Out and back before 9:30 am, no ticket needed

This morning I was reading the selection of Jack Gilbert’s poems from the second of the small Bloodaxe anthologies I stumbled on at UCB. I liked a number of poems–a pleasant surprise. I think I’ve mentioned before that my first reaction to a new poem/poet is a kind of wariness. For me the sensibility of the poems is as important as the skill they demonstrate. There is so much I don’t like, and I close myself off out of self-protection against the assault of bad poetry.

But reading through this selection was like making a new friend. You meet for coffee or a walk, talk about things, become closer, begin to trust the sensibility of this person, share more, talk more deeply: Yes, I understand your thoughts on this, I feel that way, too.

I copied out several of the poems, and flipped back to read the introduction and see if he was still alive. Yes, alive and living in Northampton, Massachusetts, a place I sometimes visit. But the copyright of the anthology was 2007, so I went online, and after several searches, found that he now lives in Berkeley.

“Right here!” I thought. Maybe I could meet him, talk to him. But the next link I found was from 2010, The Compass Rose, which mentioned that Jack is in an assisted care facility with late-stage Alzheimer’s. I felt deeply saddened, as if I had just learned this about a friend. A long psychic journey before I’d finished my cup of tea. Although the possibility of a new friendship is gone, I can still befriend his work.  Here is one of my favorites from this selection:

Failing and Flying

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
at 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.

Jack Gilbert

If I could discuss this with Jack, I’d suggest that he drop the lines about Provence and end the poem this way:

…How can they say
the marriage failed? I believe
Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

I wonder what he’d say about that. And being able to have that discussion, I’m positive from reading his work, would have been great fun. He might even have agreed with me.



7 thoughts on “Out and back before 9:30 am, no ticket needed

  1. I agree with you. When I first read those Provence lines it seemed like a cheap shot, the ones that most older people take (they might not be able to help themselves) “When I was young, before the world turned into a sideshow” etc. etc. etc. It didn’t seem to belong to the tale I was being told.

  2. I think Jack would agree. So often I look back at a poem, and a line like that which seemed so satisfying at the time, and might even earn a lot of praise, juts out later and is easily lopped.

  3. One night at Ed MyCue’s flat at Masonic and Haight in San Francisco in the early seventies, some poets tried to get a poetry group into motion. More established poets brought less established poets. Everyone got to read a poem and get it criticized. William Dickey was the established poet who brought me along. At some point, Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg, with Stephen Vincent, came in. The night was magic. Gilbert and Gregg were luminous… had gold light coming off them… were poetry gods. It is so hard to write a poem, Gilbert noted, because so many great poems have preceded our efforts… and the chances are that what we write will only be redundant. Jack Gilbert and William Dickey are both gone… two of the great poets of their time. And I am an old man, window open for any of my former dogs, now ghosts, to join me as I read Basho and Li Po, as I read Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg, as I read William Dickey and Kay Boyle.

  4. Yes, it’s hard to write when the luminaries overshadow the first word. Seems like you’ve had some great times, Red, and as Gregory Corso once said, “Better to have loved and lost than laid linoleum in the living room…”

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