The website of the Nobel Prize Committee describes Louise Glück’s poetry as “free of poetic formalities” and notable, by contrast, for its use of “daily spoken language.” This has the distinction and utility of being almost exactly wrong. Rather, Glück subjects conventional poetic tropes to a rigorous process of abstraction until they become close to indistinguishable from everyday speech. Behind each modest “you” looms a ceremonial “thou”; the oracular glows inside the ordinary.
A good analogue might be Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, which, if you’ve never seen it, is exactly what it sounds like. In 1953 Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning, an artist he greatly admired, for a piece of work he could subject to an ambiguous process of effacement and defacement. To his credit de Kooning agreed. The final product, mounted inside a golden frame, looks from one angle like no more than a smudged and dirty piece of paper. From another, it looks like the Veil of Veronica, a relic of incalculable price. Although it invites allegations of nihilism or trolling, Rauschenberg was emphatic that his de Kooning was meant in good faith. “It’s not a negation,” he insisted, “it’s a celebration.”
In Winter Recipes from the Collective, Glück’s first volume of poems since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020, her own instincts for erasure are in full swing. This is an intensely technical book and a work of extreme concision, in which complicated feelings have been pared down to their minimum and a life’s worth of experience reduced to strange, sometimes tender and sometimes ominous detail. What we have here are less the recipes of the title than a demonstration of Glück’s knife skills. These have been used to shave the poems tissue-thin and, behind each one, another, more conventional poem is just barely visible. Familiar tropes are treated to an experimental expunction, and in the process Glück finds a way to write and think that seems, or so she suggests, best suited to her subjects: old age, obsolescence, and how to live toward dying.
Resistance to Glück is a real thing; her poems even seem to encourage it. They are frequently aloof and always unbiddable. As Helen Vendler puts it, Glück likes to make “inflexible statement[s]” in situations where other poets would use the suppliant tones of “protest, plea, confiding, intercession, and defense.” Her love poems are brusque, her poems about children icy and odd. Now, at nearly eighty years old, she is as indifferent to the demand to make nice as she was in 1968, the year her first collection was published.
Adjectives typically assigned to Glück’s work include terse, harsh, austere, severe, unyielding, cold. They are sometimes appropriate and also hard to separate from threadbare but nonetheless durable ideas about how women ought to write and how they ought to be. If Glück is vulnerable, it’s not for you; if she is soft, it’s not for long. She never quite gives us what Sylvia Plath called (with no little self-contempt) “the big strip tease” of traumatic revelation and seems mortified by the idea of playing to the crowd. Not surprisingly, this apparent indifference to being liked has been met with both admiration and disdain. Vendler has said that she “exerts a clear sovereignty that attracts our assent rather than inquiry”; even at her most dejected she, like Shakespeare’s Cordelia, will never heave her heart all the way into her mouth. By contrast, critics without sympathy for this sort of performance have accused Glück of a standoffish self-obsession, a lack of interest in making the reader feel at home in her private domain.
Glück is fond of describing herself as “private.” But if she is personally shy (which is her own business) her poems make no such apologies for their tendency to retreat or withhold. Rather, they express their author’s nonnegotiable desire to dictate the exact terms on which she is seen, even when she’s knee-deep in what she calls “our important suffering.” The outrageous, unbearable indignities that follow from living intimately with others, in small rooms and behind closed doors, are manageable to her just to the extent that they can be given a form that contains them. Writing seems to offer an implicit redress to the wounds of first-person life, sustained most grievously in childhood and then, later, in adult relationships—marriage and infidelity are common themes in her poems. “There is always something,” she observes in The House on Marshland (1975), “to be made of pain.”
So what happens when a poet of this sort arrives at an advanced age, when the domestic trials of growing up, figuring out sex, raising children, and getting divorced are long in the rearview mirror and even the world’s most enormous problems seem diminished, not because they’re not real but because one can do no more about them? For starters, she wastes no breath. Winter Recipes from the Collective is a short book, fifteen poems on forty pages. Most of those poems have short lines—five words, ten, rarely more—and use words of one or two syllables: “Halfway through the sentence/she fell asleep”; “Along the path, there were/things that had died along the way—”; “How heavy my mind is,/filled with the past.” There is a great deal of white space around the poems and within them, as if to suggest an absence of normal activity that is both foreboding and a relief.
