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The Triumph of the Survivor

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Katherine Wolkoff
Louise Glück, Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 2012

Louise Glück’s poems tend to start up close: there is no scene-setting, no “driving to the interior” (Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase). Instead a voice addresses you from somewhere very nearby. You might find yourself, for example, in the middle of an argument. The tone is detached, frequently angry, sometimes ironic, always austere. Over fifty years and through eleven collections, her work reads like a journal, albeit one that is refined and refined to its essence. A Glück poem is determined to wrest meaning from circumstance, to force a pattern over the chaos of a lived life. (She writes, in her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993, “poems are autobiography, but divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.”)

Born in 1943, raised on Long Island, Glück published her first collection, Firstborn, in 1968. It was clear from the start that the animating drive was ressentiment, usefully defined by Nietzsche as the mode in which the ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability. Love is the obvious situation in which this arises (hence Glück is perhaps our finest poet of marital discord), but she also shows how it can extend into a working relationship with family and God and everything in between. Her sketch of William Carlos Williams is powered by a little recognition: “He took things personally: this was the glory of his work; it was also, from time to time, a limitation of character.”

Even the title “Firstborn” announces an obsession with rank, position, and marries the familial with biblical or mythical rights and curses. There is plenty to admire in its thickened language and bucking syntax. Here, in its entirety, is “Hesitate to Call”:

Lived to see you throwing
Me aside. That fought
Like netted fish inside me. Saw you throbbing
In my syrups. Saw you sleep. And lived to see
That all that all flushed down
The refuse. Done?
It lives in me.
You live in me. Malignant.
Love, you ever want me, don’t.

We are addressed, implicated, though that abbreviated voice also seems internal; the fragmentation hints at a mind trying to order itself. The metaphors for a love affair gone wrong—parasites, abortion, cancer—are so heightened that they almost overtake the poem. The tone is inimical but there is self-disgust in that “throbbing/In my syrups.” (Nothing could be less appropriate, less welcome than the epithet “syrupy.” This speaker wants to be all hard edges.)

The poem records the movement from emotional instability to regained control, but all the real work is done by syntax and the division of lines: the way the initial sentences spill over the line endings, running on before pulling themselves up short halfway through the next line—an almost nauseous rocking movement. Then the poem slows. The sentences become full units, the syntax starts to correspond with the lineation: the last three end-stopped lines are decided, definitive. A broken heart is mended sonically.

She has said that “each book I’ve written has culminated in a conscious diagnostic act, a swearing off,” and each time she has returned with a reworked style (though keeping that intense tone and spare diction) that tilts a different facet of her craft to the light. Tightening or slackening the rhythm, say, introducing questions or disruptions, cutting back on imagery. Her collections are discrete works of art, harmonic, self-enfolding: the poems reflecting back on themselves like mirrors down a hallway. After Firstborn came The House on Marshland (1975). It left behind “little bulletproof poems,” as Glück referred to them, extending her style and themes: familial tensions, especially sibling rivalry and the maternal relationship; friendship; loss and death; love, betrayal, jealousy, relations between men and women.

Glück has said that her own need to write was a consequence of living in a family that chattered over each other: she wanted to finish her own sentences. She felt silenced, and that she lacked freedom. Male dominance is found everywhere: her grandfather’s kiss to her grandmother, “clearly tender,” “might as well have been/his hand over her mouth.” (The male block on female speech recurs: in “The Reproach,” “I feel/actual flesh upon me,/meaning to silence me.” In “Mock Orange,” perhaps her most widely anthologized piece, she writes, “I hate them as I hate sex,/the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth, the man’s/paralyzing body….”)

Suffering anorexia in her teens, an attempt to claim “ownership of [her] body,” she entered psychoanalysis for seven years, which she says “taught [her] to think.” The illness seemed to foreshadow many of the preoccupations—death, control, form—of her poetry:


         I felt
what I feel now, aligning these words— it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.
(“Dedication to Hunger”)

Though Glück’s poems are inward- facing and ahistorical, her refusals are so pervasive that it is impossible not to read her work as a critique of society, of the assaults it makes on the individual, particularly on women. The speaker contends with sisterly, daughterly, wifely strictures and expectations, with the still-dominant patriarchal machine. In these contentions, Glück is radical, serious, unremitting: she is interested in truth and disruption, in breaking up the smooth continuities of a patriarchal ordered world.

“The Murderess” contrasts lust (“I tell you men/were leering to themselves”) with the historical violence done to the female (“the sun/opens to consume the Virgin on the fifteenth day”). Any deities present are also complicit. After the virgin has been sacrificed (“It was like slitting fish”), the reader learns that “God presided at her body.”

