The Sublime Cacophony of Ernest Hilbert

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Last One Out
By Ernest Hilbert
(Measure Press, 2019. $25)

Ernest Hilbert has an enviable ability to speak about contemporary America as if his words were washed in the blood of Achaean soldiers. Hilbert, speaking to the violence underlying human nature, sees war everywhere. Watching the Super Bowl in his calm living room, the football players—“Towering champions, created to win, // Will strut to their positions and pose, / Burnished, armored in emblems” (80-81)—become iron age warriors. Outside his house, birds swerve “in squadrons” (69). “The border of the republic,” says the speaker of “Mars Ultor,” “Is breached without notice: / More tug of war / Than elegant chess” (45). This refers to Romans preparing for battle—but also to Donald Trump. In fact, “Mars Ultor” was read aloud at the Trump Tower by (highly literate) protestors.

In Last One Out, Hilbert—as with many poets writing at the height of their powers—conveys a sense that we are being told a single narrative of human existence, that each poem is a small part of a larger mosaic, being revealed to us slowly. In this narrative, we grow fat and end in darkness and death. There is longing, and deep feeling, but not sentimentality: “We should expect to receive no pity. / We hurt as much from what we half-forget / As from the things we carefully conserve” (13). A narrative where history, always repeating itself, happens in the present tense: “We boil horses and harness girls to tow / Corpses. The black boxes strung along wires / Urge us to the speaker’s relentless wish” (“Leningrad,” 49). Hilbert observes, in his Philadelphia neighborhood, “the legendary flickers that lured / Medieval pilgrims from well-worn ways” (84). In a children’s museum, his son’s eyes are “flecked / With light, like water risen to a pool / From ancient aquifers” (82).

Hilbert’s poems are thick with frameworks, references, and dense barbed lines which demand rereading. His poetic voice is self-effacing and personal one moment, then monolithic and coldly distant the next. Just when we readers find ourselves comfortably lulled by a colloquial voice, a booming biblical vernacular surprises and stirs us. We are reminded, while reading Hilbert’s poems, of Hemingway’s dictum: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

To understand how Hilbert achieves these effects, it’s essential to look at how he uses sound to create music. Every mature poet has a certain—perhaps flexible, varying—sound, I think, as separate (at least partially) from meaning. This is the mental concert hall we enter when we read their poems. Part of our longing to reread certain poets is a desire to hear that sound, to revisit that space. I often crave, for example, the thorny, stammering alliterations of Seamus Heaney; and the unleashed free jazz rage of Amiri Baraka: “Only the foot stomped, the roaring harmonies of need.”

Hilbert’s first two books, Sixty Sonnets and All of You on the Good Earth, are all sonnets. He invents, in these books, his own novel rhyme scheme (abcabc-defdef-gg), which have sparked a host of imitators. He employs, with frequent disruptions, decasyllabic lines. Sometimes he uses iambic pentameter, but you can almost feel the poems longing to burst out of their iambic cages. It’s no surprise that Hilbert’s third book, Caligulan, plays with form more. Some are Hilbertian sonnets, some are not; some are regularly metrical, some are not. In Hilbert’s most recent book, Last One Out, he gets even wilder.

I’d like to focus on the music in this latest book, to demonstrate how Hilbert’s poems are so distinct in literature today.

Hilbert’s singular poetic sound contains three essential qualities, which might be described as separate characters, all telling the story together, like members of a music trio: the Raconteur, Slayer, and the Jazz drummer. (NB, Hilbert published an essay in 2018, “Poet in the Pit,” about his love of heavy metal, mosh pits, and Slayer in particular, in The Hopkins Review.) The Raconteur speaks in a clear vernacular, expressing an interior, often heartfelt, intimate voice. Slayer delivers a dissonant, clanging, almost un-Poetic sound. The Jazz drummer keeps the beat, with an ear for metricality but also deeper rhythms, nimbly weaving the various sounds into a cohesive whole. In Hilbert’s best poems, this trio works together to create a collective sound, stepping back and forth across the figurative stage, like bandmates, or skilled actors cutting each other off in a David Mamet play. They take turns, they overlap, changing register on a dime, angry then soft, intimate then public, enacting the burning of Ilium then a cool spring evening in West Philadelphia in 2019.

