Remembering the great poet Jack Gilbert

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It is with such a heavy heart that I learned today of the passing of Jack Gilbert, a man whose words made me feel infinitely alive.  Tangled, declarative, beastly, gentle, raging, wanting—Gilbert's poems were everything.  I would teach them to the boy who would come to my house seeking solace and proof that the world was worth surviving.  I would read them to myself.  They sit before me now, across the room, the Jack Gilbert poems.

I wrote Jack Gilbert into The Heart is Not a Size, my fourth novel for young adults.  In the novel, I send my Georgia into Juarez, Mexico, with her best friend Riley.  Georgia is anxious, trying to prove courage to herself, trying to find it.  Just before Georgia leaves for this life-changing trip she remembers learning a Jack Gilbert poem in sophomore year and is steadied by the memory.

Later that night I woke up sweating from a dream, those black wings inside my ribcage beating, my mother’s words, Apply your intelligence to every living thing, snaking through my blood.  Because again my heart knew what my mind had avoided:  Juarez was probably a hare-brained scheme; what were the chances—really—that I’d fly all the way there and come home stronger?  I fought with the dark to free myself from my bed, struggled to wrest the weight from my chest.  It was after two, and the house was quiet, and I headed for the stairs, my right fist against my heart to quiet the fury, to survive it.  I needed the night beyond, which finally I reached, stumbling out onto the porch and into the streets and heading for the fairgrounds, which were empty now, the horses long since talked back into their trailers and driven off, Riley’s stories floating somewhere in the caverns of their heads.  I hadn’t had a panic attack in two months.  Each one was bigger than the last.
            We find the heart only by dismantling what/the heart knows.  The words are from a poem Jack Gilbert wrote and Mr. Buzzby read toward the end of my sophomore year, when I finally stopped minding the class so much and settled in to learn.  I walked the streets last night with that line in my head—walked until I could breathe again and stand up straight without collapsing.  I was going to Juarez because I needed some perspective, some place where I could let the big bird free.  My head knew things that my heart didn’t yet.  I was privileged.  I was smart.  I had a future.  It was time to believe in myself.

Peace, Jack Gilbert.


Amy said...

Thank you for introducing me to Jack Gilbert's poetry, Beth.

And thanks for writing truly beautiful things yourself.

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