Tear it Down


The poet Jack Gilbert died this week, in Berkeley, California.  He was 87 years old.



I don’t recall how many years ago I started reading Jack Gilbert’s work.  I should say re-reading, not reading: the thing about his words, his poems, is….once you read them, you have to re-read them. At least, I do. If there is a better way to pay tribute to a writer than by needing and wanting to re-read his or her words, I can’t think of what it might be.

This poem is among my favorites.


Tear It Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what

the heart knows. By redefining the morning,

we find a morning that comes just after darkness.

We can break through marriage into marriage.

By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond

affection and wade mouth-deep into love.

We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.

But going back toward childhood will not help.

The village is not better than Pittsburgh.

Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.

Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound

of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls

of the garbage tub is more than the stir

of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not

enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.

We should insist while there is still time. We must

eat through the wildness of her sweet body already

in our bed to reach the body within that body.

The Pittsburgh of Jack Gilbert’s youth

Once again, I re-read his words.  And wonder if they grant me some glimpse of my own life, my roads, the choices I have made…and have yet to make.  “We should insist while there is still time,” Gilbert writes.  And: “by insisting on love, we spoil it“.

I think he’s right.  And right again.  To reach that place we are going, wherever it may be, a literal place, a piece of work we think we must accomplish, a piece of music we must master before we can perform, a recipe we are dying to cook….maybe we need to dismantle it first.  To destroy it.  And then….what?  Redefine it from the ashes of the old?  Recognize that by letting go that which you thought you couldn’t live without….it somehow will be given to you?  Yeah, I know.  Sounds like the dude was more Zen master, more Taoist practitioner, than wordsmith.  But I still don’t quite get it yet.  I think I’m going to have to re-read it….once more.

In the meantime, I raise my glass – literally and metaphorically, to Jack Gilbert, and all his words – from raccoons licking the inside of garbage tubs to the constellations above – muchas gracías, Jack.  Really.