Ernest Hilbert’s second collection of poetry, All of You on the Good Earth, is an enlightening example of the revival of the sonnet. The poems are intelligent, topically indulgent, and extremely well crafted. The sonnets are capsules, compressing large ideas or expanding small ones, lined up in equal measure.
Hilbert includes subjects for a wide variety of tastes. He offers a concrete poem about eating soup and weevil-infested crackers, and then on the facing page submerges us in language that elicits only the sense of the thing because the thing itself can’t really be spoken of. Instead, he uses colors, sounds and seasons to conjure feelings about the regularity of death. He uses this juxtaposition of perspective regularly in the placement of poems within the collection, and how he arranges placement of lines and ideas within poems as well. In “Victorian” he describes the industry of menial tasks in revamping an old Victorian home, and then on the following page in “While You Were Out,” he describes how menial tasks can unwittingly waste one’s whole life:
She looks up from the desk to find light gone
Again; thinks of early friends gone distant,
Prospects departed, like an ending summer,
When in the chill, she could lie on the lawn,
Unable to recall how the months were spent,
When lightning poured rivulets of blue light
And ended, far off, before she saw it.
In nearly every poem he uses an unusual rhyme scheme, spacing the couplets three lines apart, which has the dual effect of softening the punch of the rhyme and making us wait for it. Some of the poems follow a strict, perfect rhyme, while others are looser. Many use the volta to great effect, while others don’t seem to employ the volta at all. There is throughout a heightened awareness of sound, not only in the rhyme. In “Levavi Oculos,” he hits the fricatives hard, especially the /f/ and /v/, which adds another layer of pulse to the poem:
Allow me, for now, to fail and pursue
As I must—small, awkward force, aimed at dust.
Naval captains, native chiefs, whether proud
Or poor, now form a vast weight under my shoes.
Overhead, a flagrant scuttle and rush:
Such extravagant, vagrant vitality,
Branches rebound; squirrels spring from tree to tree.
From the volta onward, as in many of his poems, this one also asks questions of life’s pursuits, regret, and futility, turning from concrete observation of the speaker’s body and the season.
Hilbert has a lot to say about the literary life and the literary world—including reviewers—but as an educated man and antiquarian book dealer, visiting professor, and writer, this must be a significant part of the world he lives in. One section of the collection, “From Grub Street to the Brill Building,” dwells in this literary world. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t struggle, but the speaker in Hilbert’s lines seems to be especially down on the times and himself. It is an aspect of the collection that is both depressing and invigorating. Without this honesty of character, we might not learn much about the perspective of the speaker and why we should pay attention—but the pall of negativity got occasionally wearisome to this reviewer. Yet, there is more to be found when reading Hilbert’s lines over again. The poems exist within the complexity and simplicity of a sonnet; we begin to fall into his rhythms, learn from his themes, and experience the resonance of his language.