by Sandra M. Gilbert.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2011,
160 pages, hardcover, $24.95,
ISBN: 978-0-393-08112-1.
Buy the Book

I have to admit, when I picked up poet Sandra M. Gilbert’s ninth volume of verse at first I found it slow going, not because the verse was too difficult or poorly conveyed, but because the first section, “Old Recipes,” struck me as downright dour.  I’m very pleased, however, that I admired this writer’s talents enough to stick with it, because as the book unfolds, it reveals territory that could perhaps only have been written by a female poet in her mid-70s.  And a rich landscape it turns out to be — elegiac, certainly, but also mesmerizingly blunt, insightful, and humorous.

Gilbert is most popularly known for her academic feminist work, in particular The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, written with Susan Gubar.  Her poetic output may have been somewhat eclipsed by her literary criticism, but I have been a fan of her poetry since my encounter with her third book of poems, Blood Pressure.  The years have not diminished her talents but have deepened them.  Her poetry is not obscure, but neither is it plain; under the well-wrought surfaces, one finds deeply considered meditations on loss, departure, nature, religion, time, aging, and beauty — rather what one might expect from an academic feminist.  What is not expected are the masterful rhymes wrapped into stunning little sonnets.  What is not expected are poems about cataracts, a colonoscopy, dental surgery, and an old cardigan.  These poems are not merely funny and wise — they are alive.  They bring to mind Donald Hall’s late-career books Without and Painted Bed, written after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and which embody some of the finest work of his career.

Much of the material is centered around the death of Gilbert’s 15-year partner, the game theorist David Gale, to whom the volume is dedicated.  However, Gilbert’s grief is expansive and sly, not merely an emotion, but a portal, as in “Grief: A History,” which arcs from a grief that moves from comparisons to a “dull pot at the back of the stove,” “a hurricane with your face,” and “a fog over the harbor,” to a troupe of musicians who “stomped on my glitter / of grief my shards of / rage,” ultimately leading to a “solitude of grief.”  Gilbert’s imagery is often startling, and this serves her well, as in the couplet that ends the sonnet “Crochet Hook,” a poem about a life lived in isolation, crocheting in front of the TV, as the world ironically flickers past:

until at last she drowsed in her solitude

and the fallen yarn pooled at her feet liked blood.

In “Question and Answer,” a poem about the Holocaust that takes the deep unthinkable nature of loss to a historical, global level, Gilbert demonstrates her honed ability to depict strong emotion within tightly crafted verse:

And the ghosts

Of bullets disappear in dirty mists,

Of kids in puffs of dust, demented lists.

Not all the work is cohesive — “Scouring” and “Edge of Winter Sonnet” come to mind — but the occasional unevenness is vanquished by the brilliance exemplified in “Variations on an Old Issue of Woman’s Day,” a wryly fanciful commentary on the tragicomic nature of women’s advertising.  Where we might expect to find a feminist diatribe, we find something more artful:

Light the oven.  Fast.

Note this minute’s

recession of darkness.

Avoid money mistakes.

Hurry up.  Unfold

Your flat pale leaves

like the skirts of a dancer.

The final section, “Lei Soup,” is ostensibly a celebration of life, containing remarkable considerations of parasailing, mice, sheep, seals, hearing aids, and other topics.  Though they are the most sensual, joyous poems here, I found their cheeriness to be somewhat forced, a distraction from the preceding, more somber themes, although the final two pieces, “Lei Soup” and “Knowing,” return us to an appropriate ending point for this particular journey.

Some might be tempted to classify this book as “women’s poetry,” especially given Gilbert’s background, but it is not.  It is a book that does not shy away from the grim aspects of loss, grief or aging, but shapes these realities into a deeply resonant collection. Loss may be devastating, but ultimately it is not antithetical to life.

Annie Seikonia