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The Poetry of Louise Glück

Henrik Montgomery/ Getty Images

“All Hallows” appeared on the first page of Louise Glück’s The House on Marshland (1975). If there were echoes of Stevens and perhaps of Sexton, they were assimilated into a new voice. “All Hallows” is about bearing a child—or so it seems to me—but it is saturated by the poet’s sense of her own birth. A mother has paid some unspeakable price into an invisible hand, has enabled the gold seeds, and the child victim is sold into bondage, enticed into the world. When a human couple takes on the unknown in the form of a baby, it is a time of “harvest or pestilence”: their spring flowering is over, and, after the fashion of an archetypal Nativity, the baby is born in the cold. The “toothed moon,” a savage Jack O’Lantern, rises in a sinister ascendancy, a parody of the Christmas Star. The deceptive title and peaceful beginning lead to the frightened child-soul leaving its tree nest, beckoned by the evil fairy-tale voice—“Come here/ Come here, little one.” The helplessness of the child, the complicity of its mother, the cannibal jaws of the moon, make the title in one sense a blasphemy; but the pity for the child, the uncertainty whether this is harvest or pestilence, the sense of a waiting landscape, all make the title, in another sense, the most reserved of benedictions. The whole poem trembles on a verge: “And the soul creeps out of the tree.” Nativity, said Shakespeare, crawls to maturity: where Shakespeare saw the crooked eclipses, Glück sees the toothed moon.

A powerful re-seeing of family life animates many of the poems in The House on Marshland. down to its last poem, “The Apple Trees,” spoken by a woman to a man who is leaving her; he is the father of her child, in a dream, she holds up the child to him, saying “See what you have made”—

and counted out the whittled ribs,

the heart on its blue stalk.

As a mother’s view of her child, this is unnerving: she sees him as artifact and X-ray plate, with the dispassionate eye of a woodcarver or a radiologist. In that dispassionate eye so stiffened against the distortions of love. Glück exerts a clear sovereignty that attracts our assent rather than inquiry. One scarcely wants to ask the secret of certain impeccable lines:

And the deer—

how beautiful they are,

as though their bodies did not impede them.

Slowly they drift into the open

through bronze panels of the sunlight.


Glück’s rhythm yearns toward the deer: we think of the isolate Mariner pained by “the many men, so beautiful,” as we see that this speaker, “impeded” by her body, envies the natural paradise of the deer, drifting through sun as through some etherealized version of the Ghiberti doors. And yet, at the end, these natural messengers, if I read the poem aright, are superseded by the wounded, disembodied consciousness:

...they come before you

like dead things, saddled with flesh,

and you above them, wounded and dominant.

The perverse dramatist of the poem has perhaps learned something from Sylvia Plath. But Glück’s tone owes nothing to Plath; it is not Lawrentian or clinical (Plath’s two extremes), but rather, as one auditor said after Glück’s Harvard reading last year, “unearthly.”

In fact there is something “disembodied, triumphant, dead”—Whitman’s words—about Glück’s usual voice (barring some uncollected songs, in a more demotic manner, which are I think not successful). She sees experience from very far off, almost through the wrong end of a telescope, transparently removed in space or time. It is this removal which gives such mythological power, in The House on Marshland. to the account of her parents’ lives and of her own childhood, and makes their family constellation into a universal one. In the brilliant “Still Life” she reconstitutes the overexposed Kodak shot in every reader’s photograph album, revealing the impossibility of family relations, the aversion and separation in the poses family life makes us strike when, if we were animals, we would curl up out of the sun, out of postures, and be spared these stiff and unnatural configurations.

Glück’s poems of family life tend to avoid the biographical, as a way of avoiding the inevitably helpless “I.” Lyric has, historically, voiced a prayer or a complaint, both presupposing a listener, the “thou” of remedy. But if there is no “thou,” the voice can make no leap to another ear, can scarcely conceive of itself as subject. An inflexible statement of what is must replace protest, plea, confiding, intercession, and defense. Glück resolutely gives the blank title “Poem” to her ur-poem of family life, with its inescapable images of man, wife, spring, a house, and an unborn child. The only unexpected component in the complex is the man’s writing. He is a poet, and doubles for Glück herself in this archetypal tale. The woman’s face in the mirror takes on the contours of an icon or a mandala, as she becomes a Muse and her mirrored reflection causes that writing which takes on the function of life, as ink replaces blood. The conundrum of marriage is set for the unborn child, a conundrum she can never solve; the house is immobile in the constricting universe; and once again, nature, unbidden, sends forth those weak blooms vulnerable to the first frost, the first too-rough airs of heaven. Such a poem appears to exhaust one form of life, and thereby earns its title: there is a house, a couple, suffering, “what binds them together,” reproduction, a child, an utterance in ink: what else could there be? And the tale of life unrolls unstoppably on: the child who enters the parents’ lives must go to school and propitiate the mysterious teachers, intent on silencing the children into the classroom order.

