What makes you this person you are? How do you define yourself? A mother. A partner. A surgeon. A teacher. A red-head. Perhaps a combination of two traits, your family affiliation and your career. Maybe, an artist. Or, a musician. What happens when things begin to be stripped away by time? When your parents die, are you still a daughter? If you lose your job, are you still an investment banker?
If you are a poet and you’ve lost your facility with words, what are you? I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about Jack Gilbert who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Gilbert’s poetry has been an inspiration to me, as well as his insistence at living life on his own terms, eschewing traditional academia for the most part and moving to England, Greece, Denmark.
John Penner writes:
Of Gilbert’s favored words, probably none conveys better the poet than magnitude. “Poetry, for me,” he declares in a 1965 essay, “is a witnessing to magnitude.” In poems he sings of a “magnitude of pain, of being that much alive,” and “a magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.”
Even if the words are trapped inside, or perhaps worn away altogether, that magnitude of beauty must surely still be there. Perhaps only the expression of it changes.
Often I am struck by the magnitude of the sky and the light. Words seem bleached compared to the pure physicality of standing beneath such ever-shifting beauty. It is only later that poetry comes as witness.
What am I that can not be stripped away?
Dreamer. Student. Witness.
A Brief for the Defense
by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
From Refusing Heaven (Knopf, 2005)