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The Power of Ruins

Averno

by Louise Glück
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 76 pp., $22.00

Epic poetry is dead and dramatic poetry is moribund, but lyric poems continue to be written by both serious poets and teenagers in love. While its ancient origins are said to be songs composed for an occasion of celebration or mourning, the lyric has long since evolved into an expression of personal experience rather than of collective feelings. In his well-known denunciation of poetry in the Republic, Plato found use for hymns to the gods and eulogies to civic leaders, but singled out the lyric for being particularly self-indulgent and false in depicting reality. Stripped of musical accompaniment and plaintive tunes that could charm the listener, such poems not only showed their complete absence of ideas, but were harmful to those who seek truth. Plato was suspicious of the imagination. If he had not been, he would have realized that ideas in the way philosophers usually approach them have little to do with poems whose main concern is with using feelings to find what is authentic.

The more subjective and candid the poems were, the more dangerous they appeared to those who made it their business to worry about the moral uplift of their fellow citizens. Scandal is most likely the reason the lyric poem has been so successful over the centuries. To scribble, knowing that one’s secret thoughts and language are disapproved of by everyone from one’s parents to one’s clergymen, is a delicious feeling. Every form of tyranny has taken a dim view of such irreverence. The main public use of the first-person pronoun that authoritarians approve of is the one extracted through forced confessions of heretics and enemies of the state. This much has always been true: if you want to get in trouble with whatever language police is in force, write verses about what you really feel and think.

Of course, there’s much more to the lyric than risky subject matter. There’s the ineffable something that makes poetry poetry, the sensation that every word has suddenly begun to mean much more than it usually does. Lyric poems require an exquisite ear on the part of the poet, an ability to weigh the exact amount of silence necessary between words and images in order to make them rich with meaning. The shorter such poems are, the harder they are to write. We know from experience the impact a line of poetry can have, the miraculous way in which two selves unknown to each other until that very moment come to share not only an understanding but a single imaginative space. In no time at all, cultural and historical differences are abolished and a poem written almost three thousand years ago comes to life on a page. Nowhere else in literature does one find the experience of living in the moment so vividly rendered as in lyric poetry. Despite seemingly infinite odds, somebody’s private sentiments continue to enthrall generations of future readers. And yet, every time we read a poem, this is more or less what happens.

Louise Glück writes out of that tradition. The poems in Firstborn (1968), her first collection of poetry, are spare, intense, introspective, hermetic, and dark. Her models have been well disguised; it is hard to know precisely who influenced her, although she has clearly read a great deal of poetry, including some of her Surrealist contemporaries. Far more so than in her later books, she’s after startling images: “Beans sour in their pot. I watch the lone onion/Floating like Ophelia,” she writes in the title poem. In another one, the sunset leaks like blood from a steak. The range of styles, too, is more varied than is usually the case with her. Each of Glück’s other collections tends to be in a single voice, each poem composed in similar manner to emphasize the unity of subject matter and vision. Nonetheless, many of her obsessions are already present in her first collection. There are childhood memories, bits about her parents and her lovers, and a number of poems in a voice other than her own. Notwithstanding some awkward writing, Firstborn is still a strong book, though not as indelible as her next one.

If anything, her vision is even darker in The House on Marshland (1975), but the poems that come out of it are quite unlike anything in American poetry. In Glück’s world, the separation between the external and internal reality becomes so blurred that one is often not sure which is which. She makes everything both familiar and odd. We have no idea where any of it is happening and it doesn’t matter in the least. The feeling of dread is pervasive; not fear, because fear always has a definite object that is feared, but a kind of vague metaphysical horror that Sylvia Plath was familiar with and for which there’s no cure. Dread individualizes. In The House on Marshland we are in the presence of an imagination we have not encountered before. It’s as if every inanimate and living thing for her was a dark mirror where one discovers reflections of oneself and remainders of one’s dreams.

THE POND

Night covers the pond with its wing.
Under the ringed moon I can make out
your face swimming among minnows and the small
echoing stars. In the night air
the surface of the pond is metal.
Within, your eyes are open. They contain
a memory I recognize, as though
we had been children together. Our ponies
grazed on the hill, they were gray
with white markings. Now they graze
with the dead who wait
like children under their granite breastplates,
lucid and helpless:

The hills are far away. They rise up
blacker than childhood.
What do you think of, lying so quietly
by the water? When you look that way I want
to touch you, but do not, seeing
as in another life we were of the same blood.

