POETRY JANUARY 11, 2010
by Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 80 pp., $23
More dramatically than most contemporary poets, Louise Glück dreams up a new imaginative landscape with each book. Ararat, in 1990, drew its power from the claustrophobia of its focus on immediate family, expressed in a correspondingly constricted poetics. Glück worked her way into psychic discoveries through a severely limited vocabulary, simplified syntax, and direct statements: “in childhood, I thought/that pain meant/I was not loved./It meant I loved.” The Wild Iris, two years later, took her readers by surprise with its lush ventriloquism and panoramic view. Those poems multiplied consciousness among the plants of the Garden of Eden, a human couple, and a deity who expressed himself (often scathingly) in weather conditions. In tones varying from the sardonic to the sumptuous, Glück looked upon the suffering self no longer from its own command center of self-concern, but from a wide arc of outward awareness. As the witchgrass admonished Adam and Eve and their contempt of weeds: “you can’t rest until/you attack the cause, meaning/whatever’s left, whatever/happens to be sturdier/than your personal passion.” In her last few books, but especially in Averno (2006) and now in A Village Life, Glück has submitted her imagination to the march of seasons and the approach of death. The resulting harmonies are as rich and darkly tinged as Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”
Averno pointed both backward and forward in Glück’s work. Like many of her earlier poems, it regarded its subjects through the lens of classical myth. Where Meadowlands (1997) explored the break-up of a modern marriage through the figures of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus, and Vita Nova (1999) examined the grief of the abandoned or otherwise love-tormented woman in the Virgilian and Dantesque masks of Dido and Francesca, Averno took over the story of Persephone. Glück’s earlier self-destructive daughter-figures, driven by “the same need to perfect,/of which death is the mere by-product,” find their quintessence in the Persephone of Averno, and in the mysterious girl who burns a farmer’s field and disappears. Averno, a book of intricate, plural perspectives, views from many angles the daughter’s need to escape the Demeter-Mother—a mother who issues “a warning whose implicit message is:/what are you doing outside my body?” In Glück’s version, the daughter marries Death (Hades) in order to flee the formidable Mother.
This story helps to make sense of the recurrent figures of the starving girl in Glück’s work—the girl who finds her dangerous fulfillment in perfectionism, in separating soul from body: “I know what you want—” the speaker addresses the girl in “Fugue,” “you want Orpheus, you want death./Orpheus who said, ‘Help me find Eurydice.’/Then the music began, the lament of the soul/watching the body vanish.” Averno may be read as Glück’s finding her way back to life, on her own terms. The book’s triumph is the sequence “October,” an acerbic variation on Keats’s “To Autumn” in which Glück finds an autumnal music of her own: “I am/at work, though I am silent.”
A Village Life magnificently extends the landscapes, the harmonics, and the dramatis personae of Averno. The Italianate setting is elaborated: vineyards, fig trees, fields, and flocks; a mountain visible beyond; a small factory; a distant seacoast. Instead of the mother-daughter axis, we now have an entire village and its spectrum of characters and ages: children, adolescents beginning to experiment with sex, men and women ageing and inhabiting their solitudes and disappointments. More than any of Glück’s previous volumes, A Village Life has a generous heart, a large spiritual scope in which to imagine the lives of others. Death, in this village, appears not as the sexual Hades, but as a force of impending loss with which complex and lucid bargains must be struck.
Two Masters hover over these poems. One is Wallace Stevens, the Stevens who finds plenitude in diminishment. Like him, Glück sets the stage for acts of mind: “The sun burns its way through,/like the mind defeating stupidity,” she declares in “Pastoral.” Both Stevens and Glück find a wealth of perception in a willed poverty of circumstance. When Glück’s first poem opens with a scene of ascetic renunciation, giving things up “experimentally” (“I open my fingers—/I let everything go—”), and concludes, “I let it go, then I light the candle,” it is hard not to hear Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” with its shawl “wrapped tightly around us, since we are poor,” and its compensatory candle: “How high that highest candle lights the dark.” The second tutelary presence is the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, whose radically innovative collection Lavorare stanca (translated by William Arrowsmith as Hard Labor) appeared in 1936. Its depiction of tough, elemental rural life introduced a completely new tone into Italian poetry.
A Village Life gives voice not only to its human inhabitants, but also to an earthworm and to bats. The animals, in fact, seem to have a more capacious understanding than humans, and both worms and bats articulate the book’s ascetic vision. In the overall composition of the volume, several motifs recur: twilight and darkness; the transitional seasons of spring and fall; burning leaves; the limitation of life in the village; and solitude, sometimes consoled by wine. The bats are the philosophers, the masters of the via negativa, and it is they who set the terms:
Similarly, the earthworm instructs us in relinquishment:
Yet Glück’s book does not put us on a starvation diet of style or incident. Along the via negativa, we are treated to her fullest account yet of the yearning and the pathos of bodies in time, of the rhythms of wheat and grapes sprouting and being harvested, and the play of mist and light in the valley. In one of the most touching of the poems, called “Crossroads,” the speaker (not one of the imaginary village characters, but a voice more recognizable as belonging to the American woman poet) addresses her own body tenderly. One could read “Crossroads” as an apology by the poet who in earlier guises attacked herself, as in this, from 1975: “and to select death, O yes I can/believe that of my body.” Instead of wrenching body into the realms of soul and mind in Gnostic violence, the more seasoned speaker of “Crossroads” imagines the soul borrowing physical presence. To the body, she says:
A Village Life starts in twilight and ends in the title poem, giving us a mini-cycle of sunset, to night, to dawn. The speaker who walks the neighbor’s dog and observes the fog lifting has achieved a level of detachment in which the approach of death can be held calmly in mind along with a modest gratitude for what life remains: “Tranquil and still, the day dawns./On market day, I go to the market with my lettuces.” In contemplating death, Louise Glück has made a truce with life.
Rosanna Warren's most recent book of poems is Departure (2003).