Naked Except for the Jewelry
“And,” she said, “you must talk no more
about ecstasy. It is a loneliness.”
The woman wandered about picking up
her shoes and silks. “You said you loved me,”
the man said. “We tell lies,” she said,
brushing her wonderful hair, naked except
for the jewelry. “We try to believe.”
“You were helpless with joy,” he said,
“moaning and weeping.” “In the dream,” she said,
“we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.
The heart lies to itself because it must.”
From Refusing Heaven
Prior to a random visit to the local library, I had never heard of Jack Gilbert. Though I make it a point to browse the new releases in contemporary poetry, it is a rare occurrence when a poet hooks into my psyche and refuses to let go. Jack Gilbert is one of those poets. Others include Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound. Every poet worth her stipend understands the importance of voice. Though I was coming from a position of complete ignorance concerning his biography and his aesthetic philosophy, Gilbert’s voice latched into my mind like a Chinese finger trap, burrowing into me with its combination of controlled diction, intellectual engagement, and erotic content.
To those just tuning in, Naked Except for the Jewelry captures a random snippet of post-coital dialogue. The woman is “brushing her wonderful hair” while the male participant is probably looking around for his pack of American Spirit cigarettes. (The cancer sticks preferred by socially conscious lefties everywhere, since nothing is antithetical to the aims of Big Tobacco than a schlocky graphic of Native American headgear.)
Back to the poem. With Fifty Shades of Grey flying off the bookshelves and into the Kindles of discerning philistines everywhere, I would be remiss to avoid the actual eroticism of this brief poem. One of its beauties is its effortless interplay between the erotic and the intellectual. At an abstract level, the couple talks about ecstasy, love, joy, and truth. At the fleshly level, one need only look at the title. It is a powerful image, reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini’s performance in Death Becomes Her, the minor film by Robert Zemeckis. In a scene that has stuck with me to this day, Mrs. David Lynch comes out of a massive swimming pool clad in nothing but a blocky necklace covering her bosoms. (Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini and possesses a sculptural beauty and haute elegance unrivaled in modern Hollywood actresses. Catherine Zeta-Jones comes close, but Rossellini’s beauty is Garbo-esque.)
The female nakedness implies an almost clichéd thrust towards the notion of authenticity. To be nude is to be unadorned, stripped of the divisive symbols of civilization. Except that she wears jewelry, symbolic of wealth and beauty, itself a concept that excludes.
The poem acts as a succinct counterargument to the hothouse sensuality of The Song of Songs. Instead of ecstasy uniting two individuals, it is “a loneliness.” Despite advances in technology and the advances of feminism and male sensitivity, the “ecstasy” remains an individual experience. The term “ecstasy” is also curious, since it implies a biological orgasm, but also calls back the sensual mysticism of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. (Is the body really a vessel of evil and corruption when the best we can hope for in the sacred realm is Joel Osteen telling us Jesus wants us all to get rich? That seems rather crass, not to mention shortsighted and rather vulgar, as if Christ’s only concerns were the capital gains tax.)
The debate continues with the man asserting the woman was “helpless with joy … moaning and weeping.” But, she retorts, “We pretend to ourselves that we are touching. / The heart lies to itself because it must.”
The man asserts an analytical assessment of the situation: since she was moaning and weeping, she must have been in ecstasy. Job well done. All very scientific and quantifiable – shades of Blake’s dictatorial Urizen – while the woman undercuts his single-vision rationality. Yes, she did those things, but in the end, “we pretend to ourselves that we are touching.” One would be exceptionally naïve to allege we only think about one’s partner when one does the deed. While the flesh and voice respond to the stimuli, the woman understands the situation. In the giant spy novel Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer writes about a hapless adulterous protagonist on his way to his mistress, a character who (to paraphrase) thinks of monogamy as “orgies unimagined.” In other words, even within the sacred confines of heterosexual monogamy – the bulwark of Western Christian civilization to the carnally deranged minions of the conservative Right – the mind finds other things (people, combinations, situations, and roles) of which to think. To assume otherwise is simply dishonest.
In the end, “The heart lies to itself because it must.” A certain degree of dishonesty is part and parcel of any functioning relationship. Not everyone can be that sexually honest with their partner, and confessing infidelities of the Imagination comes awfully close to Orwellian thoughtcrime, especially given the reflexive omnipresence and inventive nature of the human libido. (Real infidelities are a different matter.) But these imaginative infidelities do not undercut the genuine faithfulness of those involved, at least in the general sense. The poem leaves things a little more open-ended, since we don’t know the precise nature of this assignation. Gilbert calls her “the woman” but we aren’t sure if this is just poetic license or a transcription of an actual infidelity. And even with Gilbert’s Ivy League pedigree, the conversation seems a bit arch and contrived, even by the standards of adulterous East Coast academics. But the poem is more about what is said than who is saying it.
Love, lust, and lying remain the central undercurrents of the poem, infusing it with a profundity and delicious eroticism. While the title sounds like a random line from a Natalie Imbruglia song – “Something something something / lying naked on the floor” – the poem itself contains a beautiful rumination on the nature of bodily lusts and emotional honesty. Within his oeuvre, Gilbert revisits these common themes, exploring the labyrinths of desire, truth, and grace, but with a poetic power that undercuts my rather pretentious explanations. His intellectually sensual poem gives the reader a moment respite from the loneliness of existence, tearing back the veil of lies we tell ourselves, and doing it in a remarkably brief way that shoots across the page with the brilliance of a comet.