A Close Reading Of Gilbert’s “Trying To Have Something Left Over”

(Editor’s Note: I’ve been wanting to write this for a while. This post has been sitting in my “drafts” for literally months, largely because I’ve been trying to figure out how to start it. Any performer, artist, writer would readily tell you that starting is among the scariest, most difficult parts of any creative endeavor.

For me, that makes it also the most fun part. Enjoy, as I try and struggle my way into elegance.)

A Close Reading of Gilbert’s “Trying To Have Something Left Over”.

If you’re into poetry at all, or even if you’re not and you just like neat, beautiful ideas, one poem you need to read is “Trying to have something left over” by Jack Gilbert.

Plenty has been written about the final lines of this poem, which you can buy as part of Gilbert’s collection “The Great Fires” on Amazon. I’d encourage you to. I’ve read enough poetry at this point in my young life to know that this collection is something special. Not because of how it speaks to me, because Gilbert had a mind and life much different from mine. His life, his views on love all were more realistic, more honest, more complete than mine are.

Maybe that was because he wrote these poems starting when he was 57. Maybe he was just less stubborn than I was, a better steward of a tougher life’s lessons than myself.

But I digress. Whatever the many causes for the beauty of his work, especially this collection, and even more especially this poem, Gilbert wrote something in it I wish to analyze, and imagine with you for just a moment.

The last nine lines go like this, as he talks about playing with the baby of a woman he had an extramarital affair with:

“I would say Pittsburg softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburg with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburg and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.”

-from “Trying To Have Something Left Over” by Jack Gilbert.

These lines have been burned in my brain since I read them. I like other poems in the collection more, (or at least, so I’ve always thought). But what strikes me most in this poem is something marvelous that’s happening.

Gilbert, in the events above, is taking care of a child of a woman he can never have a relationship with (per the rest of the poem before these lines) and a child who is not, in my understanding, his. Yet he cares so much about that child and that city that he wants that child to feel happiness forever on the mention of its name.

That in itself is beautiful.

The idea he’d care so much about a place, and an idea behind it, to engrain that in the mind of a small child. Something mattered deeply to Gilbert about Pittsburg. Sure, it was his hometown, but the final lines of the poem suggest more than just nostalgia. They suggest a bigger idea. An idea Gilbert was desperate to pass on, desperate to keep alive in any way possible or necessary because whatever it was, it was something beautiful, good, important.

The boy will never know what it was. He’ll never know why the utterance of the word “Pittsburg” brings him joy, having never been able to remember his infant laughs as Gilbert threw him up each time when he was a baby. All he’ll know is that there’s something wonderful there. But he’ll never know what it was. And the most beautiful part of this concept?

Neither will we as readers.

That’s why I write you today. I read this poem and I see the marvelous, poetic beauty Gilbert has engineered with these lines.

We see Gilbert throwing up the small infant. We hear his laughter, see his smile, maybe we evenimagine his mother standing in the doorway looking with a sad smile at all of this, perhaps seeing Gilbert’s potential as a father and wishing they could have a future, even while knowing that they couldn’t.

But what we never hear Gilbert do is actually explain what he was trying to convey. We never learn what was so vital it needed to be etched in the memory of an infant. Gilbert never tells the baby, and also never tells us as readers.

That’s where the true beauty in these poems comes in: we as readers are the infant to this poet.

Gilbert can never have an individual relationship with any of us any more than he can with the young woman or her son. Gilbert the man has a wife whom he loves, precluding him from staying with her or the boy.

Gilbert the poet has a mortal life, unable to converse with most of those who will read his work. In each case, with the infant as the boy and the infant as the reader, Gilbert can only have a one-way relationship. All he can do is try to teach. Never ask, just tell.

So he does. He tells us about the beauty of trying to convey an idea through emotion because he lacks the ability of just explain it. Gilbert does not tell us why Pittsburg is so important to him. He does not tell us what idea he must pass through even just a partial memory. He does not tell us why he wants the baby, be it the child in the poem or the reader of the poetry, to feel joy every time they think of the “ruined city of steel in America.”

All any of us knows is that there’s some idea there that is worth celebrating, worth cherishing, worth holding a beer up to whenever we think of that place.

Too often, becoming an adult teaches us to ask “why” when invited to celebrate something. Adulthood teaches us not to celebrate unless we understand the whole reason for celebrating.

This poem asks us not to.

Poetry: The Specter Of The Tarantula Wasp.

Keanu Reeves once as a character said
his biggest fear was quicksand: At first everything
is going fine then you make one mistake.
And another. And another.
You try to fight back
but the harder you fight the deeper you sink until you can’t
move, can’t
Like quicksand.

Such it is with love.
A beauty of metaphor that allows me no peace.

The specter of solitude haunts you.
Follows you. Lurks
in the shadows behind you.
As you take the solitary walks of shame
you’ve always taken,
whether at the base of Fort Bliss or the side streets of the Little Apple.
The ones you still take with alarming regularity.

You feel it: Solitude’s breath.
but you can’t do anything about it.

