Poet Jack Gilbert knows love, marriage, and deep, hounding sorrow. The death of his wife, Michiko Nogami in 1982, was a loss Gilbert felt in the marrow of his aging bones; it transformed his cadence and sway, his poetry suddenly so unhappy, the weight of his burden straps itself to you, buckle by buckle, until you are immobilized.
“The Great Fires” is indulgent, fitful, and vain. They are poems about losing so much that we create a vacuum, become negative space, and suck in the things around us because we can’t help it, and because that’s all there is left.
I know Gilbert through all those auxiliary things that surrounded him after the passing of his wife. I know the landscape of his vegetable garden, the placement of bookmarks in the volumes stacked by his bed, and I know the moment he took his first real breath after Michiko took her last. These poems are more than a glimpse of his world, they are total submersion in it, the pages slowly recalling teary-eyed memories, and a longing to be able to see beyond what is near.
Writing about oneself is certainly a little vain, but so is so much of how we live. If vanity brings you relief and catharsis, reminds you of where you are and who you are, of the things that surround you, by all means… indulge yourself.
Gilbert’s prose is so very worldly, that one forgets he was born in Pittsburgh, and worked as a door-to-door salesman, an exterminator, and a steelworker, before graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. Let us toast him with SakéOne’s MomoKawa, Organic Junmai Ginjo, brewed in Oregon, and of the highest caliber. With notes of tropical fruit and fresh berries, this saké is the perfect toast to Gilbert’s American roots, Michiko’s Japanese heritage, and vanity.
Drink this. Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo.
With this. “The Great Fires” by Jack Gilbert.
Please indulge me in a little vanity this week. Here is a poem of mine, inspired by Jack Gilbert.
On Vanity and a Baby’s Jumper
Vanity hums and whirs behind a sewing machine,
much like the one your great-aunt took with her to college,
patching together remnants of youthful carnage:
barrettes and blood,
lithium and lace,
colored sage and contraception.
Withered hands curl and glide around the clacking foot and the plunging needle;
Old as old is, she is diligent, dauntless,
unhinged at the hip,
and bent in a way that scares you.
Don’t look away when you notice how thin her skin is,
don’t turn your face to hide from the track marks and pock marks
and cigarette burns. You want to be looking
when she holds up the jumper you will dress your first-born in.
Why does she suddenly start talking in the voice of your mother,
low and patient?
“There is nothing wrong in wanting a humble life, my dear,
nothing at all,” she says.