Song of the Line by Jack G. Gilbert, with engravings by Henryk
Fantazos (Durham, NC: Horse & Buggy Press, 2007)
DAVID MIDDLETON is poet-in-residence at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, LA and poetry editor for Modern Age. His latest collection of verse is The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet (LSU Press, 2005).
In 1980, Dr. Jack Gilbert, professor ofEnglish at Louisiana State University inBaton Rouge, retired at 46 to pursue, asthe dust jacket puts it, "a simpler life building,gardening, baking bread" and raisingold-fashioned roses on a farm in NorthCarolina where he and his wife "designedand built themselves the house and outbuildingsof their farm." The poems in thepresent collection—called "aconic andodd" by Annie Dillard in her introductionbut perhaps better described as playfullywise and whimsically insightful—are the flowering of nearly thirty yearsof both seeking and making what Horaceand Martial called the good life. Mostof the poems are brief, written mainly infree verse but with the occasional use ofrhyme and are complemented by engravingsmuch like the poems in their fancifulspirit. Some poems are straightforward andeasy to understand on first reading; othersare intriguingly oblique and puzzlingbut nonetheless enticing and often worth asecond look. Gilbert's themes include loveand friendship, happiness (not a subjectoften found in modern verse), an agrarianview of social and political matters, nature,speculations about philosophy and art, andpraise of the good life that he has nowspent nearly three decades trying to realizeon a North Carolina farm.
In "beatus ille" Gilbert characterizeshimself as "old," "stubborn, chronic old," (notyoung) / "rural" (no public water, sewer,pavement) / "occupationally challenged" (poet,unknown) / "subsistence farmer" (grows peasand arugula)[.]" Such humor, which fillsthese poems, is defined in "New Yorkerin Dixie: Talk about Humor": "we laugh/ when the mind is humored / into littleecstasies, / at a puzzle solved, / a prophecyfulfilled, / a connection seen, a pun, /pleasure in a point of knowing, / in discovery,in playing doctor." This blend ofwit and wisdom yields poetry that at its bestis deeply humane, as in "Still Life," whichcontains the title of the collection in linesabout the beauty of the lineaments of thehuman face: "There is a lovely face élan,that's so, / but a vibrant stillness too, / theliveliness of blood and wit / in a song / ofthe line."
A fulfilling love both in this worldand beyond is the subject of "Haunting":"When our ghosts are introduced to oneanother / wafted on soft air of jasmine /we'll touch wings, touch wings, touchwings / and bounce like Spring Azurebutterfl ies / quick to stop into oneness /and disappear the while[.]" A marriage of"mellow autumn with green spring" is thetheme of "Life Class." The poet delightsin his beloved: "And not just at the start/ you were in every way desirable / totalk and eat and sleep with / to see andtouch and kiss." And though time has now"scraped away the Botticelli / for a fl atplace / to sketch a minimal winter" theirspirits remain "silvery ripe, forms we seeand know."
Such happiness for Gilbert is found notonly in love but in life as a whole: "Theworld is full of mercies / and temperedwinds / and helping hands" ("The WorldIs Full of Mercies"). One way to happinessis to live without fear. Thus, the poet,imaginatively standing before his owngrave, muses on two epitaphs: "Contemplatingthe dirt upon my grave / that hadsomehow itself / contrived to be inscribed/ 'This is not work to be envied.' / Odd,for I had expected, / 'Fear is no way tolive'" ("Lines on the Earth"). The bestapproach is to go on the journey with"heart full head strong / to live it though/ with fellow travailleurs / in friendship"("Best"). Those who fear to open themselvesup to real human relationships inthis "raw world of body parts" are left withonly virtual relationships by way of computers"where all that moves in sex / willbe an eyelid" ("Sugarplums").
