11/24/2011 09:23 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2012

Letting Go Of Who We Were

The Lord gives everything and then charges
By taking it back. What a bargain.
Like being young for a while.

These are the opening lines of Jack Gilbert's poem The Lost Hotels of Paris. It was written while he was already beginning to experience the onset of dementia. The Lord gave Gilbert everything: stunningly good looks, an adventurous life, a piercing insight, and the words and sensibility needed to convey his experience in great poetry. And all of it now is beginning to fall away, as he gradually succumbs to dementia in his eighties.

Yet these lines point less to his physical condition than to a lifelong way of seeing the world. In a 2006 NPR interview with Debbie Elliott he said,

"Sure it's tough, we're all going to die, there's a lot of injustice in the world, but what a bargain. There's a lot of things I don't like. I don't like the fact that my hair is thinning. I don't like the fact that two of the women I loved died. But given that, what a wonderful privilege to be allowed to breathe, to see, to feel, to smell, to love. It's baffling, the sweetness of what we're allowed."

Gilbert's poem is a beautiful elegy to the younger selves that used to be his life. It is beautiful because there is not one word of regret at their passing. Each served their time in their own time, and he is grateful for all of them. Grateful, too, still to be breathing now in his present condition, near the end of his life. There are no regrets, but there is the poignant memory of a world that is no longer with us.

It is right to mourn
For the small hotels of Paris that used to be
when we used to be. My mansard looking
down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
and me listening to the bell at night.

My own small hotel in Paris, now long gone, was just along from Gilbert's, on the Isle St. Louis. It had a blue door with a large brass knocker and a small brass plate that said Hotel de L'Isle. My room was up a narrow winding staircase on the fifth floor, and the window looked out onto the brown waters of the Seine. The person that I was then stayed in that room with his first love, whenever they crossed the Channel from London. He wore a French beret and a three quarter length leather jacket. She wore a blue scarf wrapped like an Arab around her head and white silk pants that would shimmer in the wind gusting in from the river. Like the Jack Gilbert who listened to the bell at night, those two love birds have gone the way of all things. And it is right to mourn them.

For the mourning is not a wish for them to return, but an elegy to their having been in the first place.
Along with Paris, the rest of the world has changed, as it must. Nothing is as it was when we were younger.
Venice is no more. The best Greek islands
have drowned in acceleration.

These lines are not some wistful longing for a more idyllic past. They are a statement of fact. The Venice of even twenty years ago, not to mention forty years, is no more. In the sixties and early seventies, most Greek islands were still far flung outposts of a traditional culture that had barely changed in centuries. I remember arriving just before dawn in the crescent bay of Santorini, the island where Gilbert lived for a time, in the summer of 1965, somewhat queasy from the journey from Crete in an old boat that had groaned its way all through the night, overloaded with goats and people and chickens. I remember too the cries of the boatmen as they rowed out in the dark to pick us up in handfuls and take us to shore, where braying donkeys were waiting to jog us up the steep cliffs to the tiny village above.
Those days are gone now. Santorini was a remote place then, barely known to the outside world. No more than half a dozen foreigners were there when the Housden of that time stumbled ashore in August of 1965. One of them was probably Jack Gilbert. Today Santorini features on all the Greek tourist posters, and is the favorite destination of cruise ships. Like all the islands, it has drowned in acceleration.
But it's the having
not the keeping that is the treasure.

Santorini as Gilbert knew it entered not only his eyes but his sinews, his very cells, like anything we have loved. It is alive in him still, not just in memory but in his being; as it is alive in mine. This is why there is no need for nostalgia; for some hopeless clinging to a romanticized past.
Poetry can bless the past even as it mourns it, and this is what Gilbert is doing in this poem. It is also what I am doing in my book, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye, which comes out in February.

We do what we can, we love what we have been given, even if it has been taken away. Jack Gilbert has never given up; not on poetry, nor on love, nor on life. We never see the stars as they are he says in the last lines of this poem, only the memory of them the way they once were.

And that too is more than enough.