This was the last book I was able to press into Luisa’s hand. I hate to sound lovesick here because I am not, but at the same time I am dealing with the loss of my best friend. I never thought anyone could be quite so stupid as my Luisa.
If I were in love with someone and couldn’t tolerate it, I would at least have the sense to keep my mouth shut. Why bother to do anything about it? Love either bears fruit or it doesn’t and it you are on the “not bearing fruit” side of the argument, well, why not let the thing play out? A year or two later if nothing has happened, where is the harm in that? No one has led anyone on.
Nothing has been “manipulated,” as my Luisa so famously accused me of doing. My answer was (of course): “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-8]
I wonder how that statement would read if it were cast to reflect Luisa’s life experiences (whose love, as it turned out, insisted on its own way and was both irritable and resentful.)
I would have endured anything for Luisa’s sake but she never had the faith in love to trust me to do that. It is such a sad story. And I am left to not insist on my own way, if I am to be loyal to my faith.
I recall now that I never answered her question correctly. She had asked “What happens if I never hug or kiss you, and I had taken that as “What happens if I never love you?” Or “What happens if I don’t love you?” Well if my love were untrue it would have ended.
But if it weren’t, nothing would have changed, because love never ends as St. Paul tells us above. I would have gone on believing that one day Luisa would have fully realized her love for me. “You have only to let it happen,” Louise Glück writes below.You see how intolerable my presence was to Luisa.
Reading this review and some of the Glück’s poems I see how this lover who abandoned me matched perfectly with a poet who is credited with having powers of even “the loneliest Gods.” Luisa, my loneliest Goddess. How can our story have ended when my love can bear all, believe all, hope all, and can endure all? But you can’t simply let your love happen?
Poetry has always been the handmaiden of mythology, and vice versa. Sometimes poets are in the business of collecting and tweaking existing myths, as with Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the Poetic Edda. Other times poetry applies a mythological glamour to stories and characters from history, legend or even other myths (the hero of the “Aeneid” is a minor character from the “Iliad”).
Then there are poets who equate the idea of myth with the supposedly irrational essence of poetry itself. Here is Robert Graves in 1948: “No poet can hope, to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, … with a monotonous chant of `Kill! kill! kill!’ and `Blood! blood! blood!” Which might sound more like a strip club picnic gone badly awry, but you get the idea.
The relationship between poetry and mythology is central to Louise Glück’s new Poems .1962-2012 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $40), if only because no poet of Glück’s generation has relied more overtly on what Philip Larkin once called “the common myth kitty.” A representative list of titles: “Gemini,” “Aphrodite,” “The Triumph of Achilles,” “Legend,” “A Fantasy,” “A Fable,” “Amazons,” “Penelope’s Song,” “Telemachus’ Dilemma;’ “Circe’s Torment;’ “Eurydice,” “Persephone the Wanderer,” “Persephone the Wanderer” (again). This is not even to count her 1992 book “The Wild Iris,” which is basically an allegorical system based on garden myths, legends and fairy tales are for Glück what heirloom tomatoes are for Alice Waters.
That’s probably inevitable, given her sensibility. Glück has always (and self-consciously) favored abstraction over particularity — from the beginning, she’s written lines that are almost completely devoid of the kind of chatty reportage and pop cultural name-dropping that have been common in American poetry since the death of Frank O’Hara.
A Glück poem is dreamlike, chilly, enigmatic. It is still. It is spare. It is almost aggressively concentrated. It revolves around words like “dark,” “pond,” “soul,” “body” and “earth.” It is the kind of poem that involves frequent use of the expression “it is.” It produces great effects with delicate shifts in tone, like an oceangoing bird that travels a hundred miles between wing flaps. Perhaps more than anything else, it relies on mood, suggestion and atmosphere: Glück is a master not of scenes but of scene setting.
And those settings are usually dark. In her first collection — called, alas, “Firstborn” (1968) — we find a tortured array of thwarted lovers, widows, cripples and angst-ridden families. Even the robins are woebegone (“The mama withers on her eggs”). The debt to Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell can be overwhelming in this early work, as in the first few lines of “The Lady in the Single”:
Cloistered as the snail and conch
In Edgartown where the Atlantic
Rises to deposit junk
On plush, extensive sand and the pedantic
Meet for tea…
This may as well have “Lowell 1959″ stamped on it. One sees the frightening outlines of what will become Glück’s preoccupations, but they’re awkwardly clothed in borrowed techniques, like ghosts muffled in L. L. Bean jackets.-But then, in her second book, “The House on Marshland” (1975), Glück comes disturbingly into her own. Suddenly the choppy waters of the early poems ‘become smooth, vast and almost completely lightless. The temperament that emerges is relentlessly critical both of itself and of the world it creates, and that criticism is delivered in lines that are, as Helen Vendler once put it, “hierarchic and unearthly.” Here is the beginning of “Messengers”:
You have only to wait, they will find you.
The geese flying low over the marsh,
glittering in black water.
They find you.
The voice here is strange in the word’s original sense – foreign — as if it were coming from an oracle who stopped worrying about humankind centuries ago. Having given us spooky geese, Glück adds in some deer (“How beautiful they are, / as though their bodies did not impede them”). The poem ends:
You have only to let it happen:
that cry — release, release — like the moon wrenched out of earth and rising
full in its circle of arrows
until they come before you
like dead things, saddled with flesh,
and you above them, wounded and dominant.
