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Jack Gilbert

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THE SILENCE IN AN EMPTY HOUSE

BY MARIA MAZZIOTTI GILLAN

 NYQ BOOKS, 2013

ISBN 978-1935520-89-4

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All griefs are as unprecedented, as original as the whorls in our fingerprints, and yet certain poets are able to take the specific ceremonies of grief and loss and reenact them in such a way that they are meaningful to all who read their work. This portability is something the poet Pessoa mentioned when he wrote: “The personal is not the human. To become the human it must make a bridge.” This bridge is the contrivance of the right ceremony, the necessary words that will release the energy of true feeling and allow that tentative thread to be touched and felt by the reader. Maria Mazziotti’s new collection, The Silence in An Empty House, does just that.

Of course, Gillan has been sending out such threads for decades in other books, but here the threads are tighter and vibrate both with more passion and precision.  In earlier reviews and essays, I spoke of Maria’s emotional rather than feeling sense, her instincts for singing arias, her direct laments rather than structured elegies. Maria is still a poet of directness and what I called “gush,” but the cumulative effect of these poems is that of someone who has despaired more deeply into a type of newfound wisdom: the returning whisper of the shy girl who no longer has to be overcome by the strong woman, who can now stand with the strong woman and be her inner reserve of strength. The whisper has returned with the grieving for the dead husband to whom this book is dedicated, and it has given this distinguished poet a gravitas that is never forced nor insisted upon, but all pervasive. These are poems that fully match such great books on grieving as C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. The poems have the controlled burn of the most passionate poets, yet are often calm, reflective, and filled with pianissimo effects I have not seen before in Gillan’s work.

In the past, Maria Mazziotti Gillan is strong, perhaps surprised by her strength, but capable of pushing anything or anyone out of her way. The other works contain poems of triumph, of victory over all that has sought to put her in her place either as a woman or as the child of immigrants. But the poems in The Silence in an Empty House go beyond triumph or defeat. They are true wisdom poetry—what might be called without any hyperbole, an Orphic descent into the underworld, and a rising again having made a tentative and sadly beautiful peace with the limitations of even the most triumphal lives: death, disease, futility take their toll, take all we have, and yet a certain grace-filled gratitude hard won and beyond the hubris, the arrogance of triumph comes to inhabit these poems. And their final meaning is nothing less than a luminous joy the poet can affirm even in the midst of loss.

Part of this joy is in recall, in invocation. As with the poetry of her previous books, no novelist could be as detailed and solid in her scene painting than Gillan, as in, for example, the opening of her poem, Kitchen in the House on Kenwood Road:

My first kitchen after we married, the one in the small

Cape Cod on Kenwood Road, had Sanitex wallpaper

with orange vases, bright yellow flowers

and brown pepper mills. I thought it was cheerful,

especially the large windows spilling light over the tile floor.

The plain-spoken and detailed categorizing of things is for Gillan no gimmick or shtick. In this respect, Gillan shows the descriptive gifts of an Elizabeth Bishop.  Her work is not meant to shock or vamp the tropes of everyday life. It is not pretending to be anti-lyrical (whatever that means) or to embrace the per-formative self as exhibitionist. It believes in the intrinsic lyrical merit of saying things directly, of the truly conversational lyric narrative of place.  Gillan’s poems also prove Jack Gilbert’s dictum, “the abnormal is not courage.” There is enough sorrow and depth in normal life that one need not seek to overly determine its distortions. Gillan’s poems do not rely on tricks. They could exemplify Gilbert’s values: the life well-lived as courageous rather than the moment’s flourish. The accomplishment of daily bread rather than the dazzle of things that fail eventually to satisfy.

The poems of The Silence in an Empty House read like good creative non-fiction, only without having to resort to expository writing or the longer developments of scene. The poet never gets in the way of her story and yet every word of it seems directly expressed from a living body, from a person—not a character. It cuts to the chase and proves that poetry is still the most effective and most direct medium to tell the “slow news” of the world Williams insisted was vital to staying alive.

Kitchen in the House in Kenwood goes on to be about something far more serious than an inventory of Gillan’s starter home. She is teaching at Caldwell college; her husband decides it’s time she be a proper stay-at home wife. She gets pregnant and must quit a job she loves at Caldwell college. She is required to quit by the policy of that time, which the college enforces; but also by the husband’s enforcement of middle class life expectations in the early sixties. What makes this poem and Gillan’s poems about her husband in general so good is that he is a mass of contradictions, a flawed yet handsome and beloved man Gillan loves both with the ferocity of lust and with an eye out for becoming a  more socially accepted and fully middle-class American through her marriage to him. So her relation to him is both that of ardent lover and social climber; and neither, by the miracle of honesty, cancels the other out or makes either less true. What she learns throughout this book is that the trade-offs involved in love either in terms of romance or social climbing are never clear cut, or win- win. She concludes this poem:

 Years later, I look back at that slim young woman standing

at the sink, tears sliding down her face, and want to tell her

that love sometimes asks of us a sacrifice

it has no right to require.

