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.
He begins with second-person address, the sound of external elements–“walking on snow,” “the absence of birds”–then an inward whispering. The word “Alone” is hung at the end of a line. Then we digress into philosophy–“they say we are born alone,” and Gilbert’s response, that they are wrong. The philosophical elements mirror the physical elements–Gilbert focuses on what is not, and thereby brings it out–be it the absence of birds or the absence of companionship.
Then he makes a decisive turn. Rather than rambling along on a philosophical tract on loneliness, he brings us forcefully back to a specific moment of hitting a frozen log in a woodpile. The sound is “perfect inhumanity,” and the poem follows the sound “though the valley” like a crow at the end of twilight. Then he turns once more–rather than wandering through the valley, he again jars us by telling us this sound “awakens / me in the middle of my life.” (Which my clever wife points out is a nod to Dante.)
We have moved from a first-person address, to a third-person narrator refuting what “they say” about loneliness, to the first-person narrator hitting a frozen log, a metaphor of this sound compared a crow at twilight, and the abrupt first-person statement that this sound awakens the speaker in the middle of a life. Just as one mode begins to have played out its usefulness, he shifts to another mode, advancing this treatise on loneliness in a completely different, but complimentary way.
The poem could, and probably should, have ended here. No need to drive the point home with a less compelling scenario, to tell us about the “indifferent / winter landscape.” It dilutes the power of the previous layers of thought. Nor does he need to use the more hackneyed transitional device, “I think of… .” Just jumping from mode to mode, as he did earlier, proved far more effective than this somewhat theatrical narrative trick–because there was a sense of coherence about the topic (rather than its narrative development)–whether it was rendered in a philosophical or personal mode.
These are, therefore, meditations facing all the challenges of a highly inward mode. The greatest challenge is that of appropriate perspective on such an intimate topic. Sometimes Gilbert comes up winning, other times seems to dilute otherwise compelling lyrical lines with less compelling after-thoughts. It is not so much that philosophical modes do not have a place in poetry, as the opening of this poem demonstrates, but that they must ultimately advance a more complex argument than anything we could summarize in prose. This is the challenge of meditative verse: to make such profoundly inward work accessible, but at the same time to resist the temptation to reduce the complexity of the work by telling the reader what to think or feel–be that overtly, or through some less-effective device.