Most Americans don’t like to talk about death, but Ernest Hilbert doesn’t mind. Death and decay is what he sees in Caligulan—his third volume of poems after Sixty Sonnets (2009) and All of You on the Good Earth (2013)—and he has little interest in spinning "Fictions fielding hopes of glory / Where none should be fulfilled." This is a question of temperament, as the title suggests, and reality. However we might feel, it’s relatively clear that the "seams" of order, as Hilbert puts it in one poem, have been "unsewn."
Caligulan is organized according to the seasons, beginning with "Summer," and immediately something’s not right—not so much with summer itself but with how we imagine it. It may be a moment to sip margaritas in Antigua, but it’s also an occasion to watch a one-footed seagull poke at the trash on a pier at Barnegat Light, New Jersey:
The stump’s a small sharp spear that stings the bird
If ground is touched. He soars to foggy scree,
Alights but flaps to halfway hang in air, spurred
By pain to perform endless pirouettes.
The seagull’s not the only bird in the volume—there are also ospreys, blue jays, and hawks—and like these, the gull is an omen. "Summer," Hilbert writes, "is the center" of the gull’s circling and of our lives that "we try to pretend / Will keep us strong, like love, and never end." In reality, it is, at best, a momentary reprieve from life’s sting. To expect anything more from it is delusional. "Friends," Hilbert writes in another poem, "tell me I should be happier":
But to think is to appreciate that even
This sunshine—brilliant, primeval balm—will burn
If I linger too long, that it can blur
A universe of details to blindness when
One stares fixedly…
It is to avoid such blindness that Hilbert, metaphorically, avoids staring at the sun in the volume. Instead, he looks at farting ATVs, a castrated horse whose testicles are fed to dogs (in the "Spring" section of the volume—you get the idea), daffodils in sidewalk cracks that are "decorated / By the locust shells of Trojans and Nestle’s," and a supermodel who falls on the street while paparazzi take pictures in a semicircle and her boyfriend laughs.
As anti-pastoral as Hilbert can be, he shares Robert Frost’s commitment to describing impressions as precisely as possible, which may offer, as it did Frost, a "momentary stay against confusion," even if such descriptions can lead to contradictory conclusions. In one poem, for example, a hawk "seems almost a sign // That nothing kills more than it creates, / Or is wrong with what we finally become." In another, however, Hilbert suggests that we are, or are becoming, monsters. Looking into dark water from the deck of a boat, he asks:
But where is our monster, the one we thought
Would always be there somewhere, though hidden?
The tiny girl in pink stamps her silver slippers.
No monster today, or ever. I catch the shallow
Smudges of my face in the cabin window.
Poetry is "real," but it’s also a balm for Hilbert. Like the pirouettes of the seagull in the opening poem, poetry soothes us with its rhythm until death brings oblivion. "Your love weeps all night. At dawn, she screams," Hilbert writes in "Kingdom of Spiders":
You can’t know what designs more pain might bring.
Cold streets fill with crowds. You want to fight.
You spit and shout. In daydreams you sing.
Here again, then, we have the old paradox of poetry (and perhaps all art) as both a reflection of and an escape from reality encapsulated neatly in a single quatrain.
Hilbert’s father was a classically trained musician and teacher who used to play Bach and Rachmaninoff at night or in the morning. Hilbert, who currently works as a rare book dealer in Philadelphia and has a doctorate in English from Oxford, learned the piano as a child and played in a heavy metal band as a teen.
The music of Caligulan is, by turns, smooth and jagged. This is by design. Poetry reflects and clarifies complexity. Still, some of Hilbert’s lines seem unintentionally rough, and there are one or two that are little more than confections. The purpose of one irregular sonnet on flying a kite, for example, seems to be simply to set up the final clever, but mostly empty, paradox: "A thing apart; though still tethered / Fatherless, and finally unfathered."
But overall, the volume is full of skillful surprises and insight, as well as occasional moments of humor. In a poem on a "Zombie Fun Run," Hilbert writes sarcastically: "No point being dull / When waging war on a disease that kills."
An honest volume for dishonest times, Caligulan reminds us that "thunder / Sinks your song, because, like the day of birth, / The day you’ll wake and have your death is set." It "just hasn’t happened yet."