On the Eve of the Ides of March, 2019, Ernest Hilbert read from his book Last One Out for the first time during an event at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. He was introduced by poet Ned Balbo and engaged in a question and answer period afterward. You can hear the entire event using the mini-player below. He reads the poems “Welcome to All the Pleasures,” “Recessional,” “My Father’s Dante,” “Ship Bottom, 1972,” “Great Bay Estuary,” “Glacier,” “Rowing in the Dawn,” “Super Bowl Sunday,” “American Glass,” and “Lesser Feasts.” Many thanks to the Rosenbach, particularly Executive Director Derick Dreher, Director of Development Kelsey Scouten Bates, and Director of Public Programs, Edward Pettit. Thanks also to all of the staff and to all who came out to fill the room at the Rosenbach!
Ned Balbo’s Introduction:
Ernest Hilbert is the kind of poet no one forgets. He is a scholar with a doctorate from Oxford University, with a dissertation on British Apocalyptic writing. He is an antiquarian book dealer who has converted his debut volume, Sixty Sonnets into a spoken word, orchestral, rock band soundtrack. He is a teacher, a librettist, and a scriptwriter for short films by Philly’s post-punk Mercury Radio Theater. He is an archaeologist’s husband, a father, and a poet, and it is for this latter role that we are among the first to celebrate his new book, Last One Out.
This poet is also an innovator, inventor of the “Hilbertian sonnet”—two sestets and a couplet unmetered or loosely metered, yet bound by the restrictions of their rhyme scheme. “He’s created his own Houdini-like set of chains to wriggle out of,” writes Maryann Corbett, another of Ernie’s gifted peers, though it’s hard to imagine chains this poet couldn’t wriggle out of.
He is author of three—now four—brilliant books of poetry. Of Sixty Sonnets, MacArthur fellow Alicia Stallings has written, “Here are barflies, high-school dropouts, retired literary critics, washed-up novelists and war-zone reporters, suburbanites and historians”—not unlike we who are gathered here tonight?—all captured, as Stallings writes, in “the wry, worldly-wise voice of the poet himself.”
His second book, the beautiful and heartbreaking All of You on the Good Earth (its title taken from Apollo astronaut Frank Borman’s, and humanity’s, first look at Earth-rise beheld from lunar orbit), ranges widely over history and popular culture, offering us a poetry that, as Adam Kirsch observes, unites “raw energy with elegant and original language, creating a style that sounds like no one else’s.” Here, among much more, the poet gives us gods, strip clubs, zeppelins, and cats, as well as the stoic Seneca of Caligula’s era—a nod, perhaps, to what would be Ernie’s third book, Caligulan, which his peers justly rewarded with the prestigious Poets’ Prize.
Another tour-de-force, Caligulan, “evokes the world we live in: we know something is wrong and, in a minute, will likely be worse; but there’s beauty in the portent and in the self-awareness we need to see it,” according to Erica Dawson.
To Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Caligulan is “brutal and yet beautiful, highly refined and yet enticingly diurnal. Moved by beauty, attuned to the sublimity of natural things, livened by paradox, coaxed into song by pentameter.” Except for the word “brutal,” it’s an apt description of the poet himself.
And now we’re here to celebrate and launch Last One Out, the latest entry in Ernie’s evolving catalogue, a book that, in Robert Archambeau’s words, “begins with the poet’s grandfather and father—both long dead—and continues with an atavistic yearning to enter the past and drag it forward into the present”; a book whose “bereaved son,” Archambeau notes, becomes “the protective and loving father” many of us are fortunate to know and equally fortunate to read. Some here may have already read and savored “Mars Ultor,” an astute, Audenesque political critique in trimeter that graces 2018’s Best American Poetry anthology. Although the new book’s copyright page states that “discretion is advised for readers under the age of 40”—a flip warning whose deeper wisdom becomes apparent in the new book’s elegiac force—the humor, kindness, curiosity, range, and technical facility of Ernie’s work will be apparent to all. In “My Father’s Dante,” Ernie writes,
We hurt as much from what we half-forget / As from the things we carefully conserve.
Given the gravity, care, and achievement of Last One Out and its predecessors, I’d like to express thanks for the honor of welcoming this poet of unique vision and singular talent, Mr. Ernest Hilbert.