This last bit of rueful wisdom is not common to Gillan’s earlier work. Here she is venturing to give the benefit of lived experience, to sum up, to drive her grief and sense of loss towards both the pragmatic acceptance of limitations, and the gratitude, the type of deep and abiding gratitude that caused the poet Stanley Kunitz to insist on “living on the layers and not the litter.”

Much of this book amazes me because it faces the fact that getting everything you want, being happy and successful is eventually little more than a more honorable way of achieving your corpse, and yet, and yet, and yet… gratitude is the answer to the futility that dances with all our shadows. Just as the character of Gabriel in Joyces’  The Dead finds infinite compassion and forgiveness the answer to inevitable death, Gillan finds gratitude at the heart of almost unbearable losses, both personal and ecological. Dennis, the subject of most of these poems—the beloved, the blond middle-class prize, the beautiful man a shy, first generation Italian girl could never have hoped to have caught yet did indeed catch and hold becomes ill of earl onset Parkinson’s, and begins a slow, painful ride toward death. She raises her children in the abundance of middle-class opportunity only to have her son become the kind of man who may have looked down on her when she was an immigrant’s child. People come to the poet for advice, for strength, for comfort, but in her hour of need, she is mostly alone and I think of the lines of the great German poet, Holderin: “Catastrophe! Cries the soul—in solitude.” Perhaps no poem in the book displays Gillan’s newfound aility to tie her personal life to the larger losses affecting the world than in Watching the Pelican Die. Ecological concerns have never been a preoccupation of Gillan’s before. If anything, she was someone who thought nature best seen through the window of a warm car or office, but she has now evolved beyond the comical selfish woman in the poem who worried that the mudslides in California would affect attendance at her readings, and has seen, through the death of her husband and the iconic image of the Pelican during the BP oil spill, the larger sense of loss. The loss is in—not of a sometimes merciless loss in things. Some might contend that the newfound empathy for the ecology comes through defective means—by a selfish equating of her personal grief with the larger catastrophe of the oil spill, but this is exactly the genius of Maria Mazziotti Gillan: there can be no abstraction that does not flourish first through root and thorn, through some real and solid materiality and concreteness. Reality is the necessary angel in Maria’s poetry, and the reality of the personal is the necessary material out of which the bridges between the personal and the human, the local and the universal are made. No book of Gillan’s builds finer more lasting bridges. This is the culmination of her life’s work, even more so than her collected, and it proves that even reaching beyond the age of 70, and losing almost the whole of her leading list of life players—parents, sister, beloved spouse–Maria Mazziotti Gillan is still not done with her changes. This book is essential reading for anyone who believes poetry has the power to speak for more and plot for more than just the exhibitionist and voyeuristic self. Moving away from the triumphalism of the determined immigrant’s daughter, this book is a greater triumph and gift for all those who understand her final lines said in the full winter of her life:

 How grateful I must

remember to be, to hold

so much in my hands.

so much in my hands.

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.

Wandering the shadowless aisles of the supermarket a couple of days ago, I passed a colorful phalanx of plastic-shielded, heart-shaped cakes.  Realizing that Valentine’s Day was nigh, that other people would be putting forkfuls of these hearts into their mouths in the hours that followed, and that a good many of these displayed hearts would be thrown into the dumpster out behind the store, naturally, I thought of love poetry.

My partner of the past three years recently introduced me to a volume of poems entitled This is My Beloved.  I have no idea where she got it, but four minutes of first-rate Internet research informed me that Knopf first published this little tome in 1943, that the author, Walter Benton, was an Austrian-born Russian immigrant who worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and that Benton published two books of poems in the 1940s.

This history aside, in my beloved’s copy of This is My Beloved, a 1963 edition of this first book, which is presented in diary form, there is an inscription:  “In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and the sharing of pleaseures (sic).  For in the dew of little things the beast finds its morning and is refreshed.  Happy Valentine’s Day – 1963.”

The writer’s rather cliché, poetical diction is spiced up with the tragicomedy of the misspelling, the strangeness of the phrase “in the dew of little things,” and the fact that the word “beast,” in rushed cursive, is quite probably meant to be read as the word “heart.”  This inscription alone is a marvelous artifact, and the book itself seems somewhat complicated as a Valentine’s Day gift because it traces a relationship gone bad—the narrator of the poems falls in love with a woman who ultimately does not love him back, leaving him to declare at the narrative’s close, on “November 25”:  “I am lost on an island somewhere between two rivers. / Blind buildings are all around me— / and the earth is covered with flat stones.  And over me, the low / dark roof—the harbor’s lifted morass and the belchings of many chimneys.”

“Lifted morass” and “belchings” in mind, let us declare:  this Valentine’s Day we agree not to give each other heart-shaped agents of indigestion, but instead, strange, complicated originalities of utterance and legitimate attempts at sharing our, um, truest feelings.  What does Jack Gilbert say in “The Great Fires”?  “Love allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart”?  Now, that sounds very nice.  Let’s get to it.