The key word here is “dominant,” which is Glück’s way of pointing out the covert will to power in the traditional Romantic nature poem (to see ourselves reflected in nature is to make nature our servant). Above all, Glück’s mature poetry is fixated on control.
This is true of all poets to an extent; the structures of poems are ways of organizing (that is, controlling) experience. But it’s one thing to want to control the way a poem looks, quite another to have dreamed up the beginning of “The Drowned Children,” which appeared in Glück’s collection “Descending Figure” (1980):
You see, they, have no judgment.
So it is natural that they should drown,
first the ice taking them in
and then, all winter, their wool scarves
floating behind them as they sink
until at last they are quiet.
And the pond lifts them in its manifold dark arms.
“So it is natural”: obviously, it isn’t natural at all for children to drown — or to the extent it is natural, it should make us wonder what we mean by the word. Which is Glück’s point. The impersonal forces that really do control our lives (time, space, our own unconscious desires) operate in a way that transcends the day-to-day demands of car payments and deadlines. They’re not so much irrational as unrational, and they are implacable. That truth can be frightening, but as Glück’s first few books demonstrate, it can also be unsettlingly beautiful, in the way that a shark can be beautiful, or a tidal wave.
The type of control that most interests Glück, however, is the struggle for mastery among and within people. Her poems about relationships — romantic and familial – are focused relentlessly on the whip hand. On sisters: One is always the watcher, / one the dancer.” On sex: “A woman exposed as rock / has this advantage: / she controls the harbor.” On friendship: “Always in these friendships / one serves, the other, one is less than the other.” On mothers and daughters: Suppose you saw your mother torn between two daughters: What would you do/to save her /but be willing to destroy/ yourself.”
It’s an attitude all too easy to parody – not every disappointing week-end getaway is a ritual battle between archetypes – but in the strongest of Glück’s earlier poems, one sees how monstrous desires penetrate and determine our supposedly ordinary behavior, inciting quiet violence that we don’t even recognize as damage.
The depiction of those unconscious desires is one of the basic functions of myth. It explains why Glück – drawn as she is to questions of who is doing what to whom, and why — returns repeatedly to characters who aren’t people so much as embodiments of generalized anxieties, particularly anxieties about betrayal and desertion. (In “Gretel in Darkness,” Gretel addresses Hansel: “Nights I turn to you to hold – me /but you are not there.”) The’ problem is that this strategy can result in poems stranded in their own extremity, like forgotten trail markers in the Arctic.
Glück is well aware of this problem. So as she entered middle age, she began to add more obvious personal references to her work; “Ararat” (1990) is centered on her father’s death, “Meadowlands” (1996) on her divorce. She tinkered with colloquial language. She dabbled, in being, you know, funny. (“I thought my life was over and my heart was broken./ Then I moved to Cambridge”) In taking this route, she followed a narrative well established in American poetry. Roughly, the idea is that a, poet who is intense, closed and obsessed when young gradually learns to appreciate and understand the world giving rise to a personal, personable middle style that is richer than the furious early work.
It’s not a story that should be applied to Glück. While the poetry of her middle period is almost never bad, it can be self-indulgent in its general approach. Where previously Glück invoked myth in ways that preserved its essential strangeness (which is also its truth), she now began to invoke it in ways that felt more obviously like psychological diagnosis. Mythology, psychology and poetry are related but different ways of thinking about how we exist in the world, and while they often overlap to one another’s mutual benefit, it can be deadly to let one determine the other.
Or as Carl Jung put it, “If a work of art is explained as a neurosis then either the work of art is a neurosis or a or a neurosis is a work of art. In Glück’s earlier work we get lines from these from The-Garden” in 1980:
The garden admires you:
For your sake it smears itself with green pigment;
the ecstatic reds of the roses,
so that you will come to it with your lovers
But that astringency gives way to lines like these from “Vita Nova” in 1999:
In the splitting up dream
we were fighting over who would keep
Blizzard. You tell me
what that name means. He was
a cross between
something big and fluffy
and a dachshund
“In the splitting-up dream”: Now, Miss Glück, vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?
If that were the end of the story, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all, no poet is required to keep the fire kindled for decades. If she can write 5, or 10, or a dozen very good poems over a career, then she has succeeded — and Glück has managed that feat easily. But there is another element to this particular myth.
Glück’s most recent book, “A Village Life” (2009), is one of her best, and it is good in a way that recalls her earlier work without imitating it. The poems are centered on an unnamed, imaginary village and spoken in the voices of various inhabitants (including a memorable earthworm). The darkness and air of unreality are typical Glück, but the atmosphere is something new. It has the sad hopefulness of the seasons: death, birth, death, rebirth.
More than anything, it has other people. Not other people whom we realize the real Glück probably knows, but people as imagined — which is to say, people who represent a deepening. of Glück’s sensibility. Here is a farmer speaking at the end of “A Village Life”:
In the window, the moon is hanging over the earth,
meaningless but full of messages.
It’s dead, it’s always been dead,
but it pretends to. be something else,
burning like a star, and convincingly,
so that you feel sometimes
it could actually make something grow on earth.
If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.
I move through the dark as though it were natural to
as though I were already a factor in it
Tranquil and still, the day dawns.
On market day, I go to the market with my lettuces.
The lettuce is: a small thing, and so. is the market. But they are not nothing. And the creation of “not nothing” — that is the power given even to the loneliest gods.