This courage to live and love withoutfear is seen in one of Gilbert's most evocativenature lyrics, "The Limbs of Winter."A season usually symbolic of lossand death, here winter brings out admirablequalities in trees and, by analogy, inhuman beings as well: "The limbs of wintersing / to those who listen, / not thewhistle of the cold / not the snap and rattle/ of the twigs that sweep and break. / Thelullaby comes / from the rippling sinewsof / the swaying of the boughs and trunks,/ baritone affi rmation / of the stoutness /in upstanding." The ineluctable qualitiesof things in themselves are evoked in "ARose": "A rose knows no ambivalence, /its scent and blossom lure all in, / its thornsand prickles ward them off, / its roots andtendrils hold all tight / and suck them dry./ A rose knows no ambivalence." Yet sucha balance of scent and thorn is far from thepoet's encounter with a poisonous snakewhose swallowing of a fish leaves himfeeling nervously cautious: "I backed away/ neglectful of courtesy / and glad / thatdragons / never were" ("Caitiff").
This realistic view of nature is rootedin Gilbert's agrarian way of life. In fact,some of his most powerful poems makeup a critique of modernity from an agrarianperspective. "Mezzo Stato" regrets thetransformation of the prairie from a realmof ancient peace into a place where carsnow speed on by toward some destination,some "frantic angularity," that "thesecontrivances screaming seek, / welded andbolted and strapped together, / metal andrubber and mammal." The poem ends witha variation on Dante: "[how] could I haveguessed / birth had undone so many?"Gilbert is even more explicit about themadness of traffic in "Our Daily Execution,"a poem that laments the hundredpeople killed each day on highways andour passive complicity therein: "Heavieston us weighs / injudicial slaughter." In "ARattlesnake History of Texas," the rattlesnakesspeak of how for centuries theirdead bodies and those of other native animalsbuilt up a soil that European settlershave not properly cared for: "Their gearmade a purpose not to rot / is coveringTexas. / Soon there will be no dirt." Thiscareless attitude toward nature and historyalso informs "Way," a poem about modernplanners changing road names and makingstraight roads out of ones whose twists andturns tell the history of the settling of theland: "They are changing the roads of thecounty. // Sispippiwa and Halt's Brotheland Billy Mountain / are roads where peoplewent / . . . / Duck Pond, Miller's Fault,Prison Farm Road[.]" Such living historyin names and roads must now give way tothe purely practical: "'Roads run wrong'say our leaders / who have studied at theright places / and who go each year / to doplanetary planning in Hawaii."
These agrarian poems are closely relatedto other poems that range widely amongphilosophical questions including onesconcerning crafts and art. "Under" askswhat sort of person we should seek after a"wild century" of colossal waste caused byone or another embodiment of Nietzsche'sOver-Man. The answer is suggested bothby the title and in these lines: "A modestideal person, / adequate to human life, /with the vitamin virtues / courage andtemperance and thrift[.]" The pre-Socraticphilosopher Euprotes is approved for hisbelief that wisdom is not wholly cerebral.He was "the song-and-dance philosopher/ [who] held [that] the motions of thedance / free the mind to sing in laughter/ where wisdom has its only moments"("Euprotes"). This rooting of wisdom inthe common things of life also informs twobrief poems on Thearion, a minor characterin Plato's Gorgias. In "Thearion theBaker," the baker praises wisdom whichcomes from practicing a craft: "They havea peek at my craft, / these bakers of ideas/ but they don't stay put for the hard parts./ They wander away erratic and distrait /that truth may turn out to be / somethingsomeone already said, / or something tothem / excruciatingly simple, / like /'Keep the working surface clean' / or / 'Itis good to eat.'" Contemporary bakers ofideas include modern language theoristswhose views leave us a world in which anyserious artist guided by their ideas wouldbe at a loss: "No servant and no mastery/ postmodern Michelangelo / is alien toscaffolding / by dint / of being ceilingless"("The Under Art").
The good life Gilbert lives is foundand made in loving appreciation of simpleeveryday activities and in practicing traditionalvirtues and common decencies.In "The Sweetness of Aunties," the poetcommends in his aunts "the cockles ofthe heart" which are "muscle-glands ofkindliness" exercised in "making cookiesand listening, / telling stories and talkingnonsense, / and teaching things like pullingup your socks." A world full of suchaunties, such bakers as Thearion, suchUnder-Men as called for in "Under," andsuch philosophers as Euprotes would be, asthe poem on aunts has it, a place of "goodhumor and good living." What Surreycelebrated in his famous translation ofMartial's epigram on the good life—"Thefruitful ground, the quiet mind"—JackGilbert first has lived and now has sharedwith us in verse.