by Joseph Campana
from The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2014
Who imagines, at the beginning of a life, fifty years of published work? I have neither fifty years of writing nor fifty years on the planet, so I marvel at Louise Glück's Poems, 1962-2012. I've been reading her poetry for a mere twenty of those years.
I met Glück for the first time when I was barely nineteen. Now thirty-nine, I try to remember that initial tongue-tied encounter in a bookstore in Williamstown, just after I had arrived at college and some months after The Wild Iris was published. A high-school teacher told me, as I prepared to leave home, "You must read The Wild Iris. You must take a class with Louise Glück, and you must have her sign my copy." I barely managed to say anything that day in the bookstore besides, "Could you sign this?"
In the two decades of our sometimes sporadic, sometimes frequent contact since, we've spoken, mostly, of everything but her poetry. In most respects, and in spite of that contact, I have always approached her poems as if I were a stranger to them. "And as a stranger," Hamlet instructs Horatio about the as-yet-unidentified ghost, "give it welcome." What follows is an attempt to think about fifty years, to welcome a body of work that has haunted me as a familiar stranger, and to see in it the contours of myths that more powerfully inform my sense of these poems than does my acquaintance with their author.
To aid in this task, I enlist some trees. But first, myth.
The poems of Louise Glück are laserlike, but as central to them as the oracular voice and the mind that slices through the world is a landscape of myth. What is myth? Perhaps it is what happens when you look at your own life as if you were a stranger to it and so reveal the essence beneath the siren song of particularity. Or perhaps it's what happens when you treat the supreme generalities, the patterns of legendary life (Christ, David, Goliath, Daphne, Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, Persephone, etc.) as if they could be inhabited in all the particularity of the quotidian. Myths explain, console, and terrify, often in equal and simultaneous measures. As someone who dog-eared and eventually destroyed my hometown library's copy of d'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths through frequent consultation, I understand that appeal. And yet before Achilles, Odysseus, or Penelope strut and fret their hour on the pages of Glück's poetry, a more primal myth emerges. Firstborn, in its particular world of abortion, debasement, fickle love, and broken promises, addresses the myth of creation.
Glück's oeuvre opens with a kind of rebellion against the threat of life. Grotesque, despoiled, and likely to begin or end prematurely, life pulses hauntingly: It will let no one be. To ride "The Chicago Train" is to be swallowed by the press of people and imbibe "The poison/ That replaces air." The collection, dominated by images of abortion, continues in "The Egg" to find incipient life repulsive. A doctor catches "pieces of the baby," and an extended description of fish crystallizes that revulsion:
Without fins, the bare
Households of their skulls
Still fixed, piling
With the other waste.
Life is not merely the flower rising from the soil but the worm churning the dirt and all other manner of creeping things both feeding on and feeding the decay that nourishes life. Unbearable life, the web in which we are caught, is the force against which the poet rebels.
Hence "Cottonmouth Country," perhaps the lyric from Firstborn most easily anthologized. "Fish bones" witness the seashore "off Hatteras" as a repository of water. But it is "among the pines" where the titular snake "reared in the polluted air." If "birth, not death is the hard loss," would that explain the casual presence of death in Firstborn? What do the pines whisper? This is creation: Death makes life. It is not the other way around.
The House on Marshland (1975)
Myth makes a world, a landscape littered with narratives crystallized as rocks, rivers, and trees. Why a tree? "The soul creeps out of the tree" in the opening poem of The House on Marshland, "All Hallows." A "landscape is assembling" around the tree: a figure of life, an analogical parallel to the human body with its limbs and its seeming singularity, a source of shelter and nourishment, guarantor of growth and signature of the winnowing that follows harvest. Aristotle imagined a tripartite soul: vegetative, animal, and rational. The vegetative soul concerned nutritive functions and was the only soul trees possessed. You might think otherwise reading The House on Marshland. All the important figures seem to be trees. Then again, it is "All Hallows": the time when the tenuous border between living and dead grows whisper thin. And once the soul creeps out, trees proliferate in this book: "The Shad-blow Tree," "Japonica," "Flowering Plum," and "The Apple Trees." What is a tree? It is life flowering into lifeless matter. A source of form, a source of generation, and that which we fantasize is so readily shaped by the hand.
