The poetry of Sandra M. Gilbert

Hieronymus Bosch’s <em>Garden of Earthly Delights</em>, c. 1490-1510 (Wikimedia Commons)
Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490-1510 (Wikimedia Commons)


The masterworks described in these poems by Sandra M. Gilbert will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Western art, but I doubt they have ever been considered as a group. They belong together, Gilbert declares, because they all concern, well, meals.

Do a Google image search for Gilbert’s titles as you settle in to read. Not that she fails to evoke them vividly. But you will appreciate all the more, with the image in front of you, how terribly precise is, for instance, her description of the strawberry and the man hugging it in the lower-right-hand corner of the center panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. That strawberry is “bigger than he is, big as a / throne he could climb on, bigger than the fat old / pillow of his mother’s breast, so big that if he / were a worm he might bore into it & coil inside / its eerie pulp & nibble in a dream of / forever.” This worm-man’s eyes are bigger than his stomach—bigger even than what he can put his arms around. Gilbert has translated, into poetry, what Bosch has caught in painting: the regressive, deathly mood of primitive appetite. Those “icky prickles”!

Gilbert’s response to Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe expresses an incisive feminist consciousness. Gilbert restores to the overexposed image its original, arresting strangeness. She does this by recognizing the artist’s sense of humor, as expressed in the unlikely combination of two nattily attired young men and the bare, brazen, beautiful Victorine Meurent—Manet’s favorite model—who seems to dare the viewer to try to look away from her. Gilbert asks straight out what surely many have wondered—“So did they or didn’t they, how else to put it, fuck her between courses”? It’s hard to see these gentlemen fucking her or anyone, however, so occupied are they with “Bergsonian chatter” and the refined vocabulary of French cuisine. But that’s the point. The model knows what the men repress: at the center of this picnic, as in so many great works of art, woman is the main course.

Edward Hopper’s tense, insistently angular composition Nighthawks, as Gilbert reads it, is an ascetic refusal of the visual appetites Manet and Bosch engage. “Not wanting” is a defense against the potential violence in the male customers (their beaky hats, that pointed nose), and the red dress, red hair, red lips of the woman, their prey. Does it deepen the painting’s mystery or explain it that Hopper’s wife, Jo, was the model for the woman and Hopper himself the model for both men?

Francisco Goya’s Saturn: Gilbert conveys precisely what is so indelible about this horrible image, namely, how Goya has captured the labor, the physical demands of eating. (“Still working on that?” our servers ask us respectfully.) The aged artist executed this painting on his dining room wall. Can you imagine sitting down to eat in its presence? For relief, Gilbert directs our attention outside the house, where the god’s wife stands “dressed as a plum tree” (Mother Nature to his Father Time). But all she can do is weep very beautifully.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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