This fine new collection by the distinguished poet Jack Gilbert looks back on the pleasures of many years with what he calls “a tough happiness” (“The Garden”). Gilbert’s life has been an odyssey, taking off from his native Pittsburgh, which developed in him “a taste for grit” (“A Taste for Grit and Whatever”). Ever since, he claims, he has been drawn to “the unimproved” (“Less Being More”).
Among the sojourns chronicled in Refusing Heaven are his seasons of just getting by in the hardscrabble countryside of Greece, on the streets of Perugia and in down-at-the-heels Paris after World War II. Concerning this last, he exclaims, “It is right to mourn/ for the small hotels of Paris that used to be/ when we used to be” (“The Lost Hotels of Paris”). His poem “What to Want” shows him in Paris, when a young man’s excitement about Europe was settling into something else, “the blinding intensity/ giving way to presence.” Speaking in the third person, as he often does, he tells of “the budding/ amid the random passion, mortality like/ a cello inside him.”
After Europe, he settled in San Francisco. I have a tape of a reading he gave at Santa Clara University in the early 1970’s, in which he discusses decisions, at first idealistic and compassionate, made from above about Vietnam and “the peculiarity of being at the fringe of a civilization.”
A number of the poems in this book are backward sweeps and grateful assessments. In “A Kind of Courage,” Gilbert says that however hard and cruel the world is, “I crank my heart even so and it turns over.” This continues “until all the world is overcome/ by what goes up and up in us, singing and dancing/ and throwing down flowers nevertheless.” In “The Garden,” marveling, the speaker wonders “why so much has been/ allowed him...and why there is even now so much to come.”
What a tenacious memory Jack Gilbert has! He cherishes incidents and snatches of past life, “like a giant bell ringing long after you can’t hear it” (“Burma”). He laments how much we lose of our experience: “We don’t have the knack of eating what we are living” (“Bring in the Gods”). Memory, after all, has a purpose: “We are gleaners who fill/ the barn for the winter that comes on” (“Moreover”).
The title poem of this collection, “Refusing Heaven,” is explicitly about this determined remembering. Gilbert is struck by old women he sees coming from early Mass in winter. “He could tell by their eyes/ they have seen Christ.” Still, his proxy in the poem “chooses against the Lord. He will not abandon his life.” The speaker implies that a Christian commitment requires burning the bridges to one’s past, which he refuses to do. One might beg to differ.
“Bring in the Gods,” which appeared in The New Yorker, takes an imaginative tack. A handful of contemporary gods, arranged at a table like professors for an oral exam, question him about his life. “Where are you now?” one asks. “With the ghosts,” he answers. This leads him to vignettes of his three lovers—Gianna, a Perugian beauty; Linda, his American wife for eight years, four of them on the Greek isle of Cos; and Michiko, his companion for 11 years who died in his arms. Her kimono is still in his closet.
The three women keep appearing in the poems. Long before the poet explains that “the erotic matters so much” (“A Taste for Grit and Whatever”) we have gotten the message, but he is sparing of detail about “the tumult and trespass of sex” (“Homage to Wang Wei”). He explains his more absorbing concern in the poem about his poetic principles: “Poetry registers/ feelings, delights and passion, but the best searches/ out what is beyond pleasure, is outside process” (“Beyond Pleasure”).
What, exactly, is out there beyond pleasure for the poet to explore? For one thing, “the absurd excess of the universe.” Gilbert writes: “We are a singularity that makes music out of noise/ because we must hurry. We make a harvest of loneliness/ and desiring in the blank harvest of the cosmos” (“The Manger of Incidentals”). Elsewhere he says: “The pregnant heart/ is driven to hopes that are the wrong/ size for this world.” Eros is desirable for him because it lessens the sting of loneliness. “We are/ allowed to visit hearts of women,/ to go into their bodies so we feel/ no longer alone” (“The Lost Hotels of Paris”).
These latter-day confessions, with their Augustinian cast, do not shy away from the concept of sin. Gilbert addresses it at length in “Transgressions,” which begins: “He thinks about how important the sinning was,/ how much the equity was in simply being alive.” The speaker then takes us through his version of the capital sins, with some complacency. The poem ends, however, with “him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.”
In “Exceeding the Spirit,” Jack Gilbert envisions the modern wilderness as a bombed-out urban scene with its people in a miserable state. He calls it “a strange place to look for/ what matters, what is worthy.” Still, he gives it a persistently hard look, “not for salvation,” he claims, but “to visit what is importantly unknown of what is.” Deep within harsh reality, in other words, there is something unknown that merits the lifelong seeking. The poet thinks of it as dark, mostly, but what if it is light?