David’s blog The Dad Poet to read his accompanying post and to listen to his song choice pairing “Why Walk When You Can Fly” by the lovely Mary Chapin Carpenter. Thanks again, David, we appreciate you!
I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmation. I meet
the man walking her on a leash
almost every week. He says good morning
and I stoop down to calm her. He said
once that she was never like that with
other people. Sometimes she is tethered
on their lawn when I go by. If nobody
is around, I sit on the grass. When she
finally quiets, she puts her head in my lap
and we watch each other’s eyes as I whisper
in her soft ears. She cares nothing about
the mystery. She likes it best when
I touch her head and tell her small
things about my days and our friends.
That makes her happy the way it always did.
Jack Gilbert, “Alone” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2012 by Jack Gilbert.
Mr. Gilbert reads “Alone” and other poems in the below video. “Alone” begins at timestamp 14:10.
From the video’s description:
Jack Gilbert reads and introduces eight poems from his collections MONOLITHOS (1982) and THE GREAT FIRES (1994). This is an extract from a longer reading he gave for the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles on 11 November 1995 when he was also interviewed by Jody AllenRandolph. That interview is posted as a separate video at http://youtu.be/UEcre9T5Gts
The poems are all included in TRANSGRESSIONS: SELECTED POEMS (Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2006) and COLLECTED POEMS (Knopf, 2012). The poems are (with page numbers from TRANSGRESSIONS): ‘Pewter’ (35), ‘Finding Something’ (65), ‘Going Wrong’ (57), ‘A Description of Happiness in København’ (49), ‘Searching for Pittsburgh” (68), ‘Alone’ (79), ‘Highlights and Interstices’ (94), and ‘Tear It Down’ [earlier text] (61).
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven
Jack Gilbert (February 18, 1925 – November 13, 2012) gave a rare and delightful interview with the Paris Review, published in 2005, at the age of 80. The interview featured the below–previously unpublished–poem, “The Great Debate” by Gilbert. From the Paris Review, “Jack Gilbert, The Art of Poetry No. 91.”
Interviewed by Sarah Fay.
Who would want to be thinking day and night?
the young man said, eating his chicken
in the beautiful cool shade. Me, I said
before I could stop myself. Heard how it sounded
but knew what would happen if I qualified it.
Me, I said again, but he was already talking
about how a doctor had cured his knee with magic.