Everywhere, the relationship of “male and female” is “thrust and ache” (“Palais des Art”). It is men who have agency, the option to leave. In “The Apple Trees” her son sleeps and “already on his hand the map appears…the dead fields, women rooted to the river.”

What is the difference between men and women? Men might have, the poems say, but women know. They know, for instance, childbirth, and in Glück’s work, “birth, not death, is the hard loss.” In “All Hallows,” there is the unforgettable eerie tableau of a soul being tricked into coming down to assume material form:

And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

In a world in which daughters and wives are expected to be passive, a woman who has power, or craves it, goes against nature, is estranged. She is a conductor of forces not felt by men: she takes her strength not from the natural order but the supernatural world. She is witch or harpy or siren, given to insight, spell-casting, inflicting judgment. Glück both makes use of these tropes and undercuts them. Glück’s personas frequently seem to have special knowledge: their compensation for passivity, for being passed over, is that they are “born to a vocation:/to bear witness/to the great mysteries….”

Thus her habit of ventriloquizing historical female figures usually presented as passive: Persephone, Penelope, Abishag (who all sound, as Dan Chiasson has noted, a lot like Glück). By writing about Abishag (who was chosen to be King David’s helpmate in his old age, and whose activities extended to keeping him warm in bed), Glück rewrites Robert Frost, who in “Provide, Provide” describes Abishag from the exterior, as “the withered hag” washing the stoop, who was once “the picture pride of Hollywood.” Glück rejects the male gaze and instead goes inside: “I see myself.” Having her will subjected to men’s desires has left Abishag ruined: “No one will touch me now.” Like Cleopatra, the only suitor left to her is oblivion: “to select death, O yes I can/believe that of my body.”

Even when Glück comes up with truths on the side of life, they are shadowed. In one of my favorite lyrics, “The Undertaking,” she describes either birth or death, conflating them, just like Eliot’s Magi:

The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.
There you are—cased in clean bark you drift
Through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton.
You are free.

But freed into what? A coffin or a Moses basket? Death is a form of birth, and vice versa. Glück embodies the insight of paradoxical truths in shining language. The impossibility of easily paraphrasing many of her lyrics is the point: only in this exact language, this exact moment, does the many-edged truth hold. “The Undertaking” has, like many Glück titles, precise and various work to do: a funeral, an ending, and a binding promise, a beginning.

In 1990, Glück published Ararat, which dealt head-on with her father’s death and family relations. Elsewhere, in an essay called “Death and Absence,” Glück has written of the wound that explains some of the trauma in Ararat:

I have always been, in one way or another, obsessed with sisters, the dead and the living both. The dead sister died before I was born. Her death was not my experience, but her absence was. Her death let me be born. I saw myself as her substitute, which produced in me a profound obligation toward my mother, and a frantic desire to remedy her every distress. I took it all personally: every shadow that crossed her face proved my insufficiency; the birth of my younger sister proved this yet more concretely. At the same time, I took on the guilty responsibility of the survivor.

Ararat is a defiantly post-analysis book (her sister and she are “adults now, we’ve been analyzed”). The family is depicted pitilessly: a mother and aunt playing cards are really locked in a battle in which “you show respect by fighting.” Since the aim of the game is to discard your hand, “the one who has nothing wins.”

There is power in this work, though personally I find it too naked, too direct. The revelations are intimate, but of the speaker’s personality, and too often the poems don’t discover revelations for themselves, in their syntax or form, as before, but instead simply recount a clarity achieved in psychoanalysis:

To say I’m without fear— it wouldn’t be true.
I’m afraid of sickness, humiliation.
Like anyone, I have my dreams.
But I’ve learned to hide them,
to protect myself
from fulfillment….
(“Confession”)

Sometimes Glück uses surrogate voices to accuse herself. A friend with faith says she is 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….
(“Celestial Music”)

Glück herself acknowledges her seemingly stunted development, the inability to get beyond her own childhood. And the poems themselves are torn; is the wound a strength or limitation?

The years of analysis, particularly dream analysis, allowed Glück, she writes, to learn about “the production of images” and allowed her “to explore [their] resonances,” “to separate the shallow from the deep, and to choose the deep.” The Wild Iris, her next book, written apparently in ten feverish weeks, builds on her talent for deep metaphor. The voice is free-floating, inhabiting at turns a Glück-like speaker with husband and son, different plants, the figure of the godlike gardener. Who is the you here—a gardener, the sun, a god, a husband or partner? And who is the I—a wife, a plant, a worshiper?

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