Monday, December 08, 2014

The Poem as Song in Ernest Hilbert’s second book of sonnets

Ernest Hilbert


The Poem as Song in Ernest Hilbert’s second book of sonnets


by Michael Todd Steffen

Ernest Hilbert displays craftiness in his signature rime scheme with the most rewritten form in all of English poetry, prompting categorization beside the Petrarchan and the English sonnets; the Hilbert sonnet: ABC ABC DEF DEF GG. Avoiding bracket or alternating rime schemes in the traditional octet of the sonnets prevents our easy detection of the scheme, persuading our allowance for the language’s unaffectedness. It is not obviously predicated by the echo-chamber. There is much in Hilbert’s specific word choice relating detail caught by a good eye for observation as well as literary and cultural reference in the poems to convince us that he writes both from experience and from an impressively educated memory, as is evident in the poem titled ‘Times Literary Supplement’:

    We sifted through his room at the museum,
    Opened it like a tomb; sorted, emptied,
    Claimed its small treasures: coins, copper sculptures,
    Maps of an Augustan mausoleum,
    Tripods, stalled watches, stiff river reed,
    Nicked reading glasses, vivid fishing lures.
    Stubbornly, the TLS still came,
    Week after week, as the excavation
    Ended and boxes thumped into the trash,
    Reports of books newly born, wild or tame,
    Jacketed, crated, and shipped by the ton.
    Reviewers plough on, as careers rise and crash—
    Few are prized, most pulped, conveyed to landfills,
    Compacted like coal, toppled timber, great fossils.

Page to page, however, some resistance by the poet to the worsening situations of the experiences giving rise to his poems, some notion of transformation, how the dilemma inspiring these lines might evolve, struck me as missing. It is as though Hilbert makes himself the object of a determined victimization—also betraying a good-natured virtue of acceptance, at moments to the point of resignation, a feeling conveyed by his willing access to a harsher vernacular:

    The city is cat piss and dog shit. It stinks,
    And the humid air smells like mold. I lie in bed,
    Too hot to move, slick with sweat, wait for dark.
    Blue flies eddy over the cluttered sink.
    I’m broke. The change dish is exhausted.
    A Western Union stub is my bookmark…

On one hand, in the midst of the persistence of memory, designating a love of bygone times as Odysseus’s nursing sorceress Kalypso, the past can only be the past, perhaps even consigned to myth, beyond our control or effort to change. The poem’s purpose then becomes the song of that loss, its melody on the heartstrings, imagined by Hilbert in the second half of the sonnet as a vaporous, elusive, perhaps even delusional memory:

    You never knew me. You’re in a Victorian
    Sea home, slicing, to taste, a sweet chilled peach,
    As an ocean wind lifts your long light hair.
    Your songs are old, your dresses empyrean.
    The view is vast over the empty beach.
    You pause, as long as you like on the stair.
    Memories sink and compel me to bear
    One last thought: that you were never there.

Form (we have all come across this definition) is the fulfillment of expectations proposed. Persevering with the sonnet, while evoking the hero-wanderer of epic, Hilbert reserves his promise to sing the songs of, as Seamus Heaney phrased it, “single things,” of the poet’s dilemma as it is, without agonizing much in the modal auxiliaries of ‘may’, ‘might’ or ‘should’, without elaborating a story or theme beyond focal situations. He is unbothered by the potential influence of his example—

        …I’m struggling to play a record,
    But my fingers quiver and the needle
    Shrieks like scraped chalk through the speakers. I turn
    It up, and up, and up. I’m lit like a war
    With pills, lines, so many drinks I can’t feel.
    I find two women shooting heroin
    In my bed…

—without sparing us the consequences of this abandon:

        I’m coming up so hard I puke.
    O Christ the summer is stunned with lilacs!
    Someone gets kicked in the nose…

By now anonymous readers or Puritans lingering in these pages may be just ready to close them and set Hilbert back on the shelf. Yet part of the punch of these poems relies on their innocent audacity, evocative of a prior generation that made its mark during Vietnam trapped in Cold War politics , that rebellion of youth fueled by social protest and ‘Drugs, Sex and Rock ’n’ Roll’. The movement came to its summit and tipping point in 1968, which Hilbert in the preface to this book calls “the annus horribilus, a year that saw tragedy and civil unrest around the globe.” This was also the year when

the Apollo 8 space mission successfully circumnavigated Earth’s moon…
On Christmas Eve, the crew observed the Earth rising for the first time over
the moon’s horizon. Commander Frank Borman later described the Earth-rise
as “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent
of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me.” He signed off:
“Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—
all of you on the good Earth.”

So with the title and the prefatory note on its origin, we might read the sonnets of AOYOTGE as a captain’s log of Hilbert’s personal moon-orbit voyage, and the poems make recognizable allusions to Homer’s hero of The Odyssey, whose correlative in the culture of the late 60s would be Kubrick’s
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The decadence of Hilbert’s content (the drugs and booze and women shooting heroin in his bed) though not astonishing to our culture, does run against a rather prominent Restoration current these days advocating recovery, medical and health awareness, moderation,
No Smoking signs and security cameras everywhere you turn. Awareness of or reference to this new sense of caution and prudence surface not in the least in the sonnets, which keeps the purpose of the poet’s rebellion tacit and subconsciously more poignant and convincing. Out and out, meanwhile, Hilbert echoing Larkin is going to argue the anti-heroic argument of the failure of ideals to satisfy us:

    Why must we love? Perhaps as Plato thought,
    Zeus hacked jealous man into two parts,
    So we struggle, our whole lives, to reunite;
    Or Shakespeare’s lovers—struck through with stars, caught
    In a love that promises doom—who find their hearts
    Seared like coals and drown them in endless night.
    But this is too much for us! We are not
    Useful myths, nor mere characters undone
    On a stage; yet our two strengths are as great
    As these and other stories we are taught.

A few weeks back (on Thursday, November 13) I had the good fortune of making it to a reading at the Cambridge Public Library featuring Ernest Hilbert and Daniel Tobin, another poet who is making his difference in our time by writing in recognizably poetic language (lines seasoned with symbolic amplitude, scansion, and deliberate prosody, even sometime rime) while maintaining a probable contemporary idiom. Hilbert especially grabbed my attention that evening, because this was my first encounter with him, yet also because he is an excellent live reader, mindful of delivery, projecting his voice in units of sense and breath, in the pauses of his lines, lines I could not help but think were written with their vocal presentation in mind. It was not surprising for me to discover, in the Biographical Note to his new book, that along with poetry, Hilbert “supplies libretti and song texts for contemporary composers Stella Sung, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Christopher LaRosa.”

Back on the page, Hilbert’s poems are good enough to choose virtues that run somewhat against the grain of present society. He portrays a remarkably witty and cool character on the downhill slide thrust upon our humanity by heartbreak and grief. At the same time, the presence of mind demonstrated by the composition of the poems and of Hilbert’s physical presence as a reader, affable and measured, reassure us of his survival, aplomb and fruition from that time of fire and rain.

poems by Ernest Hilbert
is available for $16.95
from Red Hen Press
in Pasadena, California

Other books by Ernest Hilbert include
‘Sixty Sonnets’ and ‘Aim Your Arrows at the Sun’

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