Descending Figure (1980)
Not just trees, but gardens and flowers. You can almost feel them in the grain of the paper on which Glück's poems are printed. What's the promise of a garden? The myth of union. In "The Garden" the world is made for humans and woos them with its beauty:
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.
The garden is where lovers come to see if they are one. Is union possible? Hard to imagine when the self is not even at home in its own flesh. "Dedication to Hunger" famously draws together the impulses of the anorexic with the practice of poetry, a "dedication to hunger." Hunger, one "premise of renunciation" of many in Descending Figure, is a tool wielded against:
the interfering flesh
that I would sacrifice
until the limbs were free
of blossom and subterfuge.
It's the desire to shape that does us all in, is it not? We imagine we can carve back the lush profusion of the world around us, and since we are part of that world we can carve away at ourselves as well. Blossom and subterfuge: the proliferation of life, the incipience of sexuality and growth. To renounce them is to shave beauty from the tree.
The Triumph of Achilles (1985)
The idea infuriates, that the desire for union-of body and soul, body and earth, parent and child, lover and beloved-should have such allure when experience tells us otherwise. Blame Plato, if you like. Glück opens Ararat with an epigraph from the Greek philosopher who describes love as "the desire and pursuit of the whole." But "Mock Orange", the first poem in The Triumph of Achilles, offers an anthem of disenchantment. It is here, and in The Wild Iris, that the sourest notes are sounded about a contract between humans and the natural world. "Mock Orange" infuriates because it entices with pleasures unprovided. These are not real oranges but floral allure lacking fruit. Marriage, too, is an ideal, while sex is a "low, humiliating/ premise of union." The flower is the problem, just as it is in "Hyacinth," which attends to the story of the Greek boy whose death and subsequent transformation brought into existence the flower of that name. Union between man and woman may be low and humiliating in "Mock Orange," but The Triumph of Achilles explores apparently ideal relations between men, as in "Hyacinth" and the title poem. Yet these too come to tragic ends. "Hyacinth" requires violence: "Beauty dies: that is the source/ of creation," and in "The Triumph of Achilles" the capacity for love and the inevitability of mortality are one. After the death of Patroclus, Achilles "was a man already dead, a victim/ of the part that loved,/ the part that was mortal."
The myth of union provokes, frustrates, and incites despair. No solution emerges to its pernicious allure. As a consequence, articulations of the impossible find their greatest eloquence. Is there a poem in this book sharper and more distilled than "Elms"?
All day I tried to distinguish
need from desire. Now, in the dark,
I feel only bitter sadness for us,
the builders, the planers of wood,
because I have been looking
steadily at these elms
and seen the process that creates
the writhing, stationary tree
is torment, and have understood
it will make no forms but twisted forms.
Wood and words. Poets may be makers who build shapes to capture the world, but some things cannot be planed straight. Take need and desire, indistinguishable in all but the most extreme of circumstances. Like the tree, the poet ends with twisted forms no matter how sharp, no matter how strict the line.
In "Celestial Music," near the end of Ararat, the speaker has a friend who sees the world differently. She "still believes in heaven" and "talks to god," whereas the speaker does not hear celestial music or see anything miraculous when she looks up to heaven. She sees "only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees/ like brides leaping to a great height." Another promise of union too far away to reach. At the final line, as the two halves of the self the friends represent—one credulous, one skeptical—sit side by side, they agree on one point: "it's this stillness that we both love.! The love of form is a love of endings." The world opens, the world closes. Two halves of the same being find union, closed form, but with it death. If the death of beauty is "the source/ of creation," form is the beauty of death.
