I just received notification that coming this May, Bloodaxe Books will be hosting a tribute for one of our best living poets, Jack Gilbert. Here's the notice via poets.org and via Facebook, which is how I received it.
The publication in recent years of the retrospective Great Fires and the excellent Refusing Heaven collection has brought Jack some long deserved recognition. Here in Pittsburgh we cherish a more modest selection of work, published by the small press publisher Pond Road Press, entitled Tough Heaven: Poems of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has always been a backdrop for the work of Jack Gilbert, a symbol of youth and the not-so-nostalgic past. The Pittsburgh he remembers, like his fellow compatriot and good friend Gerald Stern, is a Pittsburgh long gone, a Pittsburgh forward looking politicians and the nouveau rich, whose hands are today mired in a different kind of grime, would sooner forget. But the ghosts are here, they are everywhere; just as those of us who walk these streets and struggle for a livelihood see them in the corner of our eyes, fleeting and gone in the early morning fog, they followed Gilbert everywhere he went, woven through his work as a thick tangle of twigs in a long abandoned nest.
And that work is at once beautiful, sad, and immensely moving. Here's a taste of that Pittsburgh long gone, the ghost of yesteryear and, yet, somehow the true hope of tomorrow, a hope without which no desperate economic Renaissance pogrom can ever dream of succeeding. We've lived through a few of those here and still we persist, because or despite of any measured, concerted efforts, because, in truth, on the best of days, we stand hand-in-hand with the very ghosts Jack Gilbert evokes.
The ghosts of ourselves.
Searching for Pittsburgh
The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along the three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every everning were
stained pink by the inferno always raging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth. Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.Jack Gilbert