Body of work Poet Louise Glück reads and dis­cusses her work, a Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Se­ries event


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Bill Kohlhaase

Why do we fol­low poets through their ca­reers? What per­sists in their work that keeps us read­ing, and what per­sonal and artis­tic evo­lu­tion can we dis­cern? Stay­ing with a poet book by book is much like fol­low­ing a mu­si­cian’s ev­ery per­for­mance, lis­ten­ing for changes in sound, in di­rec­tion, how the work ma­tures, be­comes re­fined, or changes al­to­gether. Poets, like mu­si­cians, speak to us. Be­yond the at­trac­tions of style and craft, it’s their point of view that cap­tures our de­vo­tion. We might want to iden­tify with the poet and with the po­ems, as we do the mu­si­cians and lyrics. But the best poets, Louise Glück be­ing one, make us dis­cover what we haven’t be­fore rec­og­nized as part of our­selves. We stay with them through the years, as if fol­low­ing a guide through a strange and un­fa­mil­iar land­scape, be­cause of what will be re­vealed, what might come as a sur­prise. Glück reads at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Wed­nes­day, May 11, and is joined by poet Peter Streck­fus as part of the Lan­nan Lit­er­ary Se­ries.

I don’t re­mem­ber if I, ben­e­fi­ciary of a mud­dled ed­u­ca­tion but blessed with ob­ses­sively lit­er­ate friends, was first in­tro­duced to Glück’s work or found her po­ems my­self, in that quaint form of speed- dat­ing books known as shelf-brows­ing. When I dis­cov­ered her work is also be­yond mem­ory. It was prob­a­bly shortly af­ter the re­lease of her third, breakthrough book, 1980’s De­scend­ing Fig­ure, and well be­fore her 1992 col­lec­tion Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize for Po­etry. (It’s to po­etry read­ers’ shame that it takes a Pulitzer or a Na­tional Book Award to in­tro­duce a greater pub­lic to an im­por­tant writer.) Drop­ping into her ca­reer once it was well un­der­way al­lowed me to read both back­ward and for­ward, catch­ing up as well as look­ing ahead. De­spite re­cur­ring themes and im­ages — for in­stance, she’s al­ways haunted gar­dens — no two of Glück’s books are alike. The po­ems in her col­lec­tions, gath­ered as if se­ri­al­ized, seem some­thing like a pop band’s con­cept al­bum. The more we un­der­stand of her — a col­lec­tion of prose, Proofs and The­o­ries: Es­says on Po­etry, pub­lished in 1994, helps — the more the work re­veals. Luck­ily, read­ers who dis­cov­ered her early enough have been able to keep her close for some three decades.

I was first drawn to the mu­sic of her work — its pac­ing and its glide. “Grand­mother In Her Gar­den,” from her first col­lec­tion, 1968’s First­born, sees the place where the nat­u­ral and the un­real worlds meet:

The grass be­low the wil­low Of my daugh­ter’s wash is curled With earth­worms, and the world Is mea­sured into row on row Of un­spiced houses, painted to seem real.

The wash of al­lit­er­a­tion and echo­ing vow­els — “curled,” “earth­worms,” “world” — cre­ate a melodic crescendo that in­stills ro­mance into a rather un­ro­man­tic set­ting. Glück seems es­pe­cially con­scious of si­lence, both in phras­ing and im­age. Voices seem to duel in­side her, and the lines from this ear­li­est work can be punc­tual and pointed — the tone, at times, bor­der­ing on an­gry:

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 flushed down The refuse. Done? It lives in me. You live in me. Ma­lig­nant. Love, you ever want me, don’t. (from “Hes­i­tate To Call” )

Glück can be mat­ter-of-fact in a most aus­tere way, de­flat­ing the tragic while giv­ing the com­mon­place a mea­sure of re­spect. Hers isn’t happy work, a peace­ful

place among flow­ers, but some­thing more con­fused and dream­like, with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing fix on a sort of translu­cent anx­i­ety: “In our fam­ily, ev­ery­one loves flow­ers./ That’s why the graves are so odd.” It’s not a stretch to see Glück as a fem­i­nist. Her self-ex­am­i­na­tion could teach young men a lot — their place in her world, rather than the other way around. Who bet­ter than a poet to il­lu­mi­nate the hid­den agenda in what men were taught to ob­jec­tify?

