- Last One Out by Ernest Hilbert
Ernest Hilbert's latest collection, Last One Out, lacks the programmatic cohesion of his previous book, Caligulan, but it includes several of Hilbert's best individual poems. If it closes the door on an earlier mode, it opens another, leading the poet's work in a promising new direction. The innovation in Hilbert's first two collections, Sixty Sonnets and All You on the Good Earth, was mostly renovation, specifically renovation of the sonnet. Hilbert's novel sonnet structure (two sestets and a couplet) and rhyme scheme (abcabc defdef gg), in conjunction with his deployment of slant-rhyme and decasyllabics (rather than a regular iambic pentameter), afforded the form a liminal quality between poetry and prose, embodying the poems' struggles between numen and phenomenon, ideal and material, affection and disaffection, reverence and disgust. This Hilbertian sonnet is the form of almost all the poems in Mr. Hilbert's first two books, and of several poems in Caligulan, which won the prestigious Poets' Prize in 2017.
His sonnets recall a range of work from Baudelaire and Robert Lowell to Henri Cole. Baudelaire counterpoints the formal perfection of the traditional French sonnet against nightmare-scapes of 1850s Paris to embody that tension within himself which lends the title to the longest section of Les Fleurs du Mal : i.e., Spleen et Idéal. Lowell's blank verse sonnets generally maintain the English-language sonnet's traditional iambic pentameter, though often roughing the meter up and abandoning rhyme in order to express a similar tension between the extra-temporal ideal and history's broken reality. Henri Cole, especially in the breakthrough books The Visible Man and Middle Earth, uses an un-metered and unrhymed 14-line "sonnet" to enact similar tensions between abstract perfection and material imperfection, the life of the mind and the life of the body. [End Page 305]
Moreover, we might note that, through his first three volumes, the voice most characteristic of Mr. Hilbert's work sounds something like a punk-rock Wordsworth, or a heavy-metal Milton, melding grandeur and the Grand Guignol, squalor and prophecy, in a kind of snarling sublime. In Caligulan, this voice fulfilled its potential: trash, noise, madness, death, and chaos create a kind of ambient howl, like a vortex within which characters flung hither and thither frantically try to make sense of their lives. The effect is at once uncanny and undeniably familiar. Reading Caligulan is something like walking the neighborhood while listening to the second movement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 on repeat.
In a little-known poem called, "A Point of Age," John Berryman writes, "We must travel in the direction of our fear." These days, while many of us busy ourselves with posting photos of our #bestlife on social media, Caligulan confronts us with those fears that we have so busily busied ourselves to avoid encountering. "The world," as Hilbert says in a 2017 interview with Mark Danowsky in The Schuylkill Valley Journal, "has been ending for a very long time." And, indeed, this vision informs many of Hilbert's finest early poems. Here, for instance, is the close of "Prophetic Outlook," from Sixty Sonnets (2009).
The world didn't just start going to hell.You just noticed for the first time, that's all.
A sonnet on two rhymes (perhaps ironically responding to Surrey's famous sonnet on Spring, "The soote season, that bud and bloom forth brings," which similarly uses only two rhymes), "Prophetic Outlook" somehow merges mundane observations into a vatic vision, plain speech into pronouncement, in a poem at once funny and devastating.
Without abandoning his previous technical achievements or his stark vision, the poems in Last One Out move in a new direction. Primarily, the shift is in the voice of the poems. The anarchic sneer and the guttural growl of the earlier books have mellowed somewhat into a more meditative and resonant speech, a voice so commodious even wisdom statements may find room within it. For instance, here's "Tutorial":
When you've got no looks to lose,You won't...