Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review of "Highlights and Interstices" by Jack Gilbert


“A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man.” This quote by EM. Forster from Howard’s End was one that my mind kept returning to as Adam Prince and I planned our wedding these last couple of months. Yes, the wedding was fabulous, but so much occurs in the quiet of our lives that's significant, too.

With all this in mind, we asked my poetry professor (who has known me and my poems for the past twelve years) Arthur Smith to read the poem “Highlights and Interstices” by Jack Gilbert. It reiterates that the beautiful is often “when nothing is happening.”

Highlights and Interstices
By: Jack Gilbert (from The Great Fires)

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other women. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko*. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

*Michiko Nogami was Jack Gilbert’s late wife.

That image in the middle of the eleven-line poem about “the way” a mother grabs her child’s hand without noticing is critical to this poem. Since the mother keeps talking to her friend, I sense that the mother grabbed the child’s hand without much thought. Some might criticize this action saying we should celebrate everything and not take such a moment for granted. One, that’s not possible. But two, this poem suggests there is a beauty in the overlooked common parts of life. A comfort. A wealth.

I also would like to point out how effective these line breaks are—especially near the poem’s end. As James Longenbach explains in The Art of the Poetic Line, a poet has three choices for how to break a line. A line can be:
Annotated: which means the line cuts against the grammatical moments.
Parsed: which generally follows the normative terms of the syntax.
End-stopped: which means, as it sounds, a period placed at the end.
With Gilbert’s poem, he chooses to annotate in the last four lines which not only gives this poem a feeling like it is falling apart (this is an elegy after all), but also draws the eye to certain words critical to the poem’s content: “between” “habitual” and “remember.” Together, these words sum up the poem: I wish I could remember all the habitual moments, all the moments between the exceptional.

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