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All of You on the Good Earth Paperback – March 1, 2013
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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“‘Genes clarify the genius and the freak / And prove we descend from a feral band,’ Ernest Hilbert writes in ‘Outsider Art,’ and there is no mistaking the ‘feral’ appetite and intensity of these poems, or the bitter depths of experience they sometimes explore. What makes All of You on the Good Earth such a rare collection, however, is the way Hilbert unites that raw energy with elegant and original language, creating a style that sounds like no one else’s.”
“Hilbert is one of our best rhymers since Robert Frost, and his poems have been compared by superb poets to those of John Berryman and Robert Lowell. We haven’t had a poetry like his—both seriously tough-minded and wryly self-chiding—to enjoy and mull over for a long time.”
“Hilbert has written poems of superb lyricism. It’s hard to think of another poet with such range, and indeed with such brilliant delivery. Beauty, trash, exaltation, and humor are contained in his capacious and exacting forms. These are, quite simply, original and essential poems.”
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In “Seneca at the Baths,” the speaker questions the purpose of mundane, unthought-of objects:
Is the ideal ruler to crack knuckles
Or shaft sited to repair fractured bone?
A trellis to train vines through a season
Or a fence to divide, secured by patrols?
It is the duality of these things that he is most concerned with. This is not to say that rulers, trellises, and ladders have multiple purposes, though they may, but that their purposes can be debated, based on perspective.
Needless to say, perspective is important. However, Hilbert insists that perspective, where and how we are when we observe, is everything. We don’t know who the speaker or the addressed is, who “I” or “we” or “you” signifies, but we can gather that these are never the same. Each sonnet is its own narrative peering into the window of a single moment – like a soliloquy, each 14-line poem is recited in isolation. Something has sparked a thought or an association, and the sonnet serves as a finite method to record and explore these moments. Hilbert often reveals where he is in the titles or in the first few lines. At one point, he is on “a crowded train compartment, regretting his life;” at another, he is “at a friend’s empty loft.” In these instances, he is explicit in stating his physical, spatial place, but there are also points where he is at a mental location. “Outsider Art” queries the origin and preoccupation of artists, particularly writers. Ironically, the last line speaks of “the moment something truly begins;” this is the premise of an idea, the captured moment of realization.
Just as Hilbert observes his modern world, he also reflects on the past, not his past, but that of humanity. He does so as if he was there, as if he able to time-travel and seize these moments for future examination. He writes of wise Plato and foolish dictators, Sophocles and Euripides. Why mention these greats at all? The prelude poem “Dusk in the Ruins,” though told in present time, describes a visit to Necopolis, Vulci. The speaker “arrives, one more uninvited guest” to a place where “whole histories, spread and cooled in their course, / Load this darkened air.” The atmosphere hangs heavy with history, and all that is left today, no more than ruins, exists amidst all the modernity. Hilbert recognizes this disconnect by acknowledging how his live presence disrupts the long-dead remains. Yet instead of separating past and present, he has compiled them into one collection that does not discriminate. He recites sonnets to both, constantly revisiting the ancient question.
A denizen of the present and an admirer of the past, Hilbert is human: he is an observer. He doesn’t overlook the not so pristine images of industrialism or modernity, but he also does not herald the great histories. Instead, he delves into both, mixing old and new, reaching for truth as he sees it, using one of the most classical literary forms, each sonnet a small window looking out to the larger view.
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. 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.