I love poems that seem to be about one thing but are really about something else entirely. They might be about some surface concern, but underneath they are about deeper emotions, stormier backstories. Jack Gilbert's poems are great examples of this kind of diversion. In "Trying to Have Something Left Over," one of my favorite poems from his collection The Great Fires, he is writing about a subject that comes up in a couple of his pieces: namely, his affair in Denmark with a married woman who has an infant son. His not-quite-there involvement with this family that doesn't belong to him really makes for some poignant lines. So while it looks like we have a poem about a baby and the city of Pittsburgh, what we're really getting is a heartwrenching story about love and loss. Rereading this poem today, I was really struck by the magnitude of that final line, as it's about so many things at once.
Trying to Have Something Left Over, by Jack Gilbert
There was a great tenderness to the sadness
when I would go there. She knew how much
I loved my wife and that we had no future.
We were like casualties helping each other
as we waited for the end. Now I wonder
if we understood how happy those Danish
afternoons were. Most of the time we did not talk.
Often I took care of the baby while she did
housework. Changing him and making him laugh.
I would say Pittsburgh softly each time before
throwing him up. Whisper Pittsburgh with
my mouth against the tiny ear and throw
him higher. Pittsburgh and happiness high up.
The only way to leave even the smallest trace.
So that all his life her son would feel gladness
unaccountably when anyone speaks of the ruined
city of steel in America. Each time almost
remembering something maybe important that got lost.