The Wild Iris (1992)
Back to the garden. For me, back to my first experience of this body of work. In Glück's garden, everything speaks: the flowers and even the trees. What I've always found most compelling, however, are the things the gardener says to the trees. In an early "Matins," she imagines herself "passionately/ attached to the living tree," her "body/ actually curled in the split trunk." It's hard not to think of the terrifying image of Shakespeare's Ariel trapped inside a tree by the witch Sycorax in The Tempest. Here, however, the terror of enclosure is redeemed by the security of emotional identification and the idea that the human might shelter in arboreal limbs.
Later, in another "Matins," the poet discovers the limits of dialogue with God and with trees: "I see it is with you as with the birches: I am not to speak to you/ in the personal way." In an age in which poets are not prone to address either divinity or nature, the speaker invokes a "former life":
bury me with the Romantics,
their pointed yellow leaves
falling and covering me.
But the idea of erotic union, so tainted with failure in "Mock Orange," seems almost redeemed in The Wild Iris. The lovers in "The White Lilies" "make/ a garden between them like/ a bed of stars." The prospect of loss is redeemed by the image of planting: "I felt your two hands/ bury me to release its splendor." Trees, and plants more generally, live cyclically: dying away and raging back to life. No wonder it is a comfort being buried under those leaves.
Where is the tree in Meadowlands? Is it the bed of Penelope and Odysseus that is unmovable, unbreakable, and the final sign Penelope needs before she believes the stranger in her home is in fact the husband who has been absent for twenty years? Laboriously and ingeniously, Odysseus crafted this bed from a living olive tree. Though that particular tree does not appear in Meadowlands, others abound, like the spruce in "Penelope's Song" that offers the soul a high vantage point, a secure location as "a sentry or look-out." Protection, not union, is what the tree offers in a book witnessing a full-scale war between myths of love and union and their grittier realities in a contemporary marriage. This is the split "Ithaca" understands so well:
The beloved doesn't
need to live. The beloved
lives in the head. The loom
is for the suitors, strung up
like a harp with white shroud-thread.
What is myth? The theater of desire, flickering on the screen of the mind. It is sufficient unto itself and renders the real superfluous. It's notable that the first and perhaps the most potent poem in Meadowlands disavows the real to such a degree that Glück is at pains to admit the unfortunate unmentionables of a relationship falling apart: "You have not been completely/ perfect either," the poet reminds herself, "with your troublesome body/ you have done things you shouldn't/ discuss in poems." But the lover no longer needs the beloved. Meadowlands includes the great moment of homecoming, the nostos, but in Glück's "Nostos," which takes place beneath "an apple tree in the yard," the beloved is irrelevant. Instead, myth takes over:
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth.
Vita Nova (1999)
Perhaps I imagine the tree behind the loom in "Ithaca," but I see another network of images accrue in these later books. Harp, lute, loom: all figures of making, all framed by trees. "I made a harp of disaster/ to perpetuate the beauty of my last love," Glück admits in "Lute Song." Hence the appearance of Orpheus and Eurydice, who play starring roles in a story about the attempt to undo death. These mythic lovers enact a tragedy of impatience, hesitation, and ultimately, supreme bad timing. But the poet is always the poet, even before anyone dies. "Lament" speaks of the attachment to loss that precedes its actual occurrence:
A terrible thing is happening—my love
is dying again, my love who has died already:
died and been mourned. And music continues,
music of separation: the trees
Willows appear in "Lament," appropriately enough. Song is the sound of mourning passing through tree branches. Orpheus was the poet who moved nature with the sheer force of song, but Glück's eye is on the poet ready to descend to the underworld. Vita Nova begins to focus our attention on what seems the most final of myths, that of burial.
The Seven Ages (2001)
With burying comes unburying. The Seven Ages reaches back to the world of childhood with its reference to a speech from As You Like It that catalogs seven stages of life from infancy to old age. Yet the epigraph to the collection is a moment from The Tempest, as Prospero addresses the enslaved Caliban, saying: "Thou, earth, thou! Speak." On the tongue of Prospero, earth has a bitter taste; it is a slur. This is precisely what the title poem struggles with: "In my first dream, the world appeared/ the salt, the bitter, the forbidden, the sweet." Later, in "The Sensual World," the earth is at once irresistible and insufficient: "You will want the earth, then more of the earth—/ Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond." In The Seven Ages the poet grapples with childhood, that true moment of sight, and with the desire to love earth despite its snares and insufficiencies.