The first day of school is not an unattempted topic (though school itself appears less in poetry than one might expect): but Glück’s “The School Children” takes it more seriously than any previous description I can recall. Glück’s is post-Freudian poetry; its wide-eyed and appalled gaze takes seriously the gulfs and abysses of the child’s experience, an experience shared by the mother frightened for her departing child. Glück’s mothers find themselves in the last phase of fertility; the orchards—which are the mothers themselves—are yielding only a few late apples of maternity and love, “so little ammunition” to fortify the children with, before the mothers themselves turn into barren gray limbs. The children make the first great crossing— from the shore of the mothers to the shore of the teachers—and it is a sacrificial rite, the yearly tribute to the Minotaur. The nails are waiting for the children, the mothers are trapped in the orchards. There is no prayer, no protest, no outcry, even: only the primal simplicity of the narrator.

This narrator, who holds us with her tale of deadly ill so quietly told, is Glück’s great resource. The telling is oblique but not self-mocking; divinatory, like that of a Fate, who can see the apples “like words from another language,” mute signs to the teacher that the child is used to an Eden of nourishment, not a world of desks and nails and silence. The Fate impersonally pities both mothers and children, seeing the uneven battle, the pathetic armor of the children’s “little satchels,” the timid insufficiency of their ammunition.

Here and there, Glück’s tone of doom modulates into something less deathly, as in “Flowering Plum” and “Brennende Liebe”; it lifts for a moment in the discovery of love, punning, in her Moses-fable, “The Undertaking,”on her own name—”Everywhere you turn is luck.” A benevolent euphony, in such happy moments, tunes her lines: shrubs and shoots appear, the will of waves widens, the river films with lillies, the Nile is shining. But this flooding light supervenes on some unimaginable incarceration in the dark: “The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.” It is like the opening of the camps after the war: captives resigned to a lifetime of imprisonment hear the unhoped-for creak of widening gates. It is not surprising that even this expansive freedom, of spring and love, is soon incorporated into Gluck’s fateful sense of meaningless life-rhythms. Glück has some of Stevens’s bitterness about the childish onslaughts of the spring, and some of Williams’s naive power in encompassing birth and death in one breath. This, from the poem “For Jane Myers,” is one quick sequence of love, reproduction, and execution:

Look how the bluet falls apart, mud

pockets the seed

Months years, then the dull blade of the


It is spring! We are going to die!

Insight is of no use in spring; the bluet’s power makes us follow the bluet’s cycle:

And now April raises up her plaque of flowers

and the heart

expands to admit its adversary

By a single word—“plaque”—Glück confers on April all the monumentality of an allegorical goddess, stationed irresistibly on the heart’s pathway.

Since The House on Marshland, Glück has published a memorable sequence. The Garden (Antaeus, 1976), prolonging her fixed glance and conclusive style into a linked series of poems. Sections of The Garden could stand alone, but each gains by juxtaposition. From its beginning in a rebirth of love to its diminished ending in death, The Garden combines Glück’s almost posthumous tone with moments of quick proximate sympathy. From the one immobile focus she can say that “the past, as always, stretched before us,/ still, complex, impenetrable”; from the other, fluid point of view she can still feel tempted by the garden’s “ecstatic reds” and feel certain that to be like the stone animals, beyond harm, is “terrible.” The Garden speaks from the abstract knowledge of past losses (“one after the other, all supportable”) but its present losses are made so exact that they are felt as if for the first time. Glück’s eclectic mythology, combining Eden, feather-cloaked gods, classical stone animals and a helmeted sun, ends with a Christian ghost, a spirit sitting on its own headstone, “a small rock.” “The tomb in Palestine,” said Stevens, “is not the porch of spirits lingering”; but Glück’s ghost, like the gospel angels, lingers in the cemetery. The body is forgotten by the relentless village, its faint searchlights scanning the rows of gravestones. The earlier garden has become Keats’s stubble plains—bere, Glück’s “sheared field”; the “poor body” has only its buckled shadow, having lost its spirit. The body waits to be claimed, like Jesus’s by the Marys.

