Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Louise Glück

I've had a general thing for poetry based on mythology for years. Which sounds a little silly but we've all got our biases. I've only just gotten around to reading Louise Glück's Averno, which was given to me as a gift a couple years ago so I'm thinking about them at the moment. I don't have the energy at present to put forward anything particularly cohesive or well thought out, but I thought I'd throw out some of what I'm thinking about. In high school I was crazy about Glück's Meadowlands. Her language is very straightforward. Colloquial. Sometimes it has an image-less spareness to it.

When I was a child looking
at my parents' lives, you know
what I thought? I thought
heartbreaking. Now I think
heartbreaking, but also
insane. Also
very funny.
Some of the poems, like this one, are well-structured but don't stand on their own. It's only through the accumulation of detail that takes place over the course of the book--the poems are all connected and this is the first of seven Telemachus poems--that the poems come together. At the time, I was in the habit of scribbling the page numbers of my favorite poems at the front of the book. This was the collection that broke me of that habit. Looking back though, I find that I don't love it as much as I once did.


There was an apple tree in the yard--
this would have been
forty years ago--behind,
only meadows. Drifts
off crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor's yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from the tennis courts--
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

There's a conclusiveness to many of the poems, a finality of sorts, that I once found appealing and now find discomfiting. It seems false and easy somehow that they tie up so neatly at the end.

This isn't unique to Meadowlands by any means but it does seem less frequent in Averno. There's a more open ended feeling to the collection. The poems seem to contain no artifice--which, of course, isn't really true.

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he'd introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she'd find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn't everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn't everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That's what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there'd be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn't imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone's Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you're dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.
It's edifying, though not always particularly satisfying. One of the quotes on the back of the book is from Wayne Koestenbaum who writes, "For twenty years I have been listening to Louise Glück's poems for lessons in some of the cardinal literary virtues, which include, foremost, the shunning of virtuosity." He's not wrong, but sometimes you want a touch of that virtuosity. In denying her readers that, Glück creates a work that's difficult to read in its surface simplicity and honesty. Quite brilliant really on an intellectual level but I find that it doesn't engage me on an emotional level. Which is fine; poetry doesn't need to do that. At the same time though I feel like it's a book I can appreciate but not love.

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