by Ernest Hilbert
Measure Press, 96 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
From his debut Sixty Sonnets to All of You On The Good Earth, Ernest Hilbert has made a name for himself as a dedicated formalist. His latest, Caligulan, is no exception: you’ll find no free verse here.
Hilbert is at his best when the content of the poems plays against the formal constraints. Take “Barnegat Light,” for instance:
The gull pulls bags from trash and drags them clear.
He’s big as a cat, a blur of snow and soot.
He pokes until debris spills down the pier.
He’s clumsy, and somehow he’s lost a foot.
Chewed off? A winter fishing line? Wedged in boards?
The stump’s a small sharp spear that stings the bird
If ground is touched. He soars to foggy scree,
Alights but flaps to halfway hang in air, spurred
By pain to perform endless pirouettes.
The tightly elegant form contrasts perfectly with the unsettling pain and violence of the scene described; one senses the formal control is the only thing between us and the chaotic world the bird inhabits. It’s hard not to read this as an ars poetica: the bird has lost a foot (ha!) and is now “spurred / by pain to perform endless pirouettes,” like the formal pirouettes of the sonnet. There’s the slight misstep of “if ground is touched”—a moment of awkward syntax in which the form seems to control the poet instead of the reverse—but in context, it’s forgivable: the image of the bird makes us understand why rigid form is of the utmost importance to this speaker. The poem’s ending brings the point home:
The bay’s warm surge troubles the cooler sea.
The fishing fleet returns as silhouettes.
These hours are small escapes, reprieves, rewards,
Summer the center we try to pretend
Will keep us strong, like love, and never end.
The ending makes a subtle but crucial adjustment to the speaker’s position. He is not simply exploiting the bird’s suffering; rather, we understand that the speaker too inhabits the bird’s chaotic universe: summer will end, love will end, all will end—leaving the speaker alone with his pirouettes.
The brash knell of an angry bell choir, clangs
Of a belfry at the height of a hurricane,
Or just a trolley pronouncing its next stop—
She works to fix a worn-out wind chime, hangs
It by a finger so it tolls a haphazard refrain,
All gongs and happy ringing, then lets it drop,
Its song abruptly cut off with a clatter.
Once again, the interaction between form and content fascinates. From the start, we see the speaker revising his own thoughts: this wind chime is like a bell choir, or a belfry in a hurricane, or maybe just a trolley. That indecision contrasts nicely with the poem’s seeming formal self-assurance, creating an affecting sense of doubt: this speaker is not as confident as he would have us believe. It sets us up for the naked honesty that follows:
It makes me wonder what remaining detours
We have before the end. I do not know
Much, or understand the things that matter;
But this dawn I want to learn. Out-of-doors
A thin rain fastens banks of last night’s snow
With ice, sealing soft powder into steel
Casings, freezing a million shapes to one,
Like the memories that make us, and I
Am failing too, like the light that already feels
As if it’s fading before the small sun
We can’t see has even climbed the sky.
By foregrounding his own indecisions and revisions at the outset, Hilbert fully earns this movement to the High Poetic register. The closing movements of the poem read like Larkin at his most sincere—high praise I do not give lightly.
But Hilbert’s impulse toward form at all costs can be, in less suited poems, a liability. Take “Scape,” in which the poet muses unironically about “a place remote and sunless” where “Golden Pisces diving to plunge at Pegasus, Aquarius recoiled before the vast Cetus” leave him with “nothing to drink, and nothing to burn” and “waiting, unaided, for meaning to emerge.” The strict formalism paired with the antiquarian impulse toward Ancient myth makes the poem feel dated, and it does nothing to counteract that judgement.
Or take “Demography,” in which the poet bitingly observes how “ATV’s start with a barrage of farts” now that “We’ve entered the land of Jesus, Jacuzzis, and jet skis” and “broad white asses,” where “We try to read while they blast New Country.” Though the poem tries to reverse its course (“They have five rowdy kids. We, none. We lose.”), the halfhearted reversal reads as an empty gesture, little more than one more sarcastic dig. The us-versus-them mentality is distasteful: this speaker—who speaks in rhyme and reads and knows the great myths—has little empathy for the redneck caricatures he presents. Instead they read as classist props for his literary self-presentation. To return to the Larkin comparison, it would be as if “Church Going” had only mocked the believers, without showing Larkin’s own powerful longing to be one of them.
But to be clear, the errors of a handful of poems does not condemn the poet. Where “Demography” reads as a failure of empathy, “Results” reads as a success. The poem begins:
We are the ones who box the picks,
Superstitiously select each day
A birth hour or star sign, or random array.
We gladly invite this tax
on the unwise, on the desperate,
Because we feel as if we’re trapped
By snares laid that long ago snapped
Shut on us. We’re held with debt
That ankles us. We try to thrive,
caught in jobs we hate all week,
Return to costly houses at night, contrive
By all means to twist free…
The speaker knows well all the judgements against those who play the lottery—foolish, desperate, superstitious, and so on. And yet he still participates, and explains the deeply human impulses behind the unwise decision of those who choose to play, and the ways in which that decision is essentially forced by the capitalist framework in which we live. What else would we have the players do?
…So we seek
A way out. It’s easier to lose
Alongside millions, a promise small
As a speck, almost impossible
To believe. On top of what we choose,
What we spend and try to save,
It’s always there. It’s what we have.
Where the speaker of “Demography” sets himself against his fellow humans, the speaker of “Results” places himself firmly alongside them: “It’s easier to lose / Alongside millions.” We sense he’s no longer talking about the lottery alone, but rather a broader vision of the human condition: yes, we all existentially lose—but at least we do it together. That camaraderie born of loss, if nothing else, is “always there. It’s what we have.” The closing of the poem, like all Hilbert’s best work, shows us the beauty in our failings. Despite its missteps, Hilbert’s Caligulan stands as proof that the formalist tradition is alive and well.
J.G. McClure’s work appears in Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, among others. He has an MFA from the University of California-Irvine and is at work on his first collection. See more at jgmcclure.weebly.com.