A review of

Refusing Heaven

by Jack Gilbert

Central question: Have we indeed “already lived in the real paradise”?
Format: 92 pp., cloth; Size: 5-7/8” x 8-3/8”; Price: $25.00; Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; Editor: Deborah Garrison; Typeface: Janson; Back-cover praise by: Frank Lentricchia, James Dickey, Allen Hoey; Jacket photo: Kailasa Temple; Jacket design: Abby Weintraub; Going price for a VG paperback copy of author’s 1962 debut collection on the used-book market: $400; In 1962, photographs of author appeared in: Vogue and Glamour; Author’s source of income in postwar France: Stolen gas rations sold on the black market; Representative lines: “We lose everything, but make harvest / of the consequence it was to us.”

Early on, Jack Gilbert chose nonactivity over activity—a strict aversion to scurrying—an anachronism that translates to the casual twenty-first-century reader as pretension or laziness. Gilbert is seventy-nine years old; has published four books; won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962 for Views of Jeopardy; was nominated for a Pulitzer for that book and the next one, Monolithos, which appeared twenty years later; won Guggenheim and NEA fellowships; published a third book ten years later, the great The Great Fires; has mainly lived in places where life consists of cooking, writing, and being in love with one woman or another (those mentioned repeatedly in his poems number three, in five decades of writing).

Those who demand surface complexity to prove a poem’s depth will likely dismiss Gilbert’s work as sentimental, obvious, or thin. Cultural context confuses the reception of work that eschews contemporary received ideas. Gilbert’s aesthetics of exclusion may easily be misread as emptiness, when in fact it’s the result of careful editing of the once full. The weathered look of Gilbert’s poems is not that of a sandblasted picture frame from Anthropologie but of actual wabi.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso is the author of two books of poems, the second forthcoming. Her third book will be a collection of very short stories.

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