Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“A Brief for the Defense”


Jack Gilbert, an American poet, died this past year. Before his first book of poetry, “Views of Jeopardy,” (1962) won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, Gilbert worked as a door-to-door salesman, exterminator and steelworker. He spent the remainder of his writing career in “self-imposed isolation”- what many have described as a spiritual quest resulting from his alienation from mainstream American culture (Wickipedia). Any time a gifted poet dies, I grieve. Goodbye Jack, we’ll miss you.


My favorite poem from the recent series by Andrew Sullivan (The Dish), Poems from the Year, contains refrains from the Old Testament, especially Ecclesiastes.  Even today’s reading from Nehemiah 8, where “the joy of the Lord is my strength,” sounds more poignantly relevant when considered next to the poetic wisdom of Gilbert:

“A Brief for the Defense,” by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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