One of my favorite poems in Last One Out, “Glass of Absinthe,” is a tender portrait of a woman in New Orleans, down on her luck:

Decisions are uncomfortable
In this atmosphere. Valves drain, swell to ballad—

Measures pound flaked light, sun over
Iron lace of a railing on Royal Street—

Metal scrolled into oak leaves, acorns, sad long horns
In the day’s shadows—urinal smell, late coffee.

A life shaped by digressions: Linger long
Enough, and death might move somewhere else.

She seems drunk but is not, her white skirt webbed
With black from a fall on wet cobblestones.

Nothing is simple. There is no good news.
She lights a small cigarette. She nods off.

She drinks up. She moves on. The horns stop, sprawl,
Speed up. Snares salvo in the scorched dark. (38)

Here in The Big Easy the jazz drummer—who plays throughout the poem, providing musical structure, varying the beat, drawing the deepest rhythms into his beat—is in his natural habitat. He plays with the basic tip-tap tip-tap of iambic pentameter, but shifts away from it frequently. The first line, “Decisions are uncomfortable,” is an iambic tetrameter (with, possibly, a fourth-position anapest, depending on how you pronounce “uncomfortable”), leading us to think we are in a heavily metrical poem. But then, at “In this atmosphere,” the jazz drummer switches to a trochee, followed by spondaic iambs delivered like snare shots.

Similarly, Hilbert begins another later line with iambs, “Enough, and death,” then shifts to the colloquial “might move somewhere else.” That (irregular, if still metrical) line could have easily been purely iambic (“enough, and death might move to somewhere else”) but “to somewhere else” hits the jazz drummer’s ear wrong. It doesn’t sound fluid. Orwell’s sixth rule of writing, in his famous “Politics and the English Language,” can also be applied to poetry, of course: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

In the last two lines of “Glass of Absinthe,” the idea of the music creeps into the foreground. At first we just hear the jazz drummer playing, then suddenly we see the “horns” and “snares.” The penultimate line begins with a stammering anapest: “She drinks up. She moves on. The horns stop.” The last line—“Speed up. Snares salvo in the scorched dark”—with its wonderful sibilance, sings the woman out of the poem with respectful pathos.

In the second line of “Glass of Absinthe,” Slayer steps in, with dramatic authority: “Valves drain, swell to ballad— / Measures pound flaked light, sun over / Iron lace of a railing on Royal Street— // Metal scrolled into oak leaves, acorns, sad long horns / In the day’s shadows—urinal smell, late coffee.” Slayer loves the spondee, the spondaic iamb, and the spondaic trochee—anything to disrupt the iambic line! For example, “Measures pound,” “Iron lace,” “Metal scrolled,” which begin with trochees (or, taken this way in isolation, cretics), create an incantatory feel, agitating the sleepy iambs. Slayer pounds us with spondees (“Valves drain, swell,” “pound flaked light,” “oak leaves, acorns”) and hard consonant alliteration: clanging various sounds together like cymbals. After a visit from Slayer, we are left breathless and shaken—or, as Lowell might have it, “rattled screw and footloose.”

The clear resonant voice of the Raconteur emerges in the sixth couplet of this unrhymed sonnet: “Nothing is simple. There is no good news. / She lights a small cigarette. She nods off. / She drinks up. She moves on.” This intimate voice—as if spoken in close proximity, in our ear—knows the interior world of this woman, and wishes her well. We are drawn closer, and relate to her sadness. We feel compassion for this person, this “life shaped by digressions,” as all of ours are. We feel her bruise “from a fall on wet cobblestones.” And we have an idea of what lies in store for her at the end, “in the scorched dark.”

