Turning into Dwelling

by Stephen Burt

The restlessly introspective Gilbert (1949–2007) died with his light hidden under more than one barrel. The latest in Graywolf’s series of revivals (attentively introduced by Terrance Hayes) combines Gilbert’s only previous collection, Across the Mutual Landscape (1983), with a longer, more varied assortment of never-before-collected verse and prose poems. Gilbert became a psychotherapist and a professor of psychology: To read him is to hear him ask how the mind works, ready to turn and consume its own premises, to show in common parlance, but in tough ideas, how “the self grows forward / out of its reference.” But to read Gilbert is also to visit his cold, concrete New England, his Worcester “block where I am / the only black.” And it is to meet his streetwise, perhaps homeless, alter ego Willie, “always at his deathknell— / the raggedy end of his time / and time.” Gilbert cared for “The squealed saxophone note” and the cerebral explorations of up-to-date jazz, and he wrote superb, dissatisfied, explorations of African-American identity, picking up clues laid down by his onetime teacher Robert Hayden, and by the early work of Etheridge Knight (with whom he co-ran poetry workshops in the 1970s). Yet the knotty pronouncements in Gilbert’s sentences speak to other American traditions too. They should please Jack Gilbert’s devotees, or Gerald Stern’s: “I try to place / myself among the facelessness, forms / whose abused use reduces / even my own bodily truths / to a mask.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.