A remarkable late-in-life collection, elegiac and bracing, from master poet Jack Gilbert, whose Refusing Heaven captivated the poetry world and won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
In these characteristically bold and nuanced poems, Gilbert looks back at the passions of a life—the women, and his memories of all the stages of love; the places (Paris, Greece, Pittsburgh); the mysterious and lonely offices of poetry itself. We get illuminating glimpses of the poet’s background and childhood, in poems like “Going Home” (his mother the daughter of sharecroppers, his father the black sheep in a family of rich Virginia merchants) and “Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina,” a classic scene of pulling water from the well, sounding the depths.
The title of the collection is drawn from the startling “Ovid in Tears,” in which the poet figure has fallen and is carried out, muttering faintly: “White stone in the white sunlight . . . Both the melody / and the symphony. The imperfect dancing / in the beautiful dance. The dance most of all.” Gilbert reminds us that there is beauty to be celebrated in the imperfect—“a worth / to the unshapely our sweet mind founders on”—and at the same time there is “the harrowing by mortality.” Yet, without fail, he embraces the state of grief and loss as part of the dance.
The culmination of a career spanning more than half a century of American poetry, The Dance Most of All is a book to celebrate and to read again and again.
THE SPELL CAST OVERIn the old days we could see nakedness onlyin the burlesque houses. In the lavishtheaters left over from vaudeville,ruined in the Great Depression. What had beengrand gestures of huge chandeliersand mythic heroes courting the goddesson the ceiling. Now the chandeliers were grimyand the ceilings hanging in tatters. It waslike the Russian aristocrats fleeingthe Revolution. Ending up as taxi driversin Paris dressed in their worn-out elegance.It was like that in the Pittsburgh of my days.Old men of shabby clothes in the emptyseats at the Roxy Theater dreamingof the sumptuous headlinersslowly discarding layers of theirlavish gowns. Baring the secretbeauty to the men of their season.The old men came from their one room(with its single, forbidden gas range)to watch the strippers.To remember what usedto be. Like the gray-haired men of Iliumwho waited each morning for Helento cross over to the temple in her light raiment.The waning men longed to escape from the spellcast over them by time.To escape the imprisonedlonging.To insist on dispensation.To seetheir young hearts just one more time.Those famous women like honeycombs.Women movingto the old music again. That former grace of flesh.The sheen of them in the sunlight, to watchthem walking by the sea.SOUTHIn the small towns along the rivernothing happens day after long day.Summer weeks stalled forever,and long marriages always the same.Lives with only emergencies, births,and fishing for excitement. Then a shipcomes out of the mist. Or comes aroundthe bend carefully one morningin the rain, past the pines and shrubs.Arrives on a hot fragrant night,grandly, all lit up. Gone two dayslater, leaving fury in its wake.For Susan Crosby Lawrence Anderson
CHERISHING WHAT ISN'TAh, you three women whom I have loved in thislong life, along with the few others.And the four I may have loved, or stopped shortof loving. I wander through these woodsmaking songs of you. Some of regret, someof longing, and a terrible one of death.I carry the privacy of your bodiesand hearts in me. The shameful ardorand the shameless intimacy, the secret kindsof happiness and the walled-up childhoods.I carol loudly of you among trees emptiedof winter and rejoice quietly in summer.A score of women if you count love both largeand small, real ones that were briefand those that lasted. Gentle love and somealmost like an animal with its prey.What is left is what’s alive in me. The failingof your beauty and its remaining.You are like countries in which my lovetook place. Like a bell in the treesthat makes your music in each wind that moves.A music composed of what you have forgotten.That will end with my ending.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Dance Most of All by Jack Gilbert. Copyright © 2009 by Jack Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Jack Gilbert
Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Great Fires: Poems 1982—1992; Monolithos, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Views of Jeopardy, the 1962 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. He has also published a limited edition of elegiac poems under the title Kochan. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Gilbert lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“These poems are deeply elegiac, looking back over a long life lived in the various modes one comes to associate with Gilbert: desire, love, longing, and happiness . . . For Gilbert, these poems suggest a satisfaction and peace with all he has done. For the rest of us, we may take Gilbert’s final work as a guide.” —The Oregonian
“The best poems here are valuable bulletins from a distant, private war fought over resources for affirmation, in which the most precious weapon is the capacity to ‘say grace over / almost everything.’” —Poetry