A MILTON OF THE ALLEYS
Review by Christopher Bernard
All of You on the Good Earth
Poems by Ernest Hilbert
Red Hen Press
96 pages, $16.95
Elegies & Laments
Ernest Hilbert et al.
Pub Can Records
Ernest Hilbert has written some of the most elegant poems in American literature since the loss of Anthony Hecht. A fascinating blend of the Augustan and romantic (an Augustanism that flirts with the sweaty Rochester as much as the marmoreal Johnson, and a romanticism charged with as much street grit as lyricism and longing), with a cadence that can be as wickedly eloquent as Lowell or compressed, as an elegantly held fist, as Bishop, Hilbert holds tight to an understanding of poetry and the role of the poet—proud without complacency, authentic without cheapness, self-respecting and self-mocking—that is (thank God) not particularly popular in poetic circles today. None of the shive and jive of hip-hop rap and poetry slams echoes in these lines, none of the pink-toned shrieks of social networks or the subliterate prattling of Twitter or the smug pyrrhonism of the postmoderns. Yet his poems are as fresh as the morning sun, sharp and alive as the latest headline or a brash tweet.
His latest learned and lyrical productions are a book and a CD. The book contains some 60 loosely formed sonnets, a form that Hilbert has made his own, proving this most classic of forms can contain anything the 21st century can throw at it.
“I arrive, one more uninvited guest.
… A single white horse
Grazes down below, slowly consumed
By shadows that pour into the valley.” (“Dusk in the Ruins”)
He, or his poetic persona, moves across the world, an “earnest pilgrim,” from the necropolis at Vulci to Iwo Jima , to the bars of TriBeCa and the back alleys of Queens, to Senecan Rome, “from Grub Street to the Brill Building,” to the “dark suburbs” (“The insatiable sprawl thieves as it gives,” as he says in a memorable line in a book packed, jammed and o’erbrimming with lines you will want to linger over, savor, like the wines of Helicon), to New Jersey’s Mullica River, to a graveyard in Philadelphia:
“My parched heart slithers in its soaked bone chest,
Gorges on embers and crackles to ash.
Winter twigs are splayed like petrified veins,
Skeletal fingers to cradle a bare nest.” (“Levavi Oculos”)
Any page you open to contains, not a gem, but a treasury, a manuscript of illuminations, lapis lazuli and gold, even when the poet is watching his key chain spatter down a toilet bowl in a late New York club night:
“Keys splash in the toilet bowl and clank
Dully on the brown-smudged porcelain throat,
A cloudy silver quiver. The tiny blades
Swim through ripples.” (“City-Scape Gentlemen’s Club, Queens”)
Or, more bluntly:
“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 . . .” (“Kalypso”)
He describes, like a Milton cast away in the alleys, what he sees on a bleak night in the slums of a great, wounded city, or in the hungover misery of a busride down the east coast’s suburban sprawled flank, in a poverty-stricken childhood homelife among “the peculiar clan at cul-de-sac’s end,” in the fissile fossilizing of a convention of archaeologists, in a list (far from incomplete) of America’s robust negatives, in a pixillated Oscar acceptance speech and a rancid envy’s tongue lashing of revenge—all without missing a beat or a foot, though he allows himself a respectable freedom in rhyme.
Hilbert’s CD is a particular treat for his fans: it includes a selection from his book Sixty Sonnets, read by the poet with musical accompaniment, including in some cases, orchestral arrangements, composed by Marc Hildenberger, Dave Young, and Christopher LaRosa. Four tracks, each containing a number of poems, are listed on the jacket and CD (“Failed Escapes,” “Legendary Misbehavior,” “Satires & Observations,” and “Elegies & Laments”), though a fifth track is included on the CD itself, a fine, cool ending to this ingenious journey through sense and sound. One of the tracks records a particularly successful open mike where Hilbert reads, followed by stimulating contributions by Quincy R. Lehr, Paul Siegell, and Kristine Young. And introducing each track are tantalizing mashups of recordings, scratchy and haunting, of older poets, from Whitman to Ezra Pound to Sylvia Plath.
Hilbert has a fine “radio announcer’s” voice that makes up in clarity and tone what it sometimes lacks in flexibility and character (he is not an actor). The poems tend more toward the demotic and streetwise, but never lose Hilbert’s strong imagery, feel for cadence, and rhythmic firmness. A wonderful release.
Postscript for poetry publishers: I loved both book and CD – though I must say I gagged at the listed price of the book. In some ways I hate Amazon for destroying my favorite bookstores (Borders) and wounding others (Barnes & Noble) almost to extinction, but Amazon, through its links to other sellers and various price structures, at least makes it possible to purchase books of poetry at a reasonable cost. When will poetry publishers realize that they might actually get sales if they priced their books reasonably? Many of the people I know who love poetry are “economically challenged,” to put it delicately; they simply cannot lay out $16.95 for a paperback of fewer than a hundred pages (and even Amazon’s “discounted” price is high). I buy very few poetry books for that reason.
Poetry publishers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose—but your losses. There is a market for poetry out here, but you will need to set a truly economic price for your wares—and not have so much faith that discounters will make up the difference.
Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and essayist, and co-editor and publisher of Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org). His novel A Spy in the Ruins is available from Regent Press (http://www.regentpress.net/spyintheruins/).