Painting by Jack Richard Smith
I was sorry to hear of Jack Gilbert's death recently. Gilbert was one of those poets who are famous for not being famous. For most of his life he operated below the radar of critical attention, but this was by choice. After winning the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book he lived a modest and peripatetic life, travelling around Europe and spending periods in England, Denmark and Greece. But there was more to his relative invisibility than that. He was an old-fashioned kind of poet, a muse poet who wrote obsessively about the women in his life -- the poems he wrote for his dead lover Michiko are among his most powerful. And he didn’t produce at the regular intervals reputation demands. He took twenty years to produce his second book, Monolithos (1982) and only published a further two books, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005) which brought him some late recognition, winning him the National Book Critics Circle Award.Bloodaxe published Transgression: Selected Poems in 2006. Here are two poems which can be found in that book, the first forseeing the disappearance, in him, of his birthplace, the second probably his best-known poem.
They Will Put My Body into the Ground
They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.
The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
Listen to Jack Gilbert read his poem here