The way Hilbert shifts between these three “characters”—changing register, shifting tone and music—has the effect of surprising us, waking us up, inviting us deeper into the scene. “Ship’s Bottom, 1972.”—an even more personal poem, about his mother—is a great example of how music can evoke emotion: in this case, a devastating sense of longing. “Ship’s Bottom, 1972.” is in the first section of Last One Out, which is centered on Hilbert’s childhood. These powerfully nostalgic poems provide the book with its emotional core.

The photo’s since softened to amber,
Holding light like honey, its colors, long ago
Drawn from trees, aged in the intervening
Years by acids in the air. I remember:
The sun-hot sand, whitecaps that glint and grow,
Climbing to a brilliant crash. You’re leaning
And smiling over me, a blond boy, my hair
Lit like gold at noon, your dawn-red hair held
By a kerchief of forest and deep-sea blue—
You are beautiful, and we are a pair,
And I am still with you, embraced between
Spring and winter in the eternal and true
Summer, autumn always coming on,
You, forever there, smiling with your son. (14)

The poem describes a photo of the speaker, as a child, with his mother. She leans over him, at a beach with “sun-hot sand, whitecaps that glint and grow, / Climbing to a brilliant crash.” They are both smiling, and the strong bond between them strikes us to the marrow: “You are beautiful, and we are a pair, / And I am still with you …” The heartfelt voice of the Raconteur sounds effortless, perhaps because the subject is (I assume) precious to Hilbert. While many of these lines contain five metrical feet, Hilbert deviates away from metronomic iambs in favor of a plainspoken voice, full of emotion. “Ship’s Bottom, 1972.” is a Hilbertian sonnet, but with one noteworthy variation: two words, “held” (8) and “between” (11), are non-rhymed. Hilbert, with this innovation, brings our (just-below-the-radar) attention to these words, accentuating the bond “held … between” mother and child.

The jazz drummer drives the rhythm forward by creating a sound offbeat enough to keep us on our toes. Lines start strong, with trochees, then shift, adjusting in the middle to end on a stress: “Holding light like honey, its colors, long ago / Drawn from trees, aged in the intervening …” No line in this poem is entirely iambic. In the last few lines—as the lens pulls back, and we see that the mother and son are part of a larger cultural context—the jazz drummer settles into a more formal, almost-iambic rhythm: “embraced between / Spring and winter in the eternal and true / Summer, autumn always coming on …”

Even in a tender poem like this one, Slayer makes an appearance: “I remember: / The sun-hot sand, whitecaps that glint and grow, / Climbing to a brilliant crash …” The raucous waves crash, as if—even amid the innocence and protection of childhood—war and death are still impending.

The central personage of the first section of Last One Out is Hilbert’s dead father. Ernest Hilbert Sr.—a sailor and real-life pirate hunter who worked on a destroyer after WW2, chasing Chinese pirates on the Yangtze River—emerges as an iconic figure. For Hilbert, water and boats are symbols intimately connected to the father. In subsequent sections of the book, when water and boats are mentioned, we understand that Hilbert is wrestling with the figurative ghost of his father. Mythic boats (“Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus,” 63) or literal speedboats (“Independence Day,” 67) evoke the father, often in terms of anxiety and warfare. As such, later poems containing water and boats may be seen as a psychic double-dive: personal (father a sailor) and cultural (the history of our society with war). On top of this we might add a political (triple-dive) allusion: in the classical ship of state tradition, à la Alcaeus of Mytilene and Horace, a storm-tossed vessel represents political upheaval.

One of the final poems in Last One Out—“For Lynn, at Lackawanna,” in which the speaker canoes with his pregnant wife—contains a partial reconciliation with water and boats. The dulcet tone of this poem seems to imply that the speaker has attained some kind of peaceful understanding of the father. “We slow so we can see in murk below / Faint fingers of stargrass ripple and frill / As if feeling to find something above, / As winds cross the cold lake to warm us” (79). In a book replete with bleak images of warfare and anxiety—the naval gunfire never far removed from the sounds of the poems themselves—this is a tender metaphor: murk below, emptiness above, and a warm wind, with promises of a sweet future, in the middle, where we are.