“Little Boots: On Ernest Hilbert’s Caligulan

/ /

by Ernest Hilbert
(Measure Press, 96 pp, 2015) $20

Little Boots” might strike us as an appropriate name for something small and cute—a kitten, say. But for Romans in a certain phase of the Empire’s history, it was a name at which one trembled. The man born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus grew up among the legions protecting the Empire’s northern frontier, and as a child wore a smaller version of the caliga, or military boot, so the soldiers called him by the diminutive of that word, “Caligula,” and it stuck. Not long after he came to power as Emperor, he became notorious for the widespread and apparently random nature of his vindictive murderousness. His form of state terror wasn’t like Hitler’s, in which only certain categories of people—Jews, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies—were destined for massacre, and others could feel themselves safe, so long as they kept their heads down. Under Caligula, no one could breathe easy, least of all the powerful and well-connected, who dreaded the daily possibility of the garrote, or worse. “Oderint, dum metuant,” Suetonius reports the Emperor as saying: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.” Anxiety became ambient, fear the atmosphere one breathed.

Ernest Hilbert’s Caligulan begins with an unusual preface by way of definition. “Caligulan,” he writes, emulating the style of a dictionary “Illogical fear that disaster, especially of a gruesome kind, might befall one at any time.” After giving several variations and examples of usage, he adds: “From the Latin appellation Caligula. First known use 2015, USA.” The word, as a term for general dread, is Hilbert’s own invention. And it is this sense of general dread, along with a series of failed attempts to escape it, that dominates his imagination in the poems collected in his third book.

Caligulan is organized in four sections, named for the seasons, beginning with “Summer” and ending with “Spring.” Each section contains fourteen poems—a reference, one supposes, to the idea of the sonnet, and the sonnet sequence, which has obsessed Hilbert since his debut collection, 2009’s Sixty Sonnets. Indeed, many of the poems of Caligulan are sonnets, or variations thereof. “Barnegat Light,” the opening poem, is typical of the volume: it is a sonnet of sorts, and it addresses the question of dread. It also draws on Romanticism, a movement clearly close to Hilbert’s heart. It begins with an image of a wounded bird, graceful in the air but painfully awkward when it lands.

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.

The gull performs graceful pirouettes in the air, but this artfulness is a temporary escape from inevitable suffering: the bird will have to land, and experience sharp pains on the “small, sharp spear” of his stump when he does. Like Baudelaire’s albatross, this bird can be read as a figure for the poet or artist—what we see as beauty is really a desperate escape from pain, an expression of alienation from the life of the earthbound multitude. When we get to the end of the poem, we see the speaker and the woman he loves as analogous to the gull—they are on a brief vacation, an escapist flight they “pretend/Will keep us strong, like love, and never end.” Their reprieve from the demands of the world is temporary, the strength of their love quite possibly in doubt; and their pastoral seaside interlude implies its opposite, the moment when they land back in their quotidian lives. Like the gull, they dread such landings.

The pronoun “I” never appears in “Barnegat Light”—something atypical for a lyric poem, but not at all unusual in Caligulan. The dominant pronoun in “Barnegat Light” and 16 of the volume’s 56 poems is “we” (for those of you suffering obsessive compulsive reader’s disorder, “he” and “she” combined dominate a dozen poems, as does “I,” “you” prevails in seven more, “they” in five, and “it” in two). I mention this not only because of the laudable self-effacement it implies, but because it gives a sense of one of the two most common forms of attempted escape from dread we find in Caligulan: the companionship of the likeminded. This, combined with the retreat from society into nature, show that Hilbert has read deeply in the Romantics. Like them, he distrusts society as constituted in his time, and yearns for out-of-the-way places and a small circle of people he can understand. But his faith in these Romantic consolations is weak: in “Demography,” for example, he sees nature already colonized by tourist vulgarians on their jet-skis; and in “CASH FOR GOLD” he turns to his domestic partner only to say “is it because something’s/Wrong with us? Something’s wrong/With us.” One of his more persistent dreads is that his solutions to alienation will not endure.

Hilbert’s cityscapes are inevitably despoiled—litter blowing in the gutter, a smashed newspaper machine, pizza crusts and soda cans on the street. A daffodil poking up from a cracked sidewalk “ambushes” him—stirring him to a painful awareness of his surroundings much as Eliot’s April lilacs bring only cruel and painful wakefulness in The Waste Land. I don’t think the resemblance to Eliot is accidental: indeed, Hilbert gives us a thoroughly Eliotic vision of history in “Siege of Fort Mifflin (Battle of Mud Island)” where the past is represented by the wreckage of ships from a naval battle, and is echoed in reduced form in the present, where the same waters where the ships sank are now filled with “Undulating armadas of plastic—/Unsinkable cups, trays, strips, and bottles.” The future, it seems, will combine the violent wreckage of the past with the ubiquitous litter of the present: Hilbert ends the poem by envisioning spacecraft that “cluster like trash into orbit,/Like casings of shells that failed in flight.” Time present and time past are both present in time future, and time future contained in time past, for sure. And if, as Eliot said, “all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.” Once again, hope for release from a foreboding world fails Hilbert.

