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Reviewed by:
  • Refusing Heaven
  • Elizabeth Kennedy (bio)
Refusing Heaven, Jack Gilbert

By Wittgenstein's watch, our eldest poets circle back to the theme of homecoming as inevitably as they age. Artists, the old fools, can only retire into the cult of yesteryear. The theory would have us believe what Philip Larkin wrote: those who dwell in memory's "lighted rooms" must be hoping to screen out signs of the blank last "days of thin, continuous dreaming." Jack Gilbert, often retrospective in his slim fifth book Refusing Heaven (Knopf), may play into this proposition, but the work remains – provocatively – just beyond its ambit. [End Page 200]

A master among us at seventy nine years old, Gilbert locates much of his new work in old haunts – Italy, the Greek islands, the lost hotels of Paris. With that in mind, we scan the subject matter – bridges made by memory, gazes held and broken, lives lived, loves lost, the incantatory effect of hard-won solitude – as just the airy nostalgia that might have raised the philosopher's hackles. "But it's the having / not the keeping that is the treasure," counters Gilbert. The close attention Gilbert lavishes on his slow, simple life resets the pace at which most of us might otherwise read, in effect doubling our return on his remembrance. Memory and the present state of mind work inextricably, the poems insist. Gilbert is chary of underestimating this link; he takes pain to trace it strictly, as if pressed to run live wire through dry brush. "Having the Having" begins with the principal metaphor for remembering, knots in string, but moves immediately into a catalog of what the knots cannot quite connote:

I tie knots in the strings of my spirit to remember. They are not pictures of what was. Not accounts of dusk amid the olive trees and that odor.

Memories are not the pictures, not the trees, not the indeterminate odor. Gilbert continues: memories are not a woman's body, not her memorable mouth, but at least they provide the imperfect means to it all:

They cannot describe, but they can prevent remembering it wrong.

Where another poet might strain a single metaphor to bear a stock of memories (Jarold Ramsey's "The Tally Stick": "I have carved our lives in secret on this stick / of mountain mahogany the length of your arms"), Gilbert applies no such pressure, fires no false glaze to bond what Ramsey calls a life's "lengthening runes." Gilbert's figures for memory – knots, pictures, paths, blazons, bells – change over the course of the poem, an admission of the trouble we have tagging and retrieving what has mattered to us. We can't help but strip memories with the sands of time. The final lines mimic the touch-and-go flux of the mind, returning to the metaphor with which the poem began:

Two more knots

This end of the line – three stressed syllables – is a small rhythmic swell. Then the simple fragment of held memory slides out of consciousness, felt in the words as the slip of triple consonance falls loose below the last knot – at the end of just and then at the beginning of straight and string:

and then just straight string.

"Burning (Andante Non Troppo)" begins as elegantly as "Having the Having" ends. The title sets the pace, with the heat generated by burning [End Page 201] tempered by the Italian andante non troppo, a participial phrase for moderate musical tempo. Gilbert scrambles haptic and auditory cues to slow us down; the poet writes against rapidity. To ignore Gilbert's parenthetical counsel is to burn through the work and pillage for profundity. Most reviews of Refusing Heaven to date carve out the same powerful passage, significance come by easily: "It is the pace of our living / that makes the world available."

Pulled from the poem, each neat phrase tastes good, keeps its own octosyllabic time, perhaps by design. Restored to their context, however, the complete lines vary, eleven and twelve syllables each, and fulfill a greater purpose – transitioning from brief abstraction into slightly longer lines that continue figuratively: "Regardless of the body's lion-wrath or forest waiting," it is always brash self...


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pp. 200-204
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