Jack Gilbert, American Poetry Review, January/February 2009
BART line to a Jack Gilbert reading.
The guy who told me I was on
the right line. The woman who asked
me what I was reading. She was another
aspiring writer, all her stories 30 years
old. The amputee begging in her motorised
wheelchair. The guy beside me, dreads
and tatts, tinny Rap wrecking his
ears, asleep. The hordes of transfixed
smart phone users. Poetry on and
off the page: the Pittsburgh steel of
the wheels and the tracks, rolling me
close to a man without memory, stark
in the hope that his poems will awake him.
The heart as he always knew is a pilgrim.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Yesterday I went to see one of my favourite American poets in his rest home in Berkeley: Jack Gilbert. Jack has Alzheimer’s and now cannot walk (he’s 87). Jaya, one of his carers, a lovely African American woman was so thrilled I’d come, all the way from New Zealand (you know how enthusiastic Americans can be, in a way that sometimes overwhelms Kiwis, but is actually very healthy).
She took a photo of us both then wheeled us into a private room, where I talked with Jack as he dozed and read him three of his poems. The first one upset him a bit – he tried to talk and shook his head – so I took a break. I knew he could hear something of what I was saying. I held his hand, stroked him, prayed in Māori, and after while read a poem I’d written for him – The Birds of Pittsburgh.
I think he liked that. Then I read him one of his, “Trying To Have Something Left Over” where he whispers “Pittsburgh” (his home town) into the ears of a baby he’s looking after for a mother he’s visiting, as his own marriage breaks down. I whispered “Pittsburgh” close to him; he opened his eyes and at the last line, I knew he could hear me. He looked far away ahead, as if seeing a sail in the distance.
“So that all his life her son would feel gladness/unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined/city of steel of America. Each time almost/remembering something maybe important that got lost”.
They were about to have a Mind Body class in that room, for the other residents as well. The therapist (a sweet guy) and his assistant came in to set up, wheeling two or three others in. He asked me about Jack and said I was reading him poetry. He knew Jack was a poet, said he needed to read some of his work. I told him he should, Jack was a great man. “We are in the presence of greatness”, I volunteered.
“I like to think of all these guys like that”, he replied, in a kind of rebuke to my singling Jack out. I knew it was time to go, so I told Jack I would come back and squeezed his poor white hand one more time. As I left I said to the therapist that by making mention of Jack’s unique value, I wasn’t implying his other residents were not great human beings.
“That’s OK,”, he said, “I just have to keep my focus in here”. I made my farewell with Jaya who hugged me fiercely and said my coming was meant to be. “He’s my father,” I said. “That’s right!” said Jay and hugged me again, as if I was her big older brother. I gave her a signed copy of that poem I had written for Jack and asked if she could put it in his room.
More delight: she’s going to do that, make copies, keep in touch with me by email on how Jack is. I was family now. I stumbled out of the care home and into the bright Berkeley morning. I walked down the street weeping, passing the postman, saying hello and wondering if he saw my tears. I’m sure he sees more than that around here.
I went to a café and wrote out a draft of a poem I’d been composing on the BART train coming in from Dublin, then sent it to myself from my phone. Jack was writing here in 1957 with Jack Spicer and others of the Berkeley Renaissance; he was part of Spicer’s Poetry as Magic Workshop in San Francisco State College back then.
The magic worked for him. He was as present then as I am now, but so much younger: a man afire, alert as a tiger, swift as a hummingbird to the nectar, restless and about to break through. Now he could be anywhere in his mute, seemingly endless days, located in the love of his relatives and the kindness of strangers.
Out on Sacramento Avenue – in my search for that nectar Jack Gilbert found in his life and stored for all time in his poetry – I pass hummingbirds iridescent as fire, whizzing like bullets from blossom to blossom:
“The heart in its plenty hammered
by rain and need, by the weight of what momentarily is”.
Jack Gilbert: from Steel Guitars.
Purple-throated Carib, Dominica. Photo: Charlesjsharp, Wikipedia Commons.