Louise Glück’s Stark New Book Affirms Her Icy Precision

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By Elisa Gabbert

I once heard someone comment that no one ever talks about how funny Louise Glück is, which alarmed me so much that for some time afterward, I would randomly think quite loudly to myself, “That’s because she’s not.” Glück’s intensity repelled me when I first encountered her work, as a student — think of the stern insistence of “Mock Orange.” At the time I was attracted to playfulness, irreverence, anti-poetry. Now that I’m older, have suffered more and realize my life is likely more than half over, it’s her seriousness, her coldness, that appeals. Some days, and in the dark intervals between days, it seems to me that Glück’s preoccupations are what poetry is for, that poems are confrontations with the void. If we’re on a moving walkway approaching the void, we can ignore it, avoid all thoughts of it, for only so long. And death is serious — “there is no such thing as death in miniature,” she writes.

Over the course of a long career — 13 stand-alone volumes since 1968 — Glück has become a true poet of the void. Loss was already present (being nearly ubiquitous in poetry), but her fifth book, “Ararat” (1990), written after her father died, is where death enters as a major theme. In “Terminal Resemblance,” the speaker writes of her reticent father becoming voluble at the end: “when a man’s dying, / he has a subject.” (Glück’s work isn’t humorless, but humor tends to enter as cold or even cruel irony — “I prayed for relief from suffering; I received suffering. / Who can say my prayers were not heard?” Ha ha.) In “The Wild Iris” (1992), Glück imagines a garden as a chorus of souls. In the title poem, the perennial flower speaks of resurrection: “that which you call death / I remember. … It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth.” Seasons and renewal take on increasing importance, as in the first poem in “Vita Nova” (1999): “Surely spring has been returned to me, this time / not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet / it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.” Things are always coming back, in the cyclic time of these poems, but changed: “when hope was returned to me / it was another hope entirely.”

“Averno,” published in 2006, is named for a real lake with mythical significance: The ancient Romans believed it was the entrance to the underworld, or the otherworld as it is sometimes known. It is, to my mind, Glück’s masterpiece, the book where she goes right up to the shore of the void. In “October,” she writes: “Summer after summer has ended, / balm after violence: / it does me no good / to be good to me now; / violence has changed me.” Her voice in these poems is dazzlingly, thrillingly cold, like the coldness of nights we call glittering. Or the coldness that drops in a total eclipse, as if God has revoked sunlight. “I know what I see; sun that could be / the August sun, returning / everything that was taken away— / You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice; / you can’t touch my body now.” The voice of a soul between worlds. In “Echoes,” she writes: “Once I could imagine my soul / I could imagine my death. / When I imagined my death / my soul died. This / I remember clearly.” The title poem reckons directly with human mortality: “I wake up thinking / you have to prepare.” The speaker’s children dismiss her, but to her, they are fools: “They’re living in a dream, and I’m preparing / to be a ghost.”

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    I’m interested in the shift that occurs for some late-career poets, when the seasons to come must seem terribly, countably finite. Rather than urgency, the shortness of the walkway induces quiet. Charles Wright, after many books of long poems with long, rangy lines, became less prolific, turning to a six-line form. He said in an interview, in 2014, that if social media led to poets writing shorter poems, “That’s really good, because that’s what you should do: Keep your mouth half-shut.” Silence has been prominent in Glück’s work for decades. A sampling of her silences: “The soul is silent. / If it speaks at all / it speaks in dreams.” “I spoke only to angels. How fortunate my days, / how charged and meaningful the nights’ continuous silence.” “Concerning death, one might observe / that those with authority to speak remain silent.” “My breath was white, a description of silence.” “I am / at work, though I am silent.”

    The National Book Award–winning “Faithful and Virtuous Night” (2014) contains a long poem about silence, a memory of inexplicable silence in childhood: “sounds weren’t coming out of my mouth. And yet / they were in my head, expressed, possibly / as something less exact, thought perhaps, / though at the time they still seemed like sounds to me.” The speaker (a man, in the poem, looking back on his boyhood) cannot explain “the mystery” except as a momentary “retreat” of the soul: “something, I was sure, opposed the lungs, / possibly a death wish— / (I use the word soul as a compromise.)” These lines suggest timor mortis is all in the body; the spirit seeks relief in the silence of death. (I remember a night like this in my own life, when I was 5 or 6; I frightened my parents, because the cause of my silence was itself ineffable.)

    Glück’s new book, WINTER RECIPES FROM THE COLLECTIVE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 45 pp., $25), comes seven years later and a year after she won the Nobel Prize. It is quite brief, only 15 poems, and gives an impression of exhaustion, as though language and material have been nearly depleted. Glück has often drawn on mythology, a way of supplementing one’s life material; you may need just a touch of your own pain or memory to breathe life into the old, familiar myth. Here, as in her last book, the poems often feel like fables or strange little fictions, positing characters with unclear relation to the poet — there is fictive distance, but how much distance? “The Denial of Death” is an almost novelistic poem in which the speaker recalls how her life changed after she misplaced her passport; her companion goes on with the journey as planned, while she is stuck in place and therefore time. The concierge of the hotel tells her, “You have begun your own journey, / not into the world, like your friend’s, but into yourself.” “Everything returns,” he goes on, “but what returns is not / what went away.”

    In other poems, her subject is simply the end of subjects — a poetics of resistance to poetry. “How heavy my mind is,” she writes in “Autumn,” “filled with the past. / Is there enough room / for the world to penetrate?” As though writing has come to compete with silence. In the nine-line “A Sentence,” she writes: “if it has not ended, it will end soon / which comes to the same thing. And if that is the case, / there is no point in beginning / so much as a sentence.” The book is full of echoes of her earlier work, its winds (the breath of the void) and silence. It returns me to “Echoes”: “The silence is my companion now.” “The rest I have told you already.” It returns me to “Cornwall,” from “Faithful and Virtuous Night”: “I shut my book. / It was all behind me, all in the past. / Ahead, as I have said, was silence.”

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