Learning from Jack Gilbert

In his poem “Horses at midnight without a moon,” Jack Gilbert weaves an ephemeral scene for the reader, accentuated by his use of pronouns. The poem works with an ambiguous narrator in an ambiguous setting that works toward an ambiguous conclusion, but the use of the collective pronoun ties together the crux of the poem. The use of the first person plural throughout the poem helps to bring the reader in, make the setting, the narrator, the conclusion very dream-like and personal while at the same time universal. It also provides a major clue to the spiritual action below the poem. His poem beings,

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.

Right off the bat, our heart is in the woods while our dream is in a castle, and we contain music of some sort, but all we know is this one voice that is speaking. Gilbert uses the plural pronoun that contains singular body parts and has one unified dream. Next, “Hope is pushing down.” It is not pushing down on anything in particular, it is just pushing. We are rescued by this angel who “flies up again” taking us with her. Angels are usually associated with flying down, and apparently this has happened before without the reader’s knowledge. “Her,” in this case, can also apply to the angel, or to Hope pushing down. The next portion of the poem begins to bring in more concrete images:

The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.

In this section we are given abstractions as well, but they are supported by concrete images. Summer mornings as long-legged beauty is something the mind can follow through dirty streets that explain the setting in the opening line. Suddenly we are surrounded by undescribed danger. The sentence itself is a surprise and the shock of it does impose a thread of danger, a danger that dissipates upon reading the line that follows. “What astonishes is the singing.” There is no pronoun here. It is stated as fact. Gilbert doesn’t write “What astonishes us is the singing,” the way he included the “us” in the threat of danger. There is no sign of who or what is singing, but the horses in the following lines summon neighing to the ear. The horses are anchors – we know they are there. They are a jumping-off-point for a discussion of the spirit.

Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

Our (plural) spirit (singular) persists like a man (singular) struggling. This line pushes the collective pronoun into the singular, as if something that was two has become one.

The use of “we” instead of “I” is risky. First, while it can evoke an inclusive feeling in the reader, the feeling of being part of the experience, it can also be alienating. “Our heart wanders in the dark woods,” begins Gilbert. “Actually, mine doesn’t, it’s here in my chest in my living room,” the reader could reply, and lose trust in Gilbert then and there, inspiring the cynical reading I made of the first four lines. Gilbert relies on the tone of his book as  a whole, and on the imagination of his reader, who has followed him this far – to page sixty-three. (This is working on the assumption that the reader has begun his or her reading at the beginning of the book and has not opened the book to this exact page and begun reading.) Gilbert’s poems are often very thought-based and philosophical. He explores the mind and motives of himself and the beings around him, devoting attention to every detail. His risk here is earned.

Gilbert’s use of the plural pronoun in conjunction with singular body parts and a singular spirit suggest that the speaker is feeling divided. Based on this, the poem becomes a struggle of the spirit and the soul, a speaker pushing forward through feelings of confusion, abstraction, and doubt which are brought out in the setting of the dark woods. The images Gilbert uses, and the foggy and dream-like feeling inspired by his opening, reflect this struggle and the hope that is found in the conclusion. The “we” pronoun works on two levels here. It enacts the split spirit of the speaker, and at the same time includes the reader in the struggle. If the poem were written in the first person, there may not have been enough impetus for the reader to go back and work through the poem. Gilbert does not always give realizations easily. The reader must think and work in many of his poems. The pronoun “we” makes this poem a collective artistic and spiritual effort. When the pronouns fuse in the end into the one man struggling, knowing exactly what is going on in the lines above it becomes unnecessary. We don’t need to know precisely when, where, and who we are dealing with. In this poem, Gilbert has pulled off a feat he earned with the poems preceding this one in his book, rejecting the need for more beyond this life.

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