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 …

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