MONOLITHOS: Poems, 1962 and 1982 by Jack Gilbert

MONOLITHOS: Poems, 1962 and 1982

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Over some 20 years, Gilbert's voice has retained its strength and its major weakness, too--in about even proportion. The language is clean, exhilaratingly direct, almost prosy except when it chooses to curl itself into courtier-style flourishes: ""Commonly, I provide/ against my death,/ which comes on./ And give thanks/ for the women I have/ been privileged to/ in extreme."" The style, somewhat akin to Joel Oppenheimer's, is one of occasionally heartbreaking formality. There's effective use of sparseness, too, as in this tremendously good description of Odysseus (from ""The Plunderers of Circe""): ""A known liar./ A resort darling. Untouchable."" And his best, very fine poems all trade on this straightforward lyricism, tremblingly controlled, while Gilbert's themes--loneliness, vulnerability, emotions' implacable honesty--achieve moments of Schubertian loveliness. (""Wondering if the quiet I feel is that happiness/ wise people speak about, or the modulation/ that is the acquiescence to death beginning."") In other poems, however, the same frangible qualities can seem soft-headed, fawning, mostly for effect: ""The ships put out and are lost./ Leaving me with their haunting awkwardness/ and the imperfection of birds./ While all the time/ I work to understand this happiness I have come into."" And the poet's persona--the eternal victim, the gentle sacrifice--seems to twist too many poems any and all ways in order to bare that defenseless neck. Finally, then, Gilbert registers as an intermittently spectacular poet instead of the brilliant, consistently superb lyric writer he might easily be--a great talent often hampered by the tendency towards an arrested yet also very conscious self-projection.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1981
Publisher: Knopf