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Calculated to reflect the sixty minutes in an hour of heightened imaginative contemplation, the poems in Ernest Hilbert's first book, Sixty Sonnets, contain memories of violence, historical episodes, humorous reflections, quiet despair, violent discord, public outrage, and private nightmares. A cast of fugitive characters share their desperate lives―failed novelists, forgotten literary critics, cruel husbands, puzzled historians, armed robbers, jobless alcoholics, exasperated girlfriends, high school dropouts, drowned children, and defeated boxers. These characters populate love poems ("My love, we know how species run extinct"), satires ("The way of the human variety, / Not even happy just being happy"), elegies ("The cold edge of the world closed on you, kissed / You shut"), and songs of sorrow ("Seasons start slowly. They end that way too"). The original rhyme scheme devised for this sequence--ABCABCDEFDEFGG--allows the author to dust off of the Italian "little song" and Americanize the Elizabethan love poem for the twenty-first century. Speaking at times in propria persona ("We'll head out, you and me, have a pint"), at times in the voice of both male and female characters ("I'm sorry I left you that day at MoMA"), at times across historical gulfs ("Caesar and Charlemagne, Curie, Capone"), Sixty Sonnets marshals both trivia and tragedy to tell stories of modern America, at last achieving a hard-won sense of careful optimism, observing "the last, noble pull of old ways restored, / Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored."
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Ernest Hilbert is the editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review. He was educated at Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He later became the poetry editor for Random House’s magazine Bold Type in New York City and edited the magazine nowCulture. He is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist. Review:
Ernest Hilbert’s sure-footed poems have the breathless urgency of a man telling others the way out of a burning building. Unafraid to startle, often winning out over recalcitrant material, they score astonishing successes. A bold explorer with few rivals, Hilbert enlarges the territory of traditional form. Sixty Sonnets may be the most arresting sequence we have had since John Berryman checked out of America.
– X.J. Kennedy, author of Lords of Misrule and editor of Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama
Hilbert has an appetite for life equal to his taste in literature: a rare combination in an age of dissociated sensibility. In these sonnets, whose dark harmonies and omnivorous intellect remind the reader of Robert Lowell’s, Hilbert is alternately fugitive and connoisseur, hard drinker and high thinker. But he is always a true poet, proud to belong to the company of those who still feel “The last, noble pull of old ways restored, / Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.”
– Adam Kirsch, author of The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets
Just as the work of the modernists showed that the best free verse usually has something masterfully formal about it, Hilbert’s fine collection might serve to remind us that the best formal poetry has about it a marvelous colloquial freshness and inventiveness, and the ring of an actual human voice. It is a touching and intelligent book.
– Franz Wright, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
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