It be­gins qui­etly in cer­tain fe­male chil­dren: the fear of death, tak­ing as its form ded­i­ca­tion to hunger, be­cause a woman’s body is a grave; it will ac­cept any­thing. (“Ded­i­ca­tion To Hunger” from The Wild Iris)

Glück, in and be­fore The Wild Iris, is in­struc­tive about de­sire — how su­per­fi­cial, how phys­i­cal, or lay­ered it can be. Her body seems apart from her voice, as con­fused as lovers try­ing to co­ex­ist. The po­ems, rooted in woods and over­grown gar­dens, are dis­arm­ingly hon­est and sim­ply imag­ined, tak­ing shape in trees, among flow­ers, and un­der moon­light, us­ing these known quan­ti­ties and their im­agery to al­low us to glimpse how nat­u­ral and how un­con­trolled our emo­tions can be

In De­scend­ing Fig­ure, she pon­ders her con­nec­tion to her par­ents and imag­ines how death comes dif­fer­ently to the young (“The Drowned Chil­dren”). Some­one she’s known only as a ghost makes noise: “Far away my sis­ter is mov­ing in her crib./ The dead ones are like that, al­ways the last to quiet.” Even in her most emo­tive, early po­ems, there is a dis­tance between thought and feel­ing, the arm’s length that seems nec­es­sary to sur­vival. But that dis­tance be­gan to dis­solve af­ter the Pulitzer. Glück seemed to grow tired of her own voice. “The de­gree to which I sound like my­self seems sort of a curse,” she said in a 2009 in­ter­view with

Amer­i­can Poet. Her phras­ing gave up ab­bre­vi­a­tion, com­ing in­stead in long, won­der­ful lines that un­spooled straight and true, as she adopted a wider, more epic pos­ture for the mun­dane mat­ters of life. Us­ing myth­i­cal voices was not some­thing new to her. She calls up Homer in 1975’s The

House On Marsh­land, and even em­ploys the three Magi (“The Wise, come to see at the ac­cus­tomed hour/noth­ing changed”). But af­ter the Pulitzer she be­gan to cre­ate myth, a process that reaches a pin­na­cle in 2009’s

A Vil­lage Life, a col­lec­tion that’s set in a world unto it­self. That her books are dif­fer­ent from one an­other doesn’t al­ways sit well with read­ers. She told the Po­etry Foun­da­tion that when she would go out on read­ings from books that came af­ter The Wild Iris, “a cer­tain dis­may” em­anated from the au­di­ences. “They wanted more flow­ers, more lyric ex­trav­a­gance.” She an­swered with Averno, a book named for a myth­i­cal en­trance to the un­der­world. Her most re­cent publi­ca­tion, Faith­ful And

Vir­tu­ous Night (win­ner of the Na­tional Book Award in 2014) is, of course, a new de­par­ture. The voice in the ti­tle poem, a male artist stand­ing in for the poet, and the set­ting — the Bri­tish coun­try­side — are imag­ined. The per­spec­tive marks a place from which the end must surely come into view soon. In “An Ad­ven­ture,” the poet faces giv­ing up pas­sion, giv­ing up love, giv­ing up po­etry as she hikes, in a dream, up a dis­ap­pear­ing moun­tain. “Para­ble” is about a jour­ney that never be­gan for var­i­ous rea­sons. All through the po­ems, in ad­di­tion to win­ter, avalanches, and flood­ing, is a clash of be­liefs. Years pass un­til the ag­ing be­liev­ers re­al­ize they’ve changed, though they’ve trav­eled “from day to night only ... And those who be­lieved we should have a/pur­pose/ be­lieved this was the pur­pose, and those who felt we must re­main free/in or­der to en­counter truth felt it had been re­vealed.”

Louise Glϋck

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