‘The fire is still alive’

On the back cover of Louise Gluck’s Poems 1962–2020 is a poem entitled “Nostos”, which ends with this couplet: “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” Taken from Meadowlands (1996), it exemplifies a quality found throughout Glück’s fifty-eight-year oeuvre: hard-won wisdom in spare, penetrating language. This heavy book, published to honor her Nobel prize win in 2020, also suggests that, although Glück’s poems indubitably shine as individual pieces, she is a poet of accumulative power.

Critics, including Glück herself, often advise readers not to start at the beginning. But in her otherwise unconvincing debut collection, Firstborn (1968), it is interesting to see her trying out the meditative lyric she will eventually master. In “Cottonmouth Country”, the speaker gazes over the Atlantic, noticing the remains of a snake: “Birth, not death, is the hard loss. / I know. I also left a skin there.” The Gluck of Firstborn lays out the themes that will come to dominate her career: family life, birth, death and desire. But it isn’t until after Firstborn that she begins to display her penchant for “elevation of the quotidian via mythic analogy”, as she calls it in her essay collection Proofs and Theories (1994).

In her next three books – The House on Marshland (1975), Descending Figure (1980), The Triumph of Achilles (1985) – archetypal and mythical figures such as Gretel and Joan of Arc speak in sublunary, human voices. Persephone, a persona often taken on in Glück’s work, appears sometimes as a captive, sometimes as an abashed daughter and sometimes as an ecstatic lover. “Pomegranate”, Glück’s earliest invocation of the myth, includes the seeds of all three: “First he gave me / his heart. It was / red fruit containing / many seeds, the skin / leathery, unlikely. / I preferred / to starve, bearing / out my training”. In these short lines Glück captures the restraint Persephone must show to reject Hades while confessing her own struggle as an adolescent dealing with anorexia.

Glück takes off the mythic mask in Ararat (1990), finding a new tone that is at once hauntingly devastating and elegantly unembellished, as she dramatizes family dynamics after the death of her father. “Don’t listen to me. My heart’s been broken. / I can’t see anything objectively. // I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist”, begins “An Untrustworthy Speaker”, its contradictory statements heightening the sense of struggle and intensity. Gluck’s talent is for saying the thing that might not feel true until it is put into words, as though we were on the therapist’s couch. But she doesn’t counsel or patronize – she’s right on the couch next to the reader, hearing the lesson.

Glück alternates between persona and person in The Wild Iris (1992), which won her the Pulitzer prize. She has said that this book is “useful for people who prefer to view their carnal needs in spiritual terms”. The daily activities that constitute her life (gardening, praying, walking) are framed as oracular, divine even. A dyad between carnality and spirituality animates the inanimate speakers (often flowers), the poet themselves and, intermittently, omniscient entities voiced through times of day in “Clear Morning”: “I cannot go on / restricting myself to images / because you think it is your right / to dispute my meaning: / I am prepared now for force / clarity upon you.” Later, in “The Red Poppy”, Glück’s knife-like incisiveness is at its most effective: “The great thing / is not having / a mind. Feelings: / oh, I have those; they / govern me.” End rhyme and short lines act contrapuntally, forcing a melancholic contradiction.

After The Wild Iris comes what might be called “the soul series”, a number of collections that track the deterioration of Glück’s marriage and her relocation to the eastern seaboard. They continually interrogate death, love, the fragility of the body and any and all easily won conclusions. In these books, revelatory truth gives way to more mysterious endings and even jocular tonalities. “I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean / your cold feet all over my dick, she writes in “Anniversary”. In Averno (2006), the book containing the autumnal sequence of poems “October”, Glück reinvokes the myth of Persephone. Against a backdrop of aporetic meditations and matrilineal drama, “Telescope” re-anchors the reader in lucid, unadorned statements: “You’re not a creature in a body. / You exist as the stars exist, / participating in their stillness, their immensity.” Then a flawlessly simple line taps them on the shoulder, pulling them back from where they were drifting: “Then you’re in the world again”.

Among her most recent books are two marked by formal exploration: uncharacteristically long lines; dreamlike prose poems that juxtapose utter stasis and vivid action. In A Village Life (2009), elders in an apparently northern Italian landscape offer wise but sad songs on themes ranging from young love to death. “It is not the earth, I will miss, / it is you I will miss”, concludes the speaker of “Crossroads”, addressing her own body. In Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014), the poet speaks mostly through the voice of an aged painter who reflects on how he arrived at his state of being through fables, vignettes and, as always, memory, to capture a radically present embodiment. One speaker steps outside and lights a cigarette they know is “patiently destroying [them]“. Yet there is sublimity in this, too: the cigarette-poisoned body is figured as a sacred place where “the stars will never be”.

Winter Recipes from the Collective (2021), her most recent collection, contains fifteen poems. Her smallest book to date, it nevertheless accrues power in typical Glück fashion: through polyphonic progression, metaphysical contradiction and intimate addresses to an imagined “you”. The half-dream, half-memory sequences in this collection diverge from her previous work in the way they render the ecstasy of youth and the experience of age as strangely close yet temporally distant. Speakers struggle with their memories rather than authoritatively recounting them: “I had left my passport at an inn we stayed at for a night or so/whose name I couldn’t remember”. Glück has always been a master of emotional abstraction. In this book, where a central subject is arguably the vitality of the mind, she involves the reader in the psychological dances of her speakers through the juxtaposition of motion and inertness: “I could hear the clock ticking, / presumably alluding to the passage of time / while in fact annulling it”.

The nuggets of older works that appear in Winter Recipes might at first seem repetitive. But, given that the collection is so dedicated to memory, it is likely that they serve a metapoetic purpose. The echoes of older books appear here to create a deliberate intertext – a feat that only a poet with this long a career could achieve. The concierge in “The Denial of Death” eerily mirrors a conductor in Faithful and Virtuous Night; the first line of “Night Thoughts” (“Long ago I was born”) echoes the first line of the first and last poems of Ararat (“Long ago I was wounded”); and lines on “the portrait of a dog” with “a kind of forced quality” seem like a self-critical recollection of Blizzard, the dog caught in a custody battle owing to marital dissolution in Meadowlands.

“Obviously my mind is not what it was”, one speaker admits in “An Endless Story”, recalling the famous line “My mind’s not right” from Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”. (Lowell was an early influence on Glück’s work.) If Glück has been preoccupied with the “autumn” of her life in previous collections, then this book is filled with voices coming through snow and ice, declaring that even in later life (she is seventy-eight) “the fire is still alive”, as the final poem, “Song”, says. The title poem’s first section ends: “The book contains / only recipes for winter, when life is hard. In spring, / anyone can make a fine meal.” And with that Glück suggests that memory, chilled and warm, might be our only means to survive the “winter” of our lives.

Louise Glück has written some of the most incantatory, sorrowful, wrenching lyrics in American poetry. Her work is not for readers who want to be coddled, but for those who can apprehend that psychological dissonance, difficult as it may be to endure, is evidence of life: a life worth documenting through the alluring ecstasies of love, pain and radical change , as well as more mundane tasks such as gardening, sitting by a pond or, as in her new book, dying.

Oluwaseun Olayiwola is a poet, critic and choreographer living in London

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