Poetry News

Celebrating Jack Gilbert

By Harriet Staff

This LA Times feature looks at the life, poetry, and sad decline in health of Jack Gilbert.

It opens:

In a spacious, humane skilled-nursing home, a man sits with his elderly neighbors arrayed in their wheelchairs as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing. Several guests arrive to see the man, and after the last note of "Cheek to Cheek," one of them takes up a microphone and reads a poem.

The reader, startled by a resident's pained moans of distress, stumbles over a word or two of "Looking at Pittsburgh From Paris." He finishes, and the man brightens in his chair and points at his heart, mouthing to a visitor holding his arm, "Me?"

Yes, Jack Gilbert. That's yours.

The poet is 87 and small in his wheelchair, mostly unable to talk, his brain diminished by disease. He is dying. But as for anyone with Alzheimer's or its variants, the end has not come quickly. It is a long receding.

The visitor holding his arm is the most important person in his life, one of his three great loves, the poet Linda Gregg. Now 70, she has visited regularly from Manhattan since Gilbert's declining health required his move west in 2009 from Northampton, Mass. Away from him, she speaks of Gilbert alternately in the past and present tense. "Well," she says, "there are ways in which Jack is not here." Still, Gregg and others closest to him say his mind and personality, if only remotely accessible, persevere. Steven Rood, another friend and poet, says Gilbert "is acutely aware of what's going on in his life, including the tragic nature of it. So it's an ongoing grief."

But this is also a time of triumph for Gilbert. His "Collected Poems," released this year by Knopf, is a hard-won achievement at the end of a difficult path, carved by a stubborn devotion to his art. A book release celebration was held at Pegasus Books in Berkeley in May, with Gregg, Rood and others reading and Gilbert in attendance, beaming.

Then, after a brief overview of Gilbert's life and career:

After the impromptu reading at the nursing home, Gilbert listens attentively to whoever speaks to him and does his best to respond. "Jack, thanks for talking so much," says Gregg. "And forgive us for not understanding as well as we should," adds Bill Mayer, a poet and longtime friend.

Gilbert is asked if he still has the desire to write, whether there are still poems alive inside of him. "Sure," he says, the clearest word he would utter during the one-hour visit.

"Now if we just had a way of getting them out," says Mayer.

In 2005, Gilbert told the Paris Review, "I think I should write something about getting old. It's never been explored properly." In the ensuing years, he tried to write bits of poems longhand even as his dexterity faltered. The lines in red ink spiraled around on the page, but the words couldn't be deciphered. When his verbal skills were stronger, Rood recalls, a doctor tested his mental acuity by asking him to identify certain objects. The doctor pointed to a lamp, and Gilbert responded, "That's the thing that lets me see." A pen was held up: "That's the thing you write poems with."

As dinnertime arrives at the nursing home, Gilbert is seated with three other residents, including a woman who says to no one, over and over, "They don't know what to do with me. What can I do?"

Full article here.

Originally Published: November 12th, 2012