This poem reads like a reverie upon a reverie. Like other poems in the book, it reminds me a bit of Georg Trakl, the Austrian expressionist poet whose work was first being translated in the 1960s by Robert Bly and James Wright, and which Glück must have read. Each one of Trakl’s poems is like a bad dream, a shadowy, self-enclosed world of troubling images. It is always the dark night of the soul with him, except it is not God that is the cause of his worry, but his sexual desire for his sister. Ambiguity is a deliberate strategy in both poets. So much is left out; it makes the poem almost entirely a transaction below the level of consciousness. As Glück says in “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” an essay about the kind of poetry she admires:

I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied; another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.

Mallarmé would have no difficulty understanding this; nor would any other nineteenth-century French Symbolist poet. Even her frequent use of themes from Greek mythology and her habit of often addressing the reader in the voice of one of its heroines would have been familiar. Her next two books, Descending Figure (1980) and The Triumph of Achilles (1985), are in a similar vein. Glück writes poetry about our inability to forget our earliest experiences. Childhood, love, marriage, solitude, and the death of siblings and parents are her constant preoccupation. However, the voice that tells us about these things remains nameless and the specifics of her predicament are left vague. She is mourning—but what for? Is the cause of sorrow the sister who died before she was born, and whose absence she felt growing up? “The context/of truth is darkness,” she writes. “Are you taken in/by lights, by illusions?” All important things for her bear the sign of death. The lyric moment for Glück is tied to the passage of time and a sense of irretrievable loss of something one can’t name.

THE WANDERER

At twilight I went into the street.
The sun hung low in the iron sky,
ringed with cold plumage.
If I could write to you
about this emptiness—
Along the curb, groups of children
were playing in the dry leaves.
Long ago, at this hour, my mother stood
At the lawn’s edge, holding my little sister.
Everyone was gone; I was playing
in the dark street with my other sister,
whom death had made so lonely.
Night after night we watched the screened porch
filling with a gold, magnetic light.
Why was she never called?
Often I would let my own name glide past me
though I craved its protection.

Both books have stunning poems. Some of the best known among them, “Drowned Children,” “Happiness,” “Rosy,” “The Gift,” “Mock Orange,” “Metamorphosis,” “Seated Figure,” “Hyacinth,” “Triumph of Achilles,” and “Horse,” are works of the highest poetic art. Surprisingly, there are also a number of poems that fail, sound flat, and are unfocused and obscure. Self-absorption is one of the risks of the kind of lyric Glück writes. She admits as much: “The world is complete without us. Intolerable fact. To which the poet responds by rebelling, wanting to prove otherwise.” Glück is always watching herself, even while lying in the arms of a lover. That extraordinary self-consciousness and the need to overdramatize her experience are clearly the source of both the power and the weakness of some of her poems. We can put up with someone’s narcissism providing it makes interesting reading and it doesn’t run on too long.

Her next four books, Ararat (1990), The Wild Iris (1992), Meadowlands(1996), and Vita Nova (1999), are different. The poems are plainer, more overtly personal, much more accessible, and at times amazingly eloquent. Ararat is a book about the myth of a happy family; the Pulitzer Prize–winning Wild Iris is a chronicle of a garden she grew one summer in Vermont; Meadowlands draws on the tale of Ulysses, Penelope, and Telemachus to tell about the breakdown of her marriage; and Vita Nova describes her life after the divorce. For me, Glück’s reliance on Greek myth to give the incidents in her life greater importance is not always a good idea. I find myself unable to believe that Dido, Aeneas, Daphne, Apollo, and the rest of that mythological cast of characters can explain her or anyone’s troubles today. Glück’s tragic sense of life is genuine and doesn’t require Homer or Virgil to prop it up, as we shall see in the poem that follows. It tells of two friends, one of whom believes in God and one who doesn’t, and their different ways of experiencing the same reality.

