Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Jack Gilbert, On Stone

Similar to the way I started paying close attention to quarry photos after I began doing stonework, I also started noticing whenever writers wax poetic on about stone. Poets, I’ve noticed, really like to talk about it, it seems to be a way for them to identify themselves with its timelessness. I don’t really mind the romanticization, I probably do that myself, but I always listen to see if they really understand the material. Not all of them do.

The telltale for me is if they know the difference between stone and rock, which are not the same thing and not interchangeable words. Rock is the raw form, stone has been shaped by humans or natural forces. One of the main poets to romanticize stone, and one who seems to pass the rock and stone test, Jack Gilbert, passed away recently.

On Stone

The monks petition to live the harder way,
in pits dug farther up the mountain,
but only the favored ones are permitted
that scraped life. The syrup-water and cakes
the abbot served me were far too sweet.
A simple misunderstanding of pleasure
because of inexperience. I pull water up
hand over hand from thirty feet of stone.
My kerosene lamp burns a mineral light.
The mind and its fierceness lives here in silence.
I dream of women and hunger in my valley
for what can be made of granite. Like the sun
hammering this earth into pomegranates
and grapes. Dryness giving way to the smell
of basil at night. Otherwise, the stone
feeds on stone, is reborn as rock,
and the heart wanes. Athena’s owl calling
into the barrenness, and nothing answering.

from The Great Fires

Obituaries and recent articles about him tend to refer to him as obscure or unfairly neglected, to the point where he sort of managed the trick of being famous for not being famous. I don’t think that was his intention. I think it’s more that he just kept his head down, working away like a drystone waller, making things that could easily be forgotten but also last forever.

One Response to “Jack Gilbert, On Stone”

  1. November 23rd, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    James says:

    Love the poem, and the visual and the audio clip of the owl calling into the barrenness, “and nothing answering.” I can’t imagine poetry about the world that doesn’t engage all the senses, and Jack Gilbert does ti well. Thanks for the share.

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