I THINK I bought this about the time he died--it hadn't been out long. I had read Refusing Heaven about the time it came out and had vague plans to read some of his other poetry, but had not gotten around to it, so a collected edition plus his passing seemed to be a fitting occasion. I actually opened it about a year ago and just got to the last page today.
A few years ago, Cole Swenson and David St. John published an anthology called American Hybrid, collecting examples of narrative/representational poets who were capable of going to their left towards avant-garde experimentation, and avant-garde poets who were capable of going to their right towards narration and description. Gilbert was not in the anthology--it mainly included poets younger than he--but he might have deserved a place in it, I think.
His main orientation is traditional enough, certainly. His rhythms recall iambic pentameter (without strictly following it). His syntax is largely conventional. Fidelity to his experiences and perceptions seems to matter: "I embarrass myself working so hard / to get it right even a little" ("Doing Poetry"). He is always ready to sum everything up in a sweeping third-person statement. "Our lives happen between / the memorable," for instance ("Highlights and Interstices"), or "We go hungry / amid the giant granaries / this world is" ("The Danger of Wisdom").
This last tendency is the most dated thing about his work, perhaps. He'll go vatic on you at the drop of a hat, sometimes in ways that make you want to ask who exactly this supposedly all-inclusive "we" is. Too often, it only means men roughly his own age and background. Women seem to be another kind of creature entirely.
Thing is, he can also make fun of this very device. "Music Is in the Piano Only When It Is Played" stacks one "we" statement atop another for twenty lines, to a point past annoyance, then Gilbert shifts gears abruptly--
He continues past the nunnery to the old villa
where he will sit on the terrace with her, their sides
touching. In the quiet that is the music of that place,
which is the difference between silence and windlessness.
Suddenly all the "we" statements are revealed as an older man showing off a bit, unable to shut up, until his surroundings finally get through to him and he falls quiet.
Sometimes the shifts are so quick and so apparently unmotivated that he seems to be approximating some aleatory process, or at least not bothering about linearity at all. "A Man in Black and White," for instance, takes so many sharp switchbacks that it could almost be Ashbery. Then there is the way the name "Pittsburgh" (where he grew up) gradually stops sounding like the name of a place and more like a kind of being:
Is it because
Pittsburgh is still tangled in him that he
has the picture on his wall of God's head
torn apart by jungle roots?
But a poet does not have to be avant-garde to be worth reading, after all. Gilbert is a master of his own music and stayed true to his vision. What else can one ask? And then there are the times when the sweeping "we" statements break in on you as all too true, maybe even helpful:
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.
("A Brief for the Defense")