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The Knife—The Sharp Poetry of Louise Glück

IF LOUISE GLUCK had released a Collected Poems a dozen years ago, we would have known what to make of her. She was a walking dysphemism, a blade without a handle, a poet so intent on “unmasking … the ordinary to reveal the tragic,” as she put it, that any sign of kindness prompted bitter cynicism. “Mothers weep at their daughters’ weddings,/ everyone knows that, though/ for whose youth one cannot say,” she wrote in 1985. “My father liked/ to stand like this, to hold me/ so he couldn’t see me” (1990). “Epithalamium”—meaning wedding song, a joyous form by convention—opens with, “There were others” (1980). “The Drowned Children” begins, “You see, they have no judgment” (1980). Very few writers share her talent for turning water into blood. But what emerges from this new, comprehensive collection—spanning the entirety of her career—is a portrait of a poet who has issued forth a good deal of venom but is now writing, excellently, in a softer vein.

Temperamentally, Glück was the sort of poet “who [loves] perfection more than life,” as Bertrand Russell wrote. But unlike “the mathematician, the logician, the builder of metaphysical systems” and others to whom Russell attributed a Platonistic cast of mind, Glück was concerned not just with the abstract but with “the world of existence … fleeting, vague, without sharp boundaries.” This posed a problem: life, uncertain, disappointed her. What somewhat redeemed the imperfection of life was the relative perfection of art. Poetry “is a form/ of suffering,” she writes—a kind of suffering, sure, but also a form, with a fixed and definite shape. This “form of suffering” begat a great deal of lovely poems, nearly all preoccupied by negative emotions—irony, sarcasm, disillusionment, self-loathing, dread, regret, abject despair.

By 2000 or so, after Vita Nova was published, we might have thought of her as a more dispassionate Plath. It was Glück’s eighth book of poems and in many ways her bleakest, with all the suffering of her earlier work but virtually none of the consolation of works like Ararat (1990) or Meadowlands (1996). Ararat, named after the mountain where Noah’s ark landed, turns tender and hopeful after a flood of catastrophes; Meadowlands shows her marriage failing, but it also shows parallel problems between Penelope and Odysseus, as if to lend the dignity of myth to petty resentments and cold feet in the bed. Vita Nova, however, uses myth only to mock the idea of Glück writing her way to a better life after the dissolution of her marriage. Glück ends the collection, “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken./ Then I moved to Cambridge,” without offering a reason to think that the second sentence ameliorates the first.

But the books Glück has published since Vita Nova push against this negativity. The Seven Ages (2001) has the precision, self-awareness, and qualified optimism you would hope for from effective psychotherapy. She tells us about “what began as terror/ and matured into moral narcissism,” her “spiritual rigidity,” how she was “hard-hearted, remote … selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.” Rather than punish herself for her faults, however, Glück strains to see their virtues—for her as a person and not just as a poet. “I tried to be a better person,” she writes: “what began as terror … might have become in fact/ actual human growth.” For her, this amounts to forgiveness for her sins. In her 2006 work, Averno, Glück blurs with Persephone, half in love with Death. Persephone’s relationship with Hades seems like a tragedy or a moral failure, a willful descent into darkness, but Glück shows the silver linings in a life lived half in the underworld of imagination. 

If The Seven Ages and Averno were ways for Glück to look at herself—to examine her underlying motivations and inclinations—her latest collection, A Village Life (2009), is a release from herself. The book, published at the end of this collection, depicts a village sometime, somewhere in Italy—a village with its old men, young mothers, lotharios, bats, priests, and Buddhist-Hegelian earthworms. Children find love by the river, adults find solace at the edge of the meadow, and loss and change coexist peacefully—a balance that lends a wistfulness and languor to all the characters. Its mood is clear and sustained, like a calm piece of music.

You can see her equanimity when what she writes about used to set her off. Consider “Figs,” about a failing marriage. The speaker, the wife, describes her husband’s unrealistic wishes for her cooking:

I make these things for my husband,

but he doesn’t like them.

He wants his mother’s dishes, but I don’t make them well.

When I try, I get angry—

 He’s trying to turn me into a person I never was.

Her frustration builds:

He comes home, he’s tired.

Everything is hard—making money is hard, watching your body change

is hard….

Here is where an earlier Glück would twist the kitchen knife, but, instead, the wife grows wistful for the summers of their youth:

The hours of light when he came home from work—

we’d turn them into hours of darkness.

Everything was a big secret—

even the things we said every night.

Rather than anger, there is sanguine, wistful recollection; a contrast between the superhuman feeling of youth (turning light into darkness) and the felt powerlessness of aging; and a contrast between the earlier ease of their love and her confusion about how to regain it. The last twenty-odd lines of the poem stay spare and non-judgmental:

We’d get quiet after a while. The night would get quiet.

But we didn’t sleep, we didn’t want to give up consciousness.

We had given the night permission to carry us along…

This poem captures the basic movement of A Village Life, which is to hint at drama and undercut it with calm. This is the opposite of the pattern of her earlier work. Now she summons anger or malaise so that you feel the resulting, measured optimism with additional depth; each emotion is heightened in light of its opposite. In other words, the blade now has a handle, which she wields to carve out the depths of experience.

For much of her career, Glück’s dourness was as exacting as it was exact, and this precision often made her poems profound. You knew every inch of her grief. The demands of her poetry might frustrate the reader, but her thoroughness was a reward of her writing. Now, she has applied that same precision and nuance to happier ends. The results are the very best poems of her nearly seventy-year life.

Adam Plunkett is the Assistant Literary Editor of The New Republic. Follow: @adamfplunkett