Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Review: Ernest Hilbert's All of You on the Good Earth

Ernest Hilbert
All of You on the Good Earth
Red Hen Press

The bio of Ernest Hilbert, sonneteer, lists him as an "antiquarian book dealer." Sonnets might be accused of being "antiquarian" but only by someone who hasn't read Hilbert.

All of You on the Good Earth is Hilbert's follow-up his first full-length book, Sixty Sonnets. Buy it right now. This review will end with a poem, not a reminder, so buy the collection now. Hilbert has no sophomore slump here. The poems of AYOTGE (as it's abbreviated) are tighter and brighter than those of Sixty Sonnets. It's clear that Hilbert's verse is not "sentenced to stay still." The book "rolls and glows" through another sixty sonnets (an appellation one should not utter in Mr. Hilbert's presence unless you're buying a copy of the book from him and a drink for him) with an ear that has developed beyond what A.E. Stallings called "the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech" in Hilbert's first collection. 

The first outstanding sequence in All of You on the Good Earth is from "Ashore" to "The Fast," a revisioning of Odysseus's journey not as a character of the epic poets badly taught in classrooms, but as a man. He's helpless, harried, and hungry. Homer would be proud.

Immediately following this sequence is "Levalvi Oculos" (I lift up my eyes), the first line of which struck me with its deft use of sound:

"My parched heart slithers in its soaked bone chest"

Here is a poem I can't help but hear in the performance voice of Mr. Hilbert straight from his forthcoming album Elegies and Laments. Far more than his previous work or the work of most other poets today, Hilbert in All of You on the Good Earth lets his poems live within the sound of words, meaning not subordinated to sound like in a Stein poem but enhanced and enlivened by it as in the best words of Eliot or Plath. This is a fine collection; indeed "the new rhythm is sinister."

Hilbert is not "armed with talents unearned," however. Rereading Sixty Sonnets and listening to Elegies and Laments, I can trace the progression of Hilbert's verse. His loose decasyllabic line is here often tightened up to octosyllables that become a nearly neat tetrameter, a meter that reaches its high point in "Past, Present, Future."

Cover-to-cover, All of You on the Good Earth is in love with reading and readers. From "Times Literary Supplement's" "we sifted through his room at the museum" to "For ____'s" "may the closing of the presses be slow," books are not the "frightened ash of another time" "aimed to disappear" but the heart of all of us on this good earth. Hilbert thinks so much of writers that with one breath he praises the study of "emperors, queens, and epic poets" (let the post-colonialists, marxists, and queer-theorists unknot that one).

My only complaint with the volume is that the final section, "Cold Wars and Hot," is out of place. It would do better to come before the penultimate section, "To the Dark Suburbs and Home Again," which ought to end with what is an elegy for all lovers of the word: "Simple Instructions":

Bury me with a book open on my chest,
As if I’d fallen asleep while reading it.
Bury me on the couch where I napped.
Please aim my muddy feet toward the east
So I fail to enjoy one more sunset.
Leave the grave soil loose, so I won’t feel trapped.
In the spring, I want to hear bird and toad.
Bring my tabby, the one with toffee streaks,
When you visit, so he can hear them too.
Death collects a debt you forgot you owed,
And he does his job for both strong and weak.
He runs out the clock and then comes for you.
After you leave me, remember, for a bit,
How we were young once, and joked about it.

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