In the epigraph to his second collection of poems, Monolithos, Jack Gilbert writes:
Monolithos means single stone, and refers to the small hill behind our house. This hill gives the place where we lived its name. It is also the tip of a solid stone island buried in debris when most of Thíra blew apart 3,500 years ago.
Though rooted in the landscape of Greece, Gilbert’s poems swim through the cavernous rooms of memory, recording the inscape of a private life intoxicated by abundance and swallowed by grief. Over the years, Gilbert has acquired a near-mythic reputation: after winning the 1962 Yale Series of Younger Poets with Views of Jeopardy, he concluded an illustrious victory tour by disappearing abroad for the next twenty years. In 1982, he reemerged to publish Monolithos; then in 1995, The Great Fires appeared, his last collection to date. The Great Fires may well be the richest, most masterful collection of his somewhat clandestine career, giving testament to the silences that spawn artistic creation. In effect, the spaces between his collections are works of art themselves; one has the sense that his periods of silence are not vacuums, but momentous acts of spiritual reawakening, of revival to the necessary joys and sorrows that accompany the most inward life.
Divided into two sections, the first including poems from Views of Jeopardy, and the second a selection of new poems, Monolithos displays the markings of Gilbert’s earlier rigorous use of language, while developing the subjects and themes of his later work. Yet while The Great Fires is imbued with an austere clarity, a blinding simplicity in its even tone and perfunctory syntax, Monolithos is steeped in shadowy grammar and ornately wrought lines. In “That Tenor of Which the Night Birds Are a Vehicle,” for instance, Gilbert mesmerizes through the oddity of language: “Birds who are vast cloud-chambers of the place I am in / in my bright condition, a neighborhood I am the darkness of.”
Elsewhere, Gilbert’s compacts language into luminous marble; the simultaneous effects of density and lightness are starkly, acutely present, as in “The Whiteness, the Sound and Alcibiades”:
In Latium, years ago,
I sat by the road watching
an ox come through the day.
Stark-white in the distance.
Occasionally under a tree.
Colorless in the heavy sun.
Suave in the bright shadows.
Starch-white near in the glare.
Petal-white near in the shade.
Linen, stone-white, and milk.
Ox-white before me, and past
into the thunder of light.
The poem strikes one as almost a cross between early James Wright and Rilke. Yet even in his early work, Gilbert’s voice is distinctly his own. No matter how enraptured he becomes by the moment of the poem’s making, no matter how unbearable its ecstasy, Gilbert always returns to the immediacy of the earth, though it is his own “earth by language”:
For ten years I have tried
to understand about the ox.
About the sound. The whales.
Of love. And arrived here
to give thanks for the profit.
I wake to the wanton freshness.
To the arriving and leaving. To the journey.
I wake to the freshness. And do reverence.
In one of the many jewels of the collection, “Registration,” Gilbert’s treasure-chest style is so uniquely delicate, so painstakingly translucent it seems to vanish into thin air:
Where the worms had opened the owl’s chest,
he could see, inside her frail ribs,
the city of Byzantium. Exquisitely made
of ironwood and brass. The pear trees around
the harem and the warships were perfectly detailed.
No wonder they make that mewing sound, he thought,
calling to each other among the dark arbors
while the cocks crow and answer and a farther
rooster answers that: the sound proceeding
up the mountain, paling and thinning until
it is transparent, like the faint baying of hounds.
While the compactness and clarity of this particular poem may be his trademark, Gilbert occasionally lapses into inflated romantic diction and near-clichéd sentimentality. As B. Renner claims in his essay, “Jack Gilbert: a Reappraisal”:
When Gilbert `goes wrong’ in 1982, he does so at a higher level, and generally for reasons primarily of content, rather than for both content and rhetorical skill. Put more simply, the mature Gilbert’s flaws are less likely to be flaws of artistic ability than of thought.
At times in Monolithos, Gilbert’s “flaws of thought” overshadow whatever rhetorical skill he demonstrates, and the two seem to merge into a generally smug, overblown romanticism. Take, for example, lines from “Pewter”:
Thrushes flying over the lake. Nightingales singing underground.
Yes, my King. Paris hungry and leisurely just after the war. Yes.
America falling into history. Yes. Those silent winter afternoons
along the Seine when I was always alone. Yes, my King.
For a poet who “petitions to live the harder way,” alone with rock and silence and simplicity, this is an awfully self-indulgent example of craft. Yet in The Great Fires, Gilbert is able to recognize this “flaw of thought” and make it work for him. While outwardly, he may live like a monk, inwardly, he is consumed by human passion. In “Going Wrong,” the opening poem of The Great Fires, Gilbert insists he is “not stubborn, just greedy.” While the previous lines demonstrate the early Gilbert’s over-zealous and greedy use of language, the mature Gilbert has a tighter rein on his emotions and linguistic control and is able to steer his work away from this sort of excess.
The paradox, of course, is that while Gilbert has been praised for his compression and austerity, he is ultimately a poet of excess. Unfortunately, in Monolithos, this excess translates all too frequently into a near-embarrassing sentimentality. Poems such as “Alone on Christmas Eve in Japan” (the title alone is enough to make one cringe), walk the line between heartbreak and disaster:
Not wanting to lose it all for poetry.
Wanting to live the living. All this year
looking on the graveyard below my apartment.
Holding myself tenderly in this marred body.
Wondering if the quiet I feel is that happiness
wise people speak of, or the modulation
that is the acquiescence to death beginning.
The good news is that what Gilbert does well, he does extraordinarily well. Among a handful of others, including Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Carl Phillips and Linda Gregg, Gilbert is one of the foremost contemporary poets on myth. His “The Plundering of Circe,” from 1962, remains one of my favorite poems on the Odyssey:
Circe has no pleasure in pigs.
Pigs, wolves, nor fawning
lions. She sang in our language
and, beautiful, waited for quality.
Every month they came
struggling up from the cove.
The great sea light behind them.
Each time maybe a world.
Season after season.
Dinner after dinner.
And always at the first measures
of lust became themselves.
Odysseus? A known liar.
A resort darling. Untouchable.
In Monolithos, Gilbert is at his best when his trademark clarity and shining sense seep through the page to give us poems at once weightless and immeasurably dense, ephemeral and enduring. Like pebbles on a beach, they constitute their own unique place on the shore of contemporary American poetry, small and insubstantial, yet precious nonetheless:
The Cucumbers of Praxilla of Sicyon
What is the best we leave behind?
Certainly love and form and ourselves.
Surely those. But it is the mornings
that are hard to relinquish, and music
and cucumbers. Rain on trees, empty
piazzas in small towns flooded with sun.
What we are busy with doesn’t make us
groan ah! ah! as we will for the nights
and the cucumbers.