The myth of burial reaches its great crescendo in Averno, in which the story of Persephone and the landscape of her infamous abduction dominate. Persephone makes her first appearance in The House on Marshland in "Pomegranate," where Hades describes the source of the grief of Ceres as the loss not of a daughter but of an opportunity: "she is one to whom/ these depths were not offered." In Averno, a series of poems thoughtfully considers the many facets of the story of Persephone's departure and subsequent, attenuated return.
And yet the heart of the book is not in this particular story. It is, rather, in a group of longer poems built from the refractions of myth bending around the everyday: "October," "Prism," and "Fugue," each of which startles in its own way. Glück's talent for the sequence, evident at least as early as "Marathon" in The Triumph of Achilles, is often described as leading naturally to book-length projects like The Wild Iris and, some would argue, all of her subsequent works. For me, the refracted sequences of Averno are the great triumph of synthesis and evolution in Glück's later work. "October," first published as a chapbook by Sarabande Books, imagines the aftermath of catastrophe and the inevitable surprise of survival so easily embodied by vegetation:
didn't the night end, wasn't the earth
safe when it was planted
didn't we plant the seeds,
weren't we necessary to the earth,
the vines, were they harvested?
From scorched earth to seed to blossom, Glück's plants travel the way of the lotus flower, a central figure in Buddhist veneration precisely because the exquisite blooms of the lotus grow up out of the mud. Amazing to have one such poem that flowers as the totality of a career.
Even more amazing to follow this with "Prism" and "Fugue," the former titled to suggest the multifaceted and refractory and the latter less indicative of musical composition than of a dissociative state of consciousness often accompanied by lost time and wandering. In "Prism" and "Fugue" we see not the tree of the career but the scintillating light that peeks through the densely woven branches of the tree as the sun passes behind it. At once jagged and highly polished, utterly direct and deftly self-reflexive, these poems reach back to childhood not merely to unearth trauma but to understand the genesis of the need to make. The last myth is therefore not burial, nor is it final. "Fugue" shows a return of the myth of creation:
It is coming back to me.
Pear tree. Apple tree.
I used to sit there
pulling arrows out of my heart.
A Village Life (2009)
Where is the tree? In the forest, in the garden, in some green space. As much as A Village Life, replete with persona poems, invokes a vaguely Mediterranean small-town environment, Glück's latest collection is a work of pastoral. If the city is full of grime and crime, of excessive velocities and broken hopes, the green space of pastoral supposedly provides remedy. But it took the great writers of pastoral barely a verse to realize no retreat is complete. Death haunts the center of every supposed paradise. Such is the case for Glück's "Pastoral": "No one really understands/ the savagery of this place," the speaker says, "the way it kills people for no reason/ just to keep in practice." This vision of pastoral can lead to a sense of hopelessness:
But no signal from earth
will ever reach the sun.
Thrash against that fact, you are lost.
But the lesson may be, in fact, that we have all been living with death from the beginning. And is death not, after all, what provokes the urge to create and what gives shape to the made? "The world is complete without us," Glück insists in the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993. This may be, as she puts it, an "intolerable fact," but it is also a condition "to which the poet responds by rebelling, wanting to prove otherwise." Without the poet rebelling against fact, who would notice the beauty of life's limited span, its passing into image, into myth preserved as long as humans still make?
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About the Author
Joseph Campana is a poet, critic, and scholar of Renaissance literature. He is the author of The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (Fordham University Press, 2012) and two collections of poetry, The Book of Faces (Graywolf, 2005) and Natural Selections (2012), which received the Iowa Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, and many other venues. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Rice University.
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