Revisiting Jack Gilbert… by Brian Fanelli

Bedside Table Series: #3
by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli

During my M.F.A. course work at Wilkes University, I plowed through dozens of poetry collections and essays. One of the books on the list was The Great Fires, poems by Jack Gilbert.  At first, his dense lines and hard truths about love and language failed to move me in the same way other works on my list did, probably because I didn’t give the work the attention it requires, since I had so many other books to read in a limited amount of time. Now, a few years later, after Gilbert’s recent passing, I’ve revisited the book, finding much to enjoy, including sprawling similes, deep meditations, fantastic leaps of imagination, and clever references to past literary figures.

What impresses me most about this collection is how much Gilbert had to say about the challenge of language and the difficulty of finding the right word, themes that should appeal to any poet. Gilbert opens the poem “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” with the line,

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean

and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say

God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words

get it wrong.

What poet can’t relate to the frustration and observation Gilbert paints in that opening line? We’ve all wrestled with a draft of a poem where the words don’t quite fit the meaning we’re trying to convey.

Another poem I’ve starred in the book to read again and again is “Dante Dancing,” in which Gilbert draws on the story of Dante and his love for Beatrice, making clear the pains of unrequited love. The first stanza wowed me the most for the extended simile that compares Dante’s love to

a summer rain after drought

like the thin cry of a red-tailed hawk

like an angel

sinking its teeth into our throat.

Like a lot of other poems in the book, the work is punctuated with a heavy and sad tone, when Dante’s love is ultimately unfulfilled. The early simile in the first stanza, especially its last phrase, foreshadows how intoxicating but painful Beatrice’s beauty was to the Italian bard, which is conveyed beautifully in the final stanza’s line,

He dances the romance lost, the love that never was

and the great love missed because of dreaming.

Like a lot of other writers, I rarely sell or trade my books, finding them difficult to part with, and I’m especially grateful that I never rid my bookshelf of The Great Fires. Now that I have the time to enjoy the collection, I’m finding much to appreciate in Gilbert’s challenging work.

Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Red Rock Review, Harpur Palate, Boston Literary Magazine, The Portland Review, and several other journals. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 through Unbound Content. Currently, he teaches creative writing at Keystone College.