The remoteness of what was once common is Glück’s central subject: the irreality of life in the orchard once one has passed through the doors of what Ginsberg once called in horror “the vast high school” but what Glück names elementary school; the Incomprehensibility of the parents’ marriage in the eyes of the child; the ungraspable elements of daily life, “the bread and milk .. . on the table” once one has left the land of the living. The very table at the end of The Garden would evanesce were it not for the weight of the daily bread; the house would disappear without its wooden doors; Glück poses “weight”and “wooden” against the shadowy otherness of the dead body and formless spirit alike.

Lamentations, Glück’s most recent sequence, retells in four parts part of what The Garden had told in five, but it fatally separates the woman into two: the woman she had been with the man, and the body that will bear a child. It is the child, with no one to turn to but its parents, who makes them into the only authority. And from this premise, everything else follows: these primal parents become human; their white flesh becomes the tabula rasa for those wounds which will give rise to the hieroglyphs of language; and God leaves Eden for Heaven, enabling his creatures for the first time to conceive, through their imagining of him, earth seen from the air. This parable, beginning with copulation and an indigenous God, passing on through splitting and panic to birth and authority, and ending with language and estrangement (though with an uneasy joy in wide-ranging consciousness) will be read differently by different readers, who may recall, while reading Glück, Blake’s ambiguous Genesis-parable stationing the angels, in the form of stars, as our surrogates.

The three recent lyrics included here—“Portland, 1968,” “Thanksgiving,” and “The Drowned Children”—are all allusive in Glück’s enigmatic manner, all hopeless, all staving off tears with finish and surface. In the first, male and female come to a standstill, conjoining like rocks and sea: the rocks are marred by the ocean, the sea triumphs “like all that is false,/all that is fluent and womanly.” The poem would be uninteresting if it did not attribute suffering to the fixed man who refuses to turn to be photographed, and transparent longing to the woman who mars him. The circular form of the poem—from the immobile man to the immobile man—itself makes a transparent wave of longing, curbed by the self-censure of the speaker and witness.

In Glück’s bitter “Thanksgiving” the “summoned prey” come to eat, knowing that they will be eaten, tracked down and located by their hoofprints in the snow. In the ritual, eater and eaten have their role: the part of the eater is not to relent, the part of the eaten is not to forgive; all is order, all is a dying order. It may be an allegory of the generations. Nature is as meticulous as the feasters: before it destroys, it sorts. The summoned prey; the sorted leaves; the lethal wind; the treacherous snow; the waiting predators; the dying order: all this is prefaced by the name of America’s most genial family feast.

I have put last Glück’s chilling explanation of the event always considered the most unnatural of all—the death of children. “You see,” she says ingenuously, “they have no judgment./So it is natural that they should drown,” should resume their fetal condition—blind, weightless, suspended in water. Weightless again, but now in the pond, they wait in the water hearing their parents’ fruitless calls, “lost/in the waters, blue and permanent.” Glück’s last line evades analysis: is it an accident that I link “blue” and “permanent” with ink? It is hard to fix the speaker’s relation to the children: she wants death to have been easy for them, she wants them to think of their brief earthly life as a dream; but yet she wants them still to hear the beckoning earthly voices, passing above them like lures over fish suspended just below the surface. It is as though Glück were a mother excusing their fault, hoping they were not hurt and do not miss her, and yet unwilling that they should forget her utterly or be deaf to her voice. We are made to remember, with her, the last moment, the floating scarf, surrealistically prolonged; and we bequeath them, with her, to the pond’s colder maternity. But the last act, against all reason, is the call, “come home, come home.”

Glück’s cryptic narratives invite our participation; we must, according to the case, fill out the story, substitute ourselves for the fictive personages, invent a scenario from which the speaker can utter her lines, decode the import, “solve” the allegory. Or such is our first impulse. Later, I think, we no longer care, in “Thanksgiving” for instance, who are the prey and who the predators; we read the poem, instead, as a truth complete within its own terms, reflecting some one of the innumerable configurations into which experience falls. Gluck’s independent structures, populated by nameless and often ghostly forms engaged in archaic or timeless motions, satisfy without referent. They are far removed from the more circumstantial poetry written by women poets in the last 10 years, but they remain poems chiefly about childhood, family life, love, and motherhood. In their obliquity, and reserve, they offer an alternative to first-person “confession,” while remaining indisputably personal. The leap in style from Glück’s relatively unformed first book (Firstborn, 1968) to The House on Marshland suggests that Glück is her own best critic. For myself, I would hope she might follow the advice Keats and Stevens gave themselves, and write a long poem: “All kinds of favors,” said Stevens, “drop from it.”