Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires is a meditation on solitude and loss. In fact, it contains many of the elements of the medieval Christian meditative tradition. In his introduction to The Meditative Poem, Louis L. Martz describes this tradition as producing a poem “in which a man projects a self upon a mental stage, and there comes to understand that self in the light of a divine presence.” For Gilbert, this presence is God, whom he addresses directly in colloquy, and also the presence of Nature. I find some of these poems bold, compelling, and strange. Others I find somewhat generic in their philosophy, or vague. Others still are mixed.
Gilbert takes on a difficult subject: the loss of his wife, Michiko. Because of the deeply personal nature of this topic, Gilbert must find inroads to describing his grief in ways that will render these feelings accessible to his reader. One technique that seems to work particularly well is his focus on nature. Consider the movement of the poem “Betrothed”:
You hear yourself walking on snow.
You hear the absence of birds.
A stillness so complete, you hear
the whispering inside of you. Alone
morning after morning, and even more
at night. They say we are born alone,
to live and die alone. But they are wrong.
We get to be alone by time, by luck,
or by misadventure. When I hit the log
frozen in the woodpile to break it free,
it makes a sound of perfect inhumanity,
which goes pure all through the valley,
like a crow calling unexpectedly
at the darker end of the twilight that awakens
me in the middle of a life. The black
and white of me mated with this indifferent
winter landscape. I think of the moon
coming in a little while to find the white
among these colorless pines.