Saturday poetry pick: The Great Fires

“The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.”

begins Jack Gilbert’s poem “Searching for Pittsburgh” in his book The Great Fires. The collection includes poems written from 1982 to 1992, so it covers a lot of territory, much grief, much lovemaking, and his great love for Michiko, his great loss after she died. Heartbreak stalks through the pages.

But the poems I loved the best were those that called upon his early years in Pittsburgh, being a boy, and as a man navigating those memories. Poems like “The Spirit and the Soul“:

“…It was the newness of me,
and the newness after that, and newness again.
It was the important love and the serious lust.
It was Pittsburgh that lasted. The iron and fog
and sooty brick houses. Not Aunt Mince and Pearl,
but the black-and-white winters with their girth
and geological length of cold…”

and “Gift Horses“:

“…Shows him
photographs of the beautiful women in old movies
whose luminous faces sixteen feet tall looked out
at the boy in the dark where he grew his heart.
Brings pictures of what they look like now.
Says how lively they are, and brave despite their age.
Taking away everything. For the Devil is commissioned
to harm, to keelhaul us with loss, with knowledge
of how all things splendid are disfigured by small
and small. Yet he allows us to eat roast goat
on the mountain above Parakia…”

and then there’s that fox in “Searching for Pittsburgh,” who

“Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where ewe played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth…”

The fox returns, “watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again…”

I first read this poem in a poem-a-day email. I read it again, loving the way that it weaves and moves, thinking that if I could really understand that movement and what this poem is doing on its different levels, I would be able to write a good poem.

This is the last week of the year’s poetry picks. I hope you’ve had a chance to join me in the pleasure of discovering poets who are new to you (and maybe revisiting some old friends).

For 2015, I’m going to move to a monthly format (the last Saturday of the month). That will give me a chance to read some longer collections (Gerald Stern, Mahmoud Darwish, and others). I’m still up in the air about Facebook, whether I’ll stay there when the new anti-privacy policies kick in on Thursday, but I’ll be here, with poetry picks.