It suggests, too, that aging bodies do not need aging forms, that conventional means of poetic self-expression aren’t a match for the difficult condition of being close to death. We get glimmers and glimpses of a lyric mode—emotionally intense, dreamy, a bit sentimental—as it fades out of view, a souvenir of other days but no longer of much use. In the first poem, impatiently called “Poem,” stock images and graceful rhythms give way first to satire and then to a profound, restless sadness:
Day and night come
hand in hand like a boy and a girl
pausing only to eat wild berries out of a dish
painted with pictures of birds.
They climb the high ice-covered mountain,
then they fly away. But you and I
don’t do such things—
We climb the same mountain;
I say a prayer for the wind to lift us
but it does no good;
you hide your head so as not
to see the end—
Glück opens with mock solemnity and perhaps a dash of self-criticism. For all its hard edges and emotional inclemency, her poetry has always been loaded with symbols of bourgeois comfort: big houses, soft beds, nice plates, a garden of one’s own. Her 1980 volume, Descending Figure, contains a poem actually called “Porcelain Bowl,” in which a woman “in a lawn chair” is compared to flatware so precious it “rules out use.”
In “Poem,” however, the painted dish belongs to the realm of bygone pleasures, along with the fairy-tale twosome—the boy and girl—who haven’t yet discovered any limits to their movements or needs. This in contrast to the speaker and her addressee, the “you” Glück invokes using the distinguished poetic figure of apostrophe, a remark to some second-person presence who cannot or will not respond. Apostrophe is one of the most recognizable features of lyric poetry, a device for enhancing its sense of intimate urgency. Here, however, it is used to tug the poem earthward. Glück’s “you and I” don’t march to the portentous beat of those opening lines and they are no longer children. They tire easily, they need to be sung to “as mother sang” to them and not to hear—much less compose—the song of poetic artifice or effusion.
This kind of thing happens so often in the book as to suggest a pattern. A poem opens with intimations of something familiar—day and night, boy and girl, berries and birds—only to turn briskly on its heels toward the offbeat, unsettling, or else weirdly mundane. The fourth section of the title poem begins, “It was as dark as it would ever be,” a line of perfect iambic pentameter that quickly goes to seed, the quintessential form of English verse falling away as the drama and romance of a December morning vanish in the light of a kitchen where “sandwiches were being wrapped for market.” “Night Thoughts,” which borrows its name from Edward Young’s dense and loopy mid-eighteenth-century poem, kicks off in the romantic language of once upon a time—“Long ago I was born”—before segueing abruptly to a discussion of colicky babies, finally rounding off as Glück describes her adult self as “robust but sour,/like an alarm clock.”
Old age, Glück suggests, goes hand in hand with the quotidian. It is plainspoken and would even be dull, if it weren’t necessarily accompanied by the most extreme sorts of experience a person can have. Death is everywhere in this book but so is the threat of bodily and cognitive disintegration. Sometimes, these inevitabilities are greeted with waggish humor. This is especially true when Glück summons a character referred to only as “my sister,” who says things like “Say goodbye to standing up” or, hilariously, that life
is like a torch passed now
from the body to the mind.
Sadly…the mind is not
there to receive it.
Both Glück’s younger sister, Tereze, who died in 2018, and an elder sister, who died before Glück was born, have made frequent appearances in her work, but whereas in the past she’s been careful to make clear which one she means—“Father has his arm around Tereze./She squints” or “Nothing’s sadder than my sister’s grave/unless it’s the grave of my cousin, next to her”—here she introduces an ambiguity that heightens the book’s dreamlike and even hallucinatory atmosphere. Maybe these poems record conversations that did happen or could have happened, conversations with a sibling who “remember[s]/running around the park in Cedarhurst.” Maybe they are imaginary dialogues with a ghost never known in life. Maybe these sorts of distinctions are no longer important; maybe they can no longer be made.