CELESTIAL MUSIC

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth, she’s unusually competent.
Brave, too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I’m always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality.
But timid, also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
according to nature. For my sake, she intervened,
brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to god, that nothing else explains
my aversion to reality. She says I’m like the child who buries her head in the pillow
so as not to see, the child who tells herself
that light causes sadness—
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
to wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person—

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We’re walking
on the same road, except it’s winter now;
she’s telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height—
Then I’m afraid for her; I see her
caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth—

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It’s this moment we’re both trying to explain, the fact
that we’re at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.
She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image
capable of life apart from her.
We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, the composition
fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering—
it’s this stillness that we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

This is magnificent poetry, deeply moving and wise. The love of form is the acceptance of mortality. Lyric poetry—and her poetry above all—cannot be understood without fully grasping what that means. Glück makes a choice; she chooses knowledge over solace. In other words, you can have your faith; I prefer the turmoil of my unbelieving mind. Emily Dickinson did too. Death kept her intellect company. No ideas for either one of them without the acute consciousness of fatality. If poetry is knowledge, it is a forbidden one. These are not the kind of thoughts Mommy and Daddy are thinking as they sit in the parlor. The clearheaded are lonely. As for torments of self-doubt, could there be Art without it? Well, yes, surely, but not the kind that would have any meaning to Emily Dickinson and Louise Glück.

The poems in The Wild Iris can be seen as the continuation of the debate between the two friends in “Celestial Music.” A woman plants a garden in late spring, watches the flowers grow and blossom and then wither as the summer comes to an end. She is to her flowers what God is to humans. The individual flowers are given voices; they each have their story and their poem. They recount to her their short lives. God, too, speaks, but discloses virtually nothing. There are also seven poems entitled “Matins” and ten poems entitled “Vespers,” which evoke the spirit of the first and the sixth of the canonical hours devoted to prayer. For me, The Wild Iris is the most imaginative and moving of her books. The rich symbolic connotations of the garden, the flowers themselves, and the couple who tend them are not imposed on the poems; they are inevitably present in the material. Glück is a careful reporter who notes what happens from day to day in the garden and the eulogist of their fleeting beauty.

THE WHITE LILIES

As a man and woman make
a garden between them like
a bed of stars, here
they linger in the summer evening
and the evening turns
cold with their terror: it
could all end, it is capable
of devastation. All, all
can be lost, through scented air
the narrow columns
uselessly rising, and beyond,
a churning sea of poppies—
Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.

Human beings must be taught to love/silence and darkness,” she writes in another poem. It’s advice she is not able to follow. What she hungers for, as she tells us in her next book, The Seven Ages (2001), is not experience but understanding. All our lives we feel, but do not understand. Knowledge, she claims, may feed us, but it is bound to ravish us in the end. Without the concrete reality of the garden, her philosophical musings in The Seven Ages too often lack a credible occasion. Glück wants her poems to deliver a fair amount of wisdom. When they do, they are unforgettable; when they miss they sound like this:

I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a great queen or saint.

Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply
trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—

What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?

These four stanzas come from a poem entitled “The Empty Glass.” They are full of clichés and banal phrases. Unfortunately, there are other examples of botched rhetoric in the book among a number of otherwise fine poems. I like “Solstice,” “The Balcony,” “Decade,” “Fable,” “Summer Night,” and “The Destination.” The ones that fail have another problem besides language. They lack Glück’s usual formal tightness and tend to sprawl on the page and feel overwritten.

Not so in the new collection. Averno has only eighteen poems. They are linked within the book and six of them have multiple parts, some of them whole poems, some of them fragments that read like notations in a diary. “What is the soul?” one of them asks. The answer: “A flag flown too high on the pole.” Such momentous questions are posed frequently. Glück wonders in a poem whether there is any benefit in forcing upon oneself the realization that one must die and in the process miss out on life. Whatever the answer to that one, some of the most satisfying entries consist of brief little poems like this one:

It is coming back to me.

Pear tree. Apple tree.

I used to sit there
pulling arrows out of my heart.

I forget who said that in reading any poem we have to know at least two languages: the language the poet is writing and the language of poetry itself. This is very much true of Glück. She writes in an idiom that is as old as literature. Night sky, in a poem we are about to read, has been a classroom for lyric poets at least since Sappho. There’s no teacher; only a single student alone with the blackboard. It is an entranced moment that calls for exalted lyricism, at the very same time that words seem inadequate to describe what one feels. If they should rise to eloquence nevertheless, it will be the eloquence of the defeated: those who speak knowing they cannot properly convey their state of mind. Every lyric poet is a mystic in search of that one missing word. We accept the convention, believe in it wholeheartedly, if we love poetry, and don’t mind hearing the same poem again and again.

