I have had the opportunity to read many fine poets, but only a handful have been able to make me stop reading and weep. Jack Gilbert did that to me as I sat in some dive in Colorado as I ate a greasy cheeseburger drinking a cheap beer. How is it the waitress turned away? I read many more and shared many others with friends. My linguist friend Jessie Sams especially loved “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” but then who doesn’t. As I read Refusing Heaven I also read another poem that made my breath catch, and I put the book down just to think. The waitress swung by and asked if I needed anything as I was revising my way of looking at the world. I thought to say many things about what I might need. Mostly I wanted to talk about poetry and how it shadows us like a cop who may think we’re up to no good and surprise us or one of a few friends who can say something off hand and cut us to the quick because they know us that well. She stood there looking at me as I contemplated. Shorts, tank-top, bar apron, scattered red hair waiting for me to speak and I still wordless. I knew poetry wasn’t on her menu, so I asked for another beer. What else to do but drink and read poems then. Besides what kind of poseur would I be to ask her about poetry then? I was about to fly to Antarctica and the South Pole and those two poems kicked me in the guts so hard they rent my heart. It has never been the same. Thanks, Jack Gilbert for changing the view from where I sat on the edge of some forgotten bar seat. These are those poems:
The Friendship Inside Us by Jack Gilbert
Why the mouth? Why is it the mouth we put to mouth
at the final moments? Why not the famous groin?
Because the groin is far away.
The mouth is close up against the spirit.
We couple desperately all night before setting out
for years in prison. But that is the body’s goodbye.
We kiss the person we love last thing before
the coffin is shut, because it is our being
touching the unknown. A kiss is the frontier in us.
It is where the courting becomes the courtship,
where the dancing ends and the dance begins.
The mouth is our chief access to the intimacy
in which she may reside. Her mouth is the porch
of the brain. The forecourt of the heart.
The way to the mystery enthroned. Where we meet
momentarily amid the seraphim and the powers.
Failing and Flying
by Jack Gilbert
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
~ from Refusing Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)