Winter Recipes from the Collective runs low on proper names, and when they appear they seem arbitrary: Cedarhurst, Pontiac, Freud, Aunt Posy, and Leo Cruz, with whom Glück “make[s] plans/to walk the trails” knowing they’ll do no such thing. (“Never again:/that is what we do not say.”) Nonetheless, the book has a small cast of characters who, like “my sister,” are spoken of in general terms as “my friend,” “my neighbor,” “my teacher,” and, of course, “the old.” As these catchall descriptions might suggest, Glück’s speaker often struggles to remember the content and quality of her closest relationships. In the unsettling “An Endless Story,” a group of people gathers around the bed of a dying woman referred to only as “she,” who loses consciousness while telling a story about “a young girl who wakens one morning/as a bird.” Contemplating one of the men next to her, the speaker notices that “something…existed between us,/nothing so final as a baby,/but real nevertheless.” Whatever it was, she can’t seem to place it, and the poem ends by defining love as something located in an unrecoverable past, “if by love we mean the way we loved when we were young,/as though there were no time at all.”
We all know people who are unusually anxious about getting older. Winter Recipes from the Collective seems designed alternately to terrorize them and to tweak their noses. It contains several vivid images of bodies not just decaying but nullified, their limbs “a deserted hive,” and recurs again and again to the ever more frightening perils of senility. “Old people…burn their houses down,” warns that straight-talking sister, while perhaps in reference to that same sibling “Afternoons and Early Evenings” recalls:
The beautiful golden days when you were soon to be dying
but could still enter into random conversations with strangers,
random but also deliberate, so impressions of the world
were still forming and changing you,
and the city was at its most radiant, uncrowded in summer
though by then everything was happening more slowly—
“Where did you go next,” the poem wonders at its close, “after those days,/where although you could not speak you were not lost?” Losing a grip on language appears, understandably, as a very specific fear for the poet. To my mind, what’s most daunting about this book is that everyone in it is tired.
The end of “Afternoons and Early Evenings” contains a faint but suggestive echo of the last line of John Milton’s sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” which Glück discusses at some length in her 1993 essay “Against Sincerity.” Milton’s poem was written in the 1650s, after its author had gone completely blind but before he had composed his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, and it expresses anxiety about what he presents as his lackluster literary output. (He had already written, among other things, “Lycidas,” Comus, and the celebrated polemic Areopagitica.) Ultimately, Milton is comforted by the allegorical figure of Patience, who reassures him that God needs neither his contributions to the world nor anyone else’s. Besides, Patience adds, “they also serve who only stand and wait.” The effect, Glück writes, is to still “the petulant questioner” and provide “a glimpse of insight, a directive.” At the very least, Patience “corrects a presumption,” namely that the best Milton can offer is his poetry, when all God wants is his composure and endurance.
In Glück’s poem, the midlife crisis is exchanged for an end-of-life act of witnessing, for being present in the moment when someone’s light is not just spent but nearly out. The comfort of knowing that standing and waiting is also a form of service is supplanted by the frustration and perhaps the terror of being conscious without being able to talk. Things may have felt bad then to Milton, Glück seems to say, but he was still inside an “also”; “Loss makes his starting place,” as she put it in her essay, but it is a starting place and not the last word. By contrast, the unidentified addressee of “Afternoons and Early Evenings” can be at best compos mentis, of sound mind but just barely able to prove it. There is no encouragement or consolation here, only the question posed by those who remain behind, standing and waiting for their own time to come.
All of this must sound very grim. And yet, for all the losses “piling up,” the comedy here is conspicuous. In “Winter Journey,” a poem set in a nursing home, Glück suddenly announces, “We were having a fine time getting old” and even seems partly to mean it. Old age brings its infirmities, but it has also brought Glück a surprising sociability. This is, after all, a book bequeathed both from and to the collective. Famously, we all die alone. But as for those days when we are “soon to be dying,” Glück discovers in them the companionship of others, from talkative strangers to friends we remember we love even when we can’t always remember their names.