THE EVENING STAR

Tonight, for the first time in many years,
there appeared to me again
a vision of the earth’s splendor:
in the evening sky
the first star seemed
to increase in brilliance
as the earth darkened
until at last it could grow no darker.
And the light, which was the light of death,
seemed to restore to earth
its power to console. There were
no other stars. Only the one
whose name I knew
as in my other life I did her
injury: Venus,
star of the early evening,
to you I dedicate
my vision, since on this blank surface
you have cast enough light
to make my thought
visible again.

This is Persephone speaking. Once again in Averno, Glück uses a Greek myth, in this case the story of a daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Persephone was a beautiful young woman everyone was in love with, including Hades. One day, when she was picking flowers in a meadow below Etna, the earth opened under her feet and she was abducted by the lord of the dead. Her mother was so angry that she withdrew into solitude and the land ceased to bear fruit. With the onset of famine, Zeus sent Hermes to Hades to make him release Persephone. The god grudgingly agreed, but before she went back he gave her three seeds of a pomegranate. When forgetting herself she ate them, their bittersweet taste bound her like a memory to the underworld forever and she had to go back there for half the year. When her daughter was in hell, Demeter refused to let anything grow and winter reigned over the earth. Glück says the original myth ought to be read as an argument between the mother and the lover, the daughter being just meat. Everything is being decided for her by fates. Glück reverses that subservient role and makes her the center of the drama.

The mask of Persephone works better for Glück than do some of the other personas she has borrowed from mythology. For once, she doesn’t try to make the identification too close. The myth of innocence, the complicity of death and love, and even the notion of spending a season in hell are all archetypes we can sympathize with. What was it like to lie in bed with Hades surrounded by corpses? What was on Persephone’s mind? Was she afraid? What did they talk about while the damned writhed around them in their torments? We regard Greek myths as belonging to the past. Not Glück. Time—or rather history—means little to her. She is not a poet of four-lane highways, crowded city streets, late-night grocery stores, and women who work there. Although there’s a scene on the subway in one of the poems in Averno, Persephone, like most of the tragic heroines in her other books, does not live in a particularly recognizable historical setting. This is Glück’s defense:

The impulse of our century has been to substitute earth for god as an object of reverence. This seems an implicit rejection of the eternal. But the religious mind, with its hunger for meaning and disposition to awe, its craving for the path, the continuum, the unbroken line, for what is final, immutable, cannot sustain itself on matter and natural process. It feels misled by matter; as for the anecdotes of natural process, these it transforms to myth.

When Glück was a child, she tells us in the poem “Prism,” she suffered from insomnia. On summer nights, her parents permitted her to sit by the lake. She took a dog for company, sat in darkness and silence. Averno, the title of the new book, is the small crater lake near Naples which the ancient Romans regarded as the entrance to the underworld. Glück never misses such connections. In her childhood memory, she sits listening to the soothing, inhuman sound of water lapping the dock. My parents, she writes, could not see the light in my head. Her poems, one comes to realize with her tenth collection, are part of a continuous narrative, an attempt to give voice to certain decisive moments in her life. What impresses me about her work is the moral passion, her stubborn conviction that poetry can lead to truth, not just the truth of one’s own life, but also that other one, which mystics and philosophers have been after. The true subject of Averno and most of Glück’s other books, one comes to realize, is the soul’s journey. As for her poetry, it continues to surprise and be beautiful.

The sun is setting behind the mountains,
the earth is cooling.
A stranger has tied his horse to a bare chestnut tree.
The horse is quiet—he turns his head suddenly,
hearing, in the distance, the sound of the sea.
I make my bed for the night here,
spreading my heaviest quilt over the damp earth.
The sound of the sea—
when the horse turns its head, I can hear it.
On a path through the bare chestnut trees,
a little dog trails its master.
The little dog—didn’t he used to rush ahead,
straining the leash, as though to show his master
what he sees there, there in the future—
the future, the path, call it what you will….

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