I am puzzled by Dan Chiasson’s reluctance to engage any of the stronger or more representative poems of Jack Gilbert’s most recent book, Refusing Heaven (“Eight Takes,” April 2005). Chiasson’s review indicates neither a thorough and close reading of Gilbert’s poems, nor a larger understanding of the poet’s body of work as it informs his most recent publication. Not only does Chiasson misrepresent the title of the longest passage he offers as evidence of Gilbert’s workthe title of the poem is “A Kind Of Courage,” not “Trying To Sleep”but he misreads the poem as an example of “the moral consequences of vanity.” Clearly Gilbert is drawing our attention to our strange or paradoxical capability for joy, “singing and dancing/and throwing down flowers nevertheless,” in spite of our specific knowledge of the suffering of others. Chiasson’s comment on craft and the proximity of certain lines“'coat’ runs right up against 'she was raped’ as though the two were comparable, or a coat might have protected her”is almost laughable in its misperception of Gilbert’s intent, or overly sarcastic and without critical merit.
Chiasson also believes Gilbert’s work in this book is “practically armored against new experience.” What Chiasson fails to mention is that Gilbert will turn eighty this year and that any writer of this age might be best understood in that context first. Gilbert is in fact wrestling his past life into the perspective he will greet death with. And Gilbert does not shy away from conversations with death. One only need read “Bring in the Gods” to encounter the fierce Gilbert, as fierce as he has ever been in his work, when he says near the poem’s end, “I am hungry/for what I am becoming.”