Jack Gilbert — Refusing Heaven

Poet Jack Gilbert was 80 years old when he published this collection of poems in 2005. That’s a long time to observe how life works and Gilbert has spent much of it in introspection. He was there in San Francisco during the first flowering of the Beats, yet he never really became one of the gang. To read Gilbert is to realize that he is a man who relishes his space; many of the poems in Refusing Heaven paint a picture of self-imposed exile, whether physically, as in a remote Greek island, or spiritually—hence the title.

This tendency to separate himself from his peers does not reveal him to be a curmudgeon; quite the opposite is true. It seems that Gilbert appreciates the contrast between company and isolation so that each might stand out more clearly in relief.

In the Buddhist-inflected poem, Happening Apart From What’s Happening Around It, Gilbert starts out by giving practical examples of his philosophy.

There is a vividness to eleven years of love
because it is over. A clarity of Greece now
because I live in Manhattan or New England.

Later in the poem he observes a spiritual aspect to this clarity.

… When I was walking
in the mountains with the Japanese man and began
to hear the water, he said, “What is the sound
of the waterfall?” “Silence,” he finally told me.
The stillness I did not notice until the sound
of water falling made apparent the silence I had
been hearing long before.

After absorbing this bit of enlightenment, Gilbert then gets to the crux of the matter by positing one of the greatest questions of all time.

… I ask myself what
is the sound of women? What is the word for
that still thing I have hunted inside them
for so long? …

In the poem, Moreover, Gilbert finally reveals what he suspects that transitory and elusive thing to be.

We are given the trees so we can know
what God looks like. And rivers
so we might understand Him. We are allowed
women so we can get into bed with the Lord,
however partial and momentary that is.

Perhaps it is only with the wisdom that 80 years affords that one can strive to understand women one moment while deftly distilling poetry’s worth and reason down to its essence the next.

We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.

Refusing Heaven is a rare chance to experience a poet still in bold command of his powers looking back at what was a long life full of achievement and adversity in equal measure. In the sublime, Failing and Flying, he reminds us that although we tend to focus on the cautionary aspect of the Icarus myth, we forget that he actually did fly quite well. For awhile. Gilbert seems to be summing up his feelings about his own looming mortality when he writes:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

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