Ernest Hilbert’s new book of poems, All of You on the Good Earth, takes its title from an astronaut speaking at a larger-than-life moment. On Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 witnessed that heart-stopping image of Earth rising over the Moon’s desolation. In his message to Mission Control, Commander Frank Borman, riven with homesickness, signed off: “Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.” This is a fitting title because there is something larger than life in Hilbert’s voracious range. The poems in this second collection, as in his first (Sixty Sonnets), spill out like fruit from a cornucopia. His imagination has room for sharks, Etruscans, cats, Cyril Connolly, Chelsea lofts, gravediggers, the Green Line in Philadelphia, Seneca, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Hilbert is a literary man who wears his erudition lightly. The epigraphs that begin the sections of his book come from the likes of Whitman, Byron, Montaigne, and . . . Warren Zevon? What would you expect from a poet who holds a D.Phil. from Oxford, works as an antiquarian book dealer, writes libretti, and appears in short films for a post-punk conceptual band? He channels his manic, Lowellian energy into the sixty sonnets that make up this book—yes, another sixty sonnets! One of my favorites is “Sportsmanship,” about the disappearance of an old, chivalric ideal in the crush of the new:
The character of a gentleman rests
On his never needing to get ahead.
High-school quarterbacks pummel losers
100-nil to push personal bests
Of players (not of teams) whose stats are read
By eager scouts and college recruiters.
What’s really proven on the fields of Eton?
Little that would win battles anymore.
And what of those who never had a chance
To do much but avoid being beaten?
Standards decline, true, but who were they for?
Not for those who are obliged to advance.
Even without gentry, there’s still conduct,
For what it’s worth, and there is always luck.
The ideas bounce around in these fourteen lines like hungry lions in a cage, and his declarative, head-on opening sentences, typical of many Hilbert poems, give this one its rhetorical charge. It’s as driven as those quarterbacks and as determined to advance its point.
The Hilbertian sonnet, as some have called it, has a clear set of structural preferences. Each is fourteen lines long, the rhyme scheme is an untraditional double sestet plus couplet (ABCABC DEFDEF GG), and each line counts ten syllables, as you’d expect in lines of iambic pentameter—except these aren’t. There is not much accentual-syllabic regularity, but the lines do tend to stabilize, in varying degrees, toward the end of each poem. This irregularity gives the voice its verve. The poems are highly patterned, but there is enough wiggle-room in the decasyllabic lines to give Hilbert the prose freedom he needs to express his smart, gritty convictions. Within this sonnet shell, the needs of the speaking voice trump the metrical grid. It’s this rough-around-the-edges quality that points back so clearly to Robert Lowell’s work in Notebook and History.
Many of the poems are urban. Scenes are set in trains, in cabs, and one in a so-called “gentlemen’s club” in Queens, where “gentlemen” echoes the Etonians from the other sonnet. Hilbert is on familiar terms with both. He likes to write about appetites, and he is fond of looking back on things both heroic and debauched. His speakers, however, also tell of deprivation, self-imposed or otherwise. No matter how much they suffer, they are always understandable. Hilbert unerringly assumes the burdens of clarity. He knows the thing and has no lack of means to tell you about it, ravishingly. Here is another favorite, called, ironically, “Gratitude.” It’s about poor Philoctetes exiled to an island by the Big Boys:
Pity the poor workhorse Philoctetes.
He smokes, watches lightning over the graves,
Exiled to a swampy, littered ruin.
Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus—
Writers love him, or his predicament.
He’s too foul to have around, but in a crisis
He’s wanted, despite the cups of pus
That leak from his heel. They need the bow bent
By the one they revile but suddenly miss.
Their tragic strophes cleverly squeezed
Some sad sense from his life—outcast who saves
Those who change their minds when they want to win:
Stranded, pointless, despised until the day
They return to bring him back to the fray.
This poem is lucid line by line, and it does you the honor of assuming you understand the historical context. If not, Philoctetes is a click away.
Hilbert has a gift for simile, metaphor, and phrasing. In a random trawling, I come up with these, each from a different poem:
I am lonely, of course, hung-over, pale, and fat.
. . . the blond moon rots in its rust grove
Your life piles up like wet laundry.
Bury me with a book open on my chest.
With lines like these, he pummels the sonnet-form back to life, breathing into it the whiskey-breath of the here-and-now. If there is a weakness in this collection, it’s the partitioning of the book into sections, the focus of which becomes fuzzy after a while. His work is strong enough to proceed poem by poem, without any grand scheme. I can picture Hilbert in a drunken brawl with Christopher Marlowe. I mean this as a compliment. Hilbert holds his own.