JUNE 21, 2014
THE APPEARANCE of Louise Glück’s Poems 1962 – 2012 in paperback at the end of last year afforded a wide audience of long-time and new readers a chance to explore a distinctive poet’s astonishing development over 50 years. Especially remarkable is Glück’s devotion to a continually renewed and evolving refreshment of her formal and aesthetic practice. Including as it does the full range of her career to date — from the restrained, intense lyrics of her inaugural collection, Firstborn, published in 1968 (when the poet was in her mid-20s), through and beyond her 15th, A Village Life (2009), a book-length, novelistic, dark-humored, almost choral work — Glück’s Poems (winner of the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize) shows us a much-lauded poet (her many awards include the Pulitzer, a Library of Congress Poet Laureateship, the Bollingen Prize) by turns lyric, dramatic, narrative, serial, quotidian, hermetic, social, classical, forthright, and self-protective. Readers who know only one of Glück’s books, therefore — Meadowlands, for instance — might not immediately recognize all of the varied Glücks included in this volume.
Glück clearly is not a one-trick pony; like all great stylists, she experiments, risks, fails, and fails better as she has continued to develop as an artist throughout her career. There are, however, signature constants across poems and books. The Glückian “alloy,” chaste and often brutally strong, consists of some basic characteristics. The diction is plain-spoken. The lines contain no fat — nothing extraneous, no baroque gestures, no unnecessary, strewn-about bouquets or mere surface distractions — and they eschew sentimentality. Verbs are tense, nervy, direct; syntax can be deceptively logical. Aphoristic and impeccably timed, humor often courses through: subtle and black. And in even the most domestic scenarios, a charged subtext of seasonal, pastoral, chthonic, and vocal resonances vibrates, fabular and mythic.
In an interview with Glück for the Academy of American Poets, Dana Levin relays something one of Levin’s own students said about Glück’s work: “The entry fee for a Louise Glück poem is, like, a dollar, but once you get in, the territory is complex.” Levin goes on to say to Glück:
And it’s true: your poems are not difficult to enter, but they quickly prove very complicated psychologically and complicated formally, not least in how the poems work together to create a greater whole. My student set out to track your entire body of work but can’t seem to quit reading Ararat. He’s lost in there, even though he only paid a dollar to get in. I’m going to have to retrieve him so we can move on.
A book that captivated me in its misleadingly spare, haunted thickets when I first read it in the 1970s, and which continues to arrest me as I wend my way through the five decades of the Poems, is Glück’s second book, The House on Marshland, published in 1975, seven years after the appearance of Firstborn. Although one particular poem from this second book, “Gretel In Darkness,” has enjoyed great popularity — especially in the widespread culture of fairy tale literature, for its provocative adoption of a female Grimm persona to suggest familial and cultural holocausts — few poems from this important book make their way into the big anthologies. The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry reprints “School Children”; The Oxford Book of American Poetry includes “Gratitude”; A. Poulin and Michael Waters anthologize ten of Glück’s poems in Contemporary American Poetry, but nothing from the second book; No More Masks: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets reprints three Glück poems, also with none from The House on Marshland; and, in an egregious oversight, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry does not include any poems by Louise Glück at all.
I invite readers of Louise Glück to revisit The House on Marshland for all the reasons I might encourage fans of the later Joni Mitchell to listen to Clouds (1969) in its entirety. Only a couple of songs from that album now get much play or inclusion in “best of” compilations (“Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides, Now,” the latter more often in the Judy Collins cover of it). But the album as a whole signals the darker, edgier, more aberrant harmonies and concerted themes of Mitchell’s great concept albums and collaborations — Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira — to come. The rawness of these early pieces is thrilling and worth salvaging, offering rejuvenation through our new and renewed listening.
