Jack Gilbert’s Sacred Juxtapositions: Jonathan Cooper considers The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992

Jack Gilbert’s Sacred Juxtapositions: A Review of The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992. Alfred A. Knopf; Reprint edition (13 Feb. 1996). By Jonathan Cooper.

Jack Gilbert is almost as famous for the poems he didn’t write as for those he did.  His first collection, Views of Jeopardy, appeared in 1962, to both critical and commercial success.

Two decades then elapsed before the arrival of his second book, Monolithos.  A further twelve years later, In 1994, Gilbert published his third volume, The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992.

Gilbert said of his poetry that he aimed to accomplish ‘a lot with the least means possible’, and certainly The Great Fires embodies this sense of economy and restraint.  The poems rely on spare, direct language, with the majority presenting in single block stanzas with no line breaks.  Notwithstanding this simplicity of style, Gilbert’s powerful use of imagery, and his predilection for switching between perspectives, timeframes, and topics—all in a few short phrases—dispel any notion of superficiality.  Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem ‘To See if Something Comes Next’:

Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally, and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead 
woman and purity. 

From a contemplation of the morning sun on a valley, Gilbert moves to a visceral engagement with mortality—life and death, side by side.  The poem concludes with a reference to a Japanese theatrical device, Noh, whereby the actor can be deemed to be simultaneously dancing and standing still.  As this poem underscores, while the language and structure may be uncomplicated, the verse in The Great Fires stubbornly refuses to remain on a single plain.  Amongst other things, this points to Gilbert’s understanding of spirituality and sacredness, the exploration of which is an overarching theme of the collection.  

Gilbert addresses metaphysical considerations in a way that seems overtly—even jarringly—juxtapositional.  In one short sentence, he takes us from the sound of a rooster in the valley to the dead woman in his kitchen.  However, as the reader moves through The Great Fires, the economical style and compact structure reveal a perspective on the physical and metaphysical that is fundamentally integrative as opposed to dualistic.  

In ‘On Stone’, Gilbert employs multiple sacred juxtapositions, which act in concert to imply a deeper sense of wholeness: the austere ‘scraped life’ of monks in a mountain-side monastery with the sickly-sweet cakes the abbot serves to visitors; the stone-bound monastic silence with the noise of the ‘mind and its fierceness’ and with the dynamic power of the sun, ‘hammering this earth into pomegranates’.  The sacred is not confined to the monastery; rather, it contemplates it as something which permeates both the natural world and the portable dialogue of mind and heart. 

The consideration of the sacred, use of juxtaposition, and Gilbert’s spare, direct style come together with particular forcefulness in the poem ‘Adulterated’.  Arrayed in one stanza of 20 lines, the piece starts in the ‘back streets of Livorno’, with an animated negotiation between a sex worker and a potential client.  After considering the graceful stubbornness of an aging boxing champion, the poem observes that ‘birds sing sometimes without purpose’.  Beginning at line 14, ‘Adulterated’ takes a Christological turn.  It insists on the universality of a metaphysical goodness—’The Lord sees everything, and sees that it is good despite everything’—before ending with the most perturbingly beautiful lines in the entire collection: 

                                                                   ...The manger 
was filthy.  The women at Dachau knew they were about
to be gassed when they pushed back the Nazi guard
who wanted to die with them, saying he must live.
And sang for a little while after the doors closed. 

With a directness bordering on irreverence, Gilbert defies any Hallmark-card sentimentality and in four words conjures animal droppings and straw wallowing in the dirt around the Bethlehem creche.  Then, as the doors close on the gas chamber, ‘Adulterated’ affirms the possibilities of life, of beauty, even when hemmed in by death.  With a childlike clarity, the Nazi guard simply cannot any longer abide the killing of the innocent; however, to affirm the importance of this moral recognition, the women compel him to live, even as they must die.  The evil of the concentration camp is, in a sense, ‘Adulterated’ by the goodness of the interaction between the victims and the guard.  In this poem—and in The Great Fires in general—sacredness will not be safe or precious.  In a way that is at once vital, human, and supernatural, it interweaves with both the depraved and the aspirational, finding a moment of beauty in the dark centre of a death camp.  

For a collection that so readily changes perspectives and embraces contrast, inevitably some images and phrases seem haphazardly thrown together.  In ‘Explicating the Twilight’, Gilbert offers a joyfully imagistic rendering of a rat—its ‘throat an elegant grey’—striving for a mulberry on a precariously thin branch.  However, jammed in the middle of this short poem is a clumsy and unhelpful reference to 18th century poet Christopher Smart and Prospero, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  For the most part, Gilbert’s use of contrast and topical transitions prompt the reader to ponder deeper elements of interrelation; in a few cases, he simply doesn’t pull it off.    

Still, on balance, the collection is compelling and important.  The writer James Dickey said of Gilbert that he was ‘a necessary poet, who teaches not only how to live but to die creatively’.  Indeed, long after one closes The Great Fires, Gilbert’s juxtapositions prod the mind and the heart, inviting us to be more sensitive to the sacred in all its manifestations.

Jonathan Cooper’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Thin Air, New Plains Review, Poetry Pacific, Tower Journal, and The Charleston Anvil.  He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

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