Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on Refusing Heaven, Poems by Jack Gilbert

Although not a perfect collection, this collection is worth a permanent place on everyone’s bookshelf. Winner of both the LA Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, it is deserving of these awards for the sheer life-affirming quality of the poems. These are a wondrous celebration of life not only in spite of its brevity and flaws but precisely because of its brevity and flaws. What, in the mind of others are failures, within this collection, are transformed into the substance of happiness and beauty. Memory becomes the storehouse of a future life and lazy days doing nothing, the substance of the most joyful times.

Gilbert has assimilated much of Eastern thinking more intimately, more personally, than many other poets. They are not mere stylistic tactics or adopted stances, but insights reaped by living through them, seeing how life affirms the mysticism of Taoism and Buddhism. Thus they are coherently westernized. This is so because Gilbert doesn’t always open with simply accepting their terms. Some of the poems are the struggle toward realization told from the point of view of a western mind.

However, on the whole, his poems are not parabolic, moving from point to point to a final destination, and they are not circular in reaching a resolution or redemption. They are more like a tetherball circling closer and closer to a central point. The iterations the poems cycle through may, at times, lack the peremptory quality that is typically valued in poetry, but they make up for it with their exuberance and joy, in finally transforming the daily and pedestrian into gold, in observing the overlaps of places and identity through time, in noticing the interpenetration of histories within a single life. So his poems may resist memorization because they lack inevitability, but his poems are, in spite of it, memorable.

Not a poet of great music, but a wonderful poet of insight, of the turn of thought that startles or delights. This is the music of reflection, not the right note but the well-articulated idea. If he were a painter, he would be Magritte. Because of this remove, that he is an idea poet and not a musical poet, he is fond of simile. His use of simile does not always please, but it does often provoke. And this is the point. If his similes produce a pause in reading, this does not stall the poem since it causes a consideration of the insight that constitutes the poem. That is, Gilbert does not employ simile as a mere lyrical comparison but as a way to inspire us to think and notice. But thinking means considering, pausing, lingering, which a poem called “Burning (Andante non troppo)” is all about. This is a collection worth lingering over, worth allowing yourself to enjoy. It may actually help you to enjoy life more. Few collections can claim such a triumph.