Glück’s House received considerable notice when it appeared, and my intention here is not to rehearse the many insightful forays critics have already made into this remarkable book. But for readers who may not read much early Glück, I would simply point out that the poet of this sophomore effort, already composed and formally adept, is trying out in this volume manifold voices and personae; Classical, Biblical, domestic, and fabled subjects; a “detached” fecundity of imagery, especially with regard to the natural world; and a wry, understated sense of the complicated landscape of hunger, all of which she will later extend into her important book-length series and sequences (“the great poems of my middle period,” as she puts it in “To Autumn” from The House on Marshland). The family poems (mother, father, sibling) that predominated Firstborn deepen here into the darker, post-Lapsarian, Freudian registers of adult love, and in particular, ended or lost love. The boy child, the son, is just a specter — a beginning, at the end of this book — but he will develop crucially in the books that follow as conspiracies among human love, God hunger, the indifferent vegetable and mineral realms, and the practice of writing itself gather force. Here, for example, is “The Letters,” a poem which extends the very early Glück signature lapidary lyric into a longer piece that prefigures the dramatic, somatic, valedictory, sexual, and meta-literary preoccupations of The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, and A Village Life:
It is night for the last time.
For the last time your hands
gather on my body.
Tomorrow it will be autumn.
We will sit together on the balcony
watching the dry leaves drift over the village
like the letters we will burn,
one by one, in our separate houses.
Such a quiet night.
Only your voice murmuring
You’re wet, you want to
and the child
sleeps as though he were not born.
In the morning it will be autumn.
We will walk together in the small garden
among stone benches and the shrubs
still sheeted in mist
like furniture left for a long time.
Look how the leaves drift in the darkness.
We have burned away
all that was written on them.
Like Keats, Glück has always been half in love with the romance of oblivion. She has been ambitious, too, in the best “here lies one whose name was writ on water” way. Like a host of other poets of my generation, I am grateful for the privilege of coming of age as a student writer when Glück’s star was rising, and to have had the gift of witnessing, as I apprenticed, her evolution and example. Over the course of many years, her readers have had the benefit, as she puts it in another context in “Under Taurus,” of attending to her inimitable “[instruction] in the dark.”
Louise Glück once said that she prefers clarity over solace in poems. The same might be said of the ferociously heart-broken, heart-breaking, yearning, and unflinching poems of unrequited and lost love in Anne Shaw’s second book, Dido in Winter, just out from Persea Books. The speakers in these poems wade in whole pools of grief’s aftermath, and grapple with something akin to the struggle of the collection’s eponymous mythic figure, which is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in one of his dark sonnets, to “not choose not to be.” As they flirt with thoughts of suicide and despair, these poems transmit disbelief and hopeless hope. They move through a wake of debilitating shame and anger. “My voice is a pile I pick through,” says the narrator of “A 16mm Film (in Black & White),” “The body won’t disperse. / Must I consent to this day or the next?” In the poem “Dido to the Little Matchgirl,” the speaker warns, “once it starts, a heart will not stop / breaking, that’s the thing.” That poem ends:
Build yourself a bedroom, a house
of straw and thatch. Just strike one, then another. You dirty
little bitch. Because the place for a girl like you
is not on the common street. The place
for a woman who burns is in the fire.
In “Cloister,” Shaw writes,
in the grey light of a morning
my 37th year today my birth-
day tinged with snow I could
have a date with concrete
why not plunge
no regret . . . .
Shaw’s Undertow, winner of the Persea’s 2007 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, made a quiet debut but was luminous with what Auden considered the sign of genuine, lasting poetic talent — not ideology or agenda so much as a penchant for the matter of language, a trust in the word jones. The poems in Undertow, both the experimental as well as the more traditionally lyric, are infatuated with diction and syntax; the poems are gestural, as in a dream, or as perceived through or under water. Although their subjects are often “impersonal,” caught up in the allure of personae and the (d)evolution of science, the subtext is always the tug of melancholy, renunciation, loss. In his study of Victorian storied demises, Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction, Garrett Stewart finds death by drowning the most fascinating of all manner of endings; as one smothers in another element, Stewart suggests, “a last flash of self” announces itself in a kind of “agnostic epiphany.” A petitioning notion of drowning, of negative epiphany, saturates the rich language of Shaw’s first book, tempering its lyricism, and preparing us, in a way, for the brave, forthright disconsolation of the second.