We’ve been talking about the poems from the “Summer” section of “Caligulan,” and things don’t get any brighter in the poems of “Autumn,” where a strong sense of mortality adds depth and urgency to the pervading feeling of dread, and the attempts at escape look weaker and more half-hearted than what we’ve seen in “Summer.” “Autumn” contains the book’s title poem, in which we see past and present jumbled, each full of omens, all of which are sinister. “The slaves stage a play about the Under-/World. The smoke alarm fails, and your computer crashes./Your favorite gladiator is lashed…” There’s no halcyonism for Hilbert: every day is a day of worry, lived in full consciousness that “The day you’ll wake and have your death is set.”

The poems of “Winter” are, fittingly, the grimmest of the book. There’s virtually no hope of reprieve from worry and decay in them, except perhaps in the clean, well-lighted place we see in “Penrose Diner.” The poem, set on New Year’s Day in a rough old city (Baltimore? Philadelphia?) is a kind of bastard child of Hemingway’s short story and Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush.” We sit in a quiet diner, looking out the plate glass at a tatty and broken world of abandoned stores and three-legged dogs, a world too far gone for any redemption. “Here,” though, inside the diner, “nothing will end or start,” and the waitresses move among the tables “like busy nurses.” But like the airborne pirouettes of the gull in “Barnegat Light,” the reprieve is strictly temporary. What is more, it’s a reprieve with a full view of the broken and dangerous world. In the final stanza, we see our protagonist gaze out at the empty hulk of a closed hotel:

His cheek’s a slug along the glass. “You think
Anyone’s been found dead in there?” he says.
She sips slowly at scalding coffee, “oh, yes.

As affirmatives go, that emphatic “yes” is a downer. If there is any hope for the world outside the window, Hilbert’s protagonist remains unaware of where it might be found.

The opening poem of the volume’s “Spring” section, “Kite” brings us full circle by recalling the seagull of “Barnegat Light” with the image of flight and the verb of its opening line:

I ran my kite till it gulled the sun,
And from the newfound flight it took
Command as much as I, and trained
My arm toward the sky…

Eventually, the kite twists his wrists painfully, and, still tethered, takes on a life of its own, beyond his command. If the gull of “Barnegat Light” can be read as a figure of the poet, the kite, here, can be read as a figure of the poem, controlled by the poet, but ultimately transcending that control, and (here we see Hilbert the Romantic, drawn to the notion of the poète maudit) damaging the poet in the process. But the important thing about “Kite” isn’t its Romantic sentiments, nor even its artful tying together of the book’s opening and closing sections. The important thing is the rhyme scheme—ABCCBA followed by DEED, then by FAF and finally by the couplet GG. It’s an unusual form of sonnet, but it’s more than that: it’s a series of diminishing chiasmi. Symmetrical pattern is followed by symmetrical pattern, each contracted in scale from the one before, until reaching the logical minimum in a heroic couplet. Form matters to Hilbert, and he makes it show.

Almost all of the poems in Caligulan build elaborate and unusual rhyme schemes. Hilbert likes to start poems with an ABCABC scheme, and get weird with it after that, sometimes building an incredibly elaborate pattern into which he inserts what is clearly a deliberate asymmetry or imperfection. This formal obsessiveness undergirds both individual poems and the structure of the book itself. And form—rather than any of the flights to nature, to 24-hour diners, or to the arms of the beloved—is Hilbert’s truest, surest means of dealing with the dread that pervades his book and his consciousness. One way to understand this is to turn to Hegel, and the famous master/slave dialectic passage in his Phenomenology of Spirit. The slave, says Hegel, is shattered by his losing encounter with the master, and exists in a state of general dread: “in that experience,” says Hegel, the slave “has trembled in every fiber of its being, and everything solid and stable has been shaken to its foundations.” The slave begins to gain self-awareness and a sense of empowerment, of mastery over the things of the world, through craft. He shapes and gives order to inert material, and in so doing begins to sense that he has a kind of freedom, a kind of autonomy, even a kind of power over a world which he had merely feared. He has no social or political power in a situation where force is monopolized by others, but he can shape the things before him, and in doing so gain some sense of control, some sense that he is more than the sum of his anxieties.

Ernest Hilbert is a formalist, and a skilled one. He is well aware of the poem’s ability to wrest itself away from the poet (this is, after all the subject of “Kite”), but he is also aware of the shaping power of the imagination, and how it can redeem a world of dread. It is this exalted sense of the power of the act of poetic making that truly marks Hilbert as a Romantic, more so even than his love of nature or his occasional flirtations with the notion of the alienated poète maudit. And, while the poems of Caligulan come to us from a political era now ended, this faith in imagination as a cure for pervasive dread marks Hilbert as an important poet for the new and dreadful era of American public life upon which we are now entering. It will be a Caligulan time, for which we will need books like this.