Love’s optimism beats through your veins
like a tarantula’s blood.
Love is the heartbeat.
Faith in Solitude’s eventual banishment is the organs.

Solitude itself is the tarantula-wasp.

You fight it when it first attacks
in your youth. You try not to let it get a hold.
You feel your first kiss like the tarantula feels when its jaws
grab hold of the deadly insect. You feel your heart flutter
with joy, with excitement, with the youthful optimism you might
live. And not just live, but life carelessly.

Love: the noble but flawed aspiration to simply take care and cherish another
is all that’s ever mattered. That solitary desire
has clung to your DNA like the spider now clings to the hope of life.

But just as quickly as you feel your first kiss
you feel yourself let go. You feel the wasp
wriggly free with haunting power. Your jaws slip
though you know you’ll die if they do. You try to will them
into holding. Into not make the single mistake
of insecurity.

But the wasp is already free.
And just like that it’s over.
Solitude stings you, and begins to drag you
paralyzed but still with a long life ahead
To its dark layer.

You already know what’s coming next. You also know you’re powerless
for all your strength, to prevent it.
So you try not to resent yourself for your failure
and brace yourself for the pain you’ve caused yourself.

The tarantula was drags you to its hole.
It stings you a second time, this time, leaving in your abdomen an egg.

You count your mistakes during the initial fight
like the lonely count their failed relationships. You feel
its larva: the idea of never being all you’ve ever wanted
start to consume:
Your optimism.
Your idealism.
All from the inside out
even while you’re still alive.

You chase away friendships as the larva starts to grow,
you lose confidence when you get a divorce,
knowing that for a split-second you had all you ever wanted,
and all you had to do was stop yourself from chasing it away
and you failed to do so.

You feel your heart, nerve, and sinew start to betray you
the way Kipling warned you never to do if you wished
to be have all the world, and everything in it and what was most
to be a man.
You lose all of it.

Until one day, one minute, one instant,
as you feel solitude’s larva about to consume the heart of your belief,
you realize God is watching, and you must be stubborn.
You decide to savor each breath and simply enjoy that you can breathe
however painful and tiring that may now be.

You take long walks
alone. Enjoy the architecture and the clouds.
You look longingly
at the wedding processional at Saint Isidore’s,
at the old couple, hands embraced, taking their own walk.

You look longingly at them, remind yourself
of the lyric you once learned, even though you didn’t have to, from Aida:
“I shall not envy lovers, but long for what they share.”

Then slowly, like the tarantula as it takes its final breath
you close your eyes. But where the spider now accepts its death
you set your heart to accepting your life
and somehow decide to keep eagerly waiting.

Poetry: The Heart’s Memory

Absent friendship is bittersweet
at nighttime.
The way the sun feels in summer in the middle
of the night, with the humidity, the warmth, and the echoing sounds
of darkness, and silence interrupted
only by police sirens.

These things tantalize us, remind us:
of our frailty, of our vulnerability,
of our desperate need to courageously embrace
Yet they remind us love can exist
even when friendship ceases, is chased away, is awkwarded
into nonexistence.

Long after the sun has set,
Long after the protection of presence
has faded like the sun over the horizon,
and the elegant hue of intellectual, loving conversations
should have long ago faded from memory,
still Love can remain.

Still Love can echo what the heart wishes it could remember.

(Possibly High School) Poetry: Pine Needles

Editor’s note: This poem was originally found untitled but has been supplementarily named “Pine Needles.” Also, due to my desire to be fully transparent when publishing my earliest work (more on when I might have written this poem here), I have preserved original typos, including misuse of “it’s for “its” and “loose” for “lose” in stanza one to name just a couple. The linked post above details why I’ve done this. Enjoy.

Pine Needles

The pine needles fall one by one.
This is not a painless process,
The little tree flinches each time,
because the age of its core,
the age of it’s soul,
reveals that it doesn’t have many left to loose.

Each one is prickly on the end,
for many, the fallen forms a nuisance,
the type that pierce shoes,
cause delay and annoy people.

Yet in full bloom, these little needles smell good,
They fill the air around the tree
with infectious hope and enthusiasm,
Until they fall, when they suck for pedestrian and tree alike.

The bark is strong
But it’s weakened by holes
Written in it by the rains of
Former lovers comments.

Poetry: Daydreaming While In Lit Class

(Editor’s note: This poem was originally written Monday, April 17, 2017 while the Boston Marathon was underway.)

Daydreaming While In Lit Class

I think about what it it’ll be like:
posting that long-triumphant status,
experiencing that special emotion
of measurable,
anticipated success
After a lifetime of waiting for “indefinite” to end.

That overwhelming joy I daydream of,
of when I’ll post “I haven’t run a half-marathon since 2015,”
only to post follow with “….until now,”
with a colorful date, and a poster
of a race location.

I daydream of that,
as I sit in a literature class,
while thousands celebrate Patriot’s Day
in running’s Eden: Boston.

Yesterday, I started my return-to-run progression.
Just 20 minutes of intentioned-walking.
One day down.

A lot to go.
But one less than yesterday…


Independent: Part 1.