Water, the primal soup of origin, survival, and danger, remains a force in Dido in Winter, but this new book is animated, too, by fire — the incendiary desiring body that by turns furiously and despairingly renounces her loss even as it reels through it in broken disbelief. No one prays for heartbreak, but it can trigger a kind of poetic awakening. “Dear all-purpose match head: / I saw your blue corona, struck // flare up. Briefly, / briefly, two arched wings of flame,” Shaw writes in the title poem. “These days they say / I’m inconsolable. My small / acts of defiance / break / like sticks.” Later in the poem, the speaker exclaims, unforgivingly, “How much I miss / our bodies.”
The speaker in Dido in Winter is, in some ways, protective of her inflictor, if not her infliction, even as she suffers; like Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop, she veils the precise source of her pain. But like Glück, she does not mince words or spare anyone, least of all herself, the brunt of her disabuse. We learn in “Night in the Formal Garden,” for instance, that a lover has departed (“As many months without you now / as with”) and that she is nonetheless helpless in her inability to abandon her desire for the absent one:
. . . You don’t believe in ritual. Nor I
Red paper on black water.
What would be sodden
if I picked it up.
How, seeing none, the body
cleaves against its form. It wills a force
to hold it
down, crush out the light,
tear out its silken wish.
But none arrives to break it.
The weeks grown up like garrisons, like law,
White snow on black water.
Forgive the body her insistent prayer.
Perhaps because Shaw is also a sculptor, there is, amidst all the language of breaking into and breaking open in this book, a sense that brokenness is what must happen if whatever is hidden in the Dickinsonian quartz contentment of grief’s restive paralysis is to be released. One senses that were Louise Glück a sculptor, she might be the kind who sparingly accrues mass onto a skeletal armature. In “Dedication to Hunger” from Descending Figure (1980), for instance, Glück compares anorexia with “what I feel now, aligning these words – / it is the same need to perfect, / of which death is the mere byproduct.” Shaw, on the other hand, is the kind of sculptor who looks at an inchoate mass and begins to chisel — not down to thin air or bare bones, but to just the right measure of somatic amplitude. She sledgehammers if necessary. She not only breaks in, but wants to be broken into, and she enacts this intrusion in the materials of language (“no hook, no tool, / nothing to make fast // no metal implement with which to cut or mend,” she writes in the lobby poem, “Invitation”). In doing so, she involves the reader in a most imperative, meta, and intimate way, as in these lines from “Apologia”:
. . . I am so tired anyway
of wishing for your hands, for your fierce and careful body, your teasing
and bad teeth. But you green fire, almond tree, you (may I call you you?)
who said it, it has to be like this,
who pastured me a day, take my best, my finest hope,
and break it. . . . .
Forgive I don’t do dancerly with table top and booze
but people say to be myself
and then they say I’m wrong. Forgive me for my wayward
parts. They are so bent and true. They are so non-detachable.
They are so boohoohoo.
I fear I have no blueprint and no tumescent hope. Please.
Take this poem anyway. Take this body. Let its holes intrude.
In an essay “Against Sincerity,” Glück writes, “you do not find your voice [as a poet] by inserting a single adjective into 20 poems. Distinctive voice is inseparable from distinctive substance; it cannot be grafted on.” Later in the piece, Glück goes on to say, “at the heart of [great] work will be a question, a problem. And we will feel, as we read, a sense that the poet was not wed to any one outcome . . . The only illuminations are like Psyche’s, who did not know what she’d find.” For their instruction in the dark, their negative capabilities, both Glück and Shaw evince that whatever the “facts” may be, in their poems these experiences are rendered as in-sight — contradictory, elemental, and ultimately mysterious.