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  Summer 2012
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Jack Gilbert's The Dance Most of All

Jeffery Beam

  The Dance Most of All.
Jack Gilbert.
Knopf, 2009.
80 pages, $25 (hardcover).
ISBN: 0375711791

Jack Gilbert is one of our most elegant poets—but the elegance of his poetry encapsulates an emotional rawness made all the more poignant by the beauty of his language. The publisher calls this book a "remarkable late-in-life collection, elegiac and bracing" and I can't think of better words to describe it. Since I first began to follow Gilbert's work as an undergraduate student his poems have always seemed to me heart-breakingly human, precisely observant, and delicately confident—a crystal scalpel going right to the heart of love and spirit, of victory and collapse, of ecstatic possession and transformative loss. In their declarative lyricism the poems strain against sentimentality. They are almost about nothing—except women, the body, fruit and intimate moments, sun and sleep, walking and noon—and of course the great subjects living and dying, Life and Death.

Gilbert's poems are unabashedly lyrical and graceful, yet plain-spoken, as if the poet were talking to himself, or to you, at a table in a little Grecian taverna. Nothing else but you, the poet, the sea, stone, and sky to listen. And the soft clink of a glass. And a hoarse call of a gull every now and again: "Irregularity is the secret / of music and to the voice of great poetry. / When a man remembers the beauty of his lost love, / it is the imperfect bit of her he remembers most. / The blown-up Parthenon is augmented by its damage." ("The Secret")

Although self-absorbed in a leonine way, Gilbert carries his masculine brio with spontaneity, sensitivity, humility, and, yes, a palpable sexiness—as intimate as a gaze. Here's the complete poem "Dancing at the Ballet:"

The truth is, goddesses are lousy in bed.
They will do anything it's true.
And the skin is beautifully cared for.
But they have not sense of it. They are
all manner and amazing technique.
I lie with them thinking of your
foolish excess, of you panting
and sweating, and your eyes after.

He struggles with the masculine urge to dominate, to absorb the world totally, which proves not only a struggle within but a criticism of contemporary life, a world smashed with phoniness and noise. One can see, even in reading his poems, why the women in his life adore him: "Ah, you three women whom I have loved in this / long life, along with the few others. / And the four I may have loved, or stopped short / of loving . . . You are like countries in which my love / took place . . . / A music composed of what you have forgotten. / That will end with my ending." ("Cherishing What Isn't")

Every poem tells completeness—a moment of realization, even enlightenment, in a broken world. Meghan O'Rourke, writing in Slate, observed, "No other poet I know captures so well a mind torn between the pleasures of austerity and the fecund, intoxicating powers of abundance . . . the ideal intersect . . . privation becomes a form of richness, a sharpening of attention." For me, Gilbert is one of the essential poetic voices.

The body is the herb,
the mind is the honey.
The heart, the heart is
the undifferentiated.
The mind touches the body
and is the sun.
The mind touches the heart
and is music.
When body touches heart
they together are the moon
in the silently falling snow
over there. Which is truth
exceeding, is the residence,
the sanctified, is the secret
closet and passes into glory.

("We are the Junction")

At the time of this printing, Knopf has just released Gilbert's Collected Poems, an incomparable selection of fifty years of work, including a selection of uncollected poems.

. . .