(Editor’s note: I originally wrote this poem for a class in medieval literature. I have received permission from the professor to publish it here. Enjoy.)
Independent: (Part 1)
“So this is how it was back then?” he asked her with special kindness.
“Yes. Before the hills burned and the majesties of the castles were
vanquished into barbarism. Before the great darkness
illuminated our hatred for one another, not out of wanting more,
but only wanting. Yes, this is how it was,” she told him.
The story I’m about to tell you is true to the tiniest factual detail. It is a story of love,
between two people and themselves
and their surroundings. This is not a love story solely of shallow human love
but of the special kind that can exist only when time, place
pomp and circumstance all are brought to coincide.
He stared delicately at her, careful not to stare too zealously.
He was an aspiring young duke who, for the most part, was confined by his rank
not enabled by it
not emboldened by it as was so often the case
but limited.
Or at least, limited everywhere else. Here, he was free to be captivated by her.
She on the other hand, was the noblest of seven daughters
to a peasant. She knew nothing
of rank or right because all her life was spent defending her younger sisters
sometimes unsuccessfully as we know was so often the case.
They stood together, on a hill overlooking a field
in Spain. A field like any other
except that in those days it wasn’t. In those days it was green
while the fields around the country were dead, burned
like the millions in castles across what is modern day Europe.
Everything had been burned.
Castles made of noble stone had been scarred with human ashes,
sometimes inside the castles as the dying tried to destroy the dead,
sometimes on the outsides as the catapults launched the bodies
falling short, hitting the wall, falling onto the attacker’s own troops.
Geometry had a long way to go back then.
But so did love. Somewhere on a field where it doesn’t rain in Spain
except when it does, we find our hero and our heroine.
He is of noble birth, seven generations engraved with the mark of aristocracy
But lacking zeal for power. She, meanwhile is of humble birth
but yearns simply for a quiet spot to rule on her own.
“Are you sure you want this particular land?” he asks.
“Though beautifully and certainly unique, it lacks any kind of tree.
There are no fruits to pick for you labors of settling here. No wood
to build a house, no hill to dig your way into. In every way this land is flat
except for the small creek running along its edge. Yet you would still desire it?”
“Noble sir,” she confesses,
“I lack the type of ambition of someone trying to build halls held high
by story-tall stones. I lack interest in the material, for material is the way to corruption.
I lack ambition for resources, for as one builds excess, so also one builds enemies
who wish to take it. I wish for no war. Living is hard enough.”
“Yet even those who call upon peace find war,” he torts,
“True peace, though a noble ambition, is scarcely ever possible. People always wish
to have others as their subjects, even when those subjects can offer them nothing.
How wouldst thou defend thyself against those from far lands who want
simply what others have?”
“My defense is none of your concern,” she replies.
“Surely you will not take this as a comment of disrespect. I am most honored
by your presence and your time. But I am strong, and my father
though ailing, is ripe with the fervor of life when it is needed most.
We’ll be fine.”
He acquiesces, promising to fulfill her desire for the land she has requested.
It belongs to her family seven weeks later. Five humble acres, hidden by a hill,
nourished by a creek
empty grassland somewhere in Spain where nobody can know
unless they already do. Unless their ancestors already did.
It is a few weeks later and he has returned to call upon her.
She is his age, or thereabouts. Her little family has set up camp
hidden among the hills by the grasslands from the crusades waging around them.
When someone comes with ill intent, she deliberately entrances them. Her wit, her kindness
her special beauty have the power to neutralize nations as they travel through hers.
The boy is not so lucky.
She uses her gifts of wit and intellect
only to infuriate and dodge him. When he remarks playfully,
she responds with one-word answers. When he pokes fun
she lets his jokes stand without retort.
Yet our hero knows as all men do that something powerful is at work in her.
He can see beyond her selective passivity
because he and his family have given hers this land. He has seen
her family transform what was once grassy and of little appeal
into a fantastic, well-run estate.
And with her being the lone survivor of the plague that is of working health,
he knows it is mostly her who has done this.
So he offers himself
Not in the way you would likely think, but in the way of a nobleman:
he offers to stick around and help.
So ends part 1 of Independent.

Poetry: Anthem Of Age 27

Today I am fast at play.
Not “hard at work” because to say “work”
would be to imply I resist what
I do.
I do not.
On my desk are notes
and a full page of verse I have been…
What’s the word? “Whittling away at”?
surely not “Working on” but perhaps.
Working on.
Behind me is a made bed with blue blankets
on my left. On my right
a freshly-erased dry-erase board
sticks to a wall. It is empty like a blank page
though I don’t believe there is actually anything empty about a blank page.
To my right is a coffee cup on my desk
with the inscription “The Adventure Begins.”
Further to my right is a lithograph of Taylor Swift in summer.
On the floor to my left is a blue yoga mat. The sky is blue as if in summer
though I know that scientifically, it isn’t actually blue.
All around I am surrounded
by beauty. From Taylor Swift
to the phone which lacks any new texts, even as I hope to get new texts.
And in front of me is a beautiful, blank piece of paper on a screen, not beautiful
Because of what already is, but beautiful because of what may yet be.
God is good!
I love Sundays.