Poetry - Autumn 2007

Louise Glück’s Italy of the Mind

On a classical stage peopled by workers, wives, and lovers

By Langdon Hammer | September 1, 2007


Since Ararat, her sixth collection of poetry, which appeared in 1990, Louise Glück has composed her poems not as discrete utterances but as pieces in a book-length series; and each subsequent book, including The Wild Iris, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and Averno, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, has been a unified, sustained performance, a poetic sequence. The four poems that follow come from a collection in progress, and already it is possible to get a sense of the whole on the basis of the parts.

In these poems Glück is creating an Italy of the mind, a Mediterranean world of no definite moment or place, peopled with general human types. On a simple classical stage set (mountain, trees, fields, plaza, village), her characters appear in stylized roles: workers, wives, lovers—he and she, young and old. Their lives follow predictable scripts structured by daily and seasonal patterns. The sun’s rising and setting suggest an emblem of creativity, destruction, and the necessary, cyclical alternation between them.

In form and structure, the poems mark a departure for Glück. She is known as a lyric and dramatic poet whose short-line, sharply enjambed poems are cast in the first person. But the “I” does not appear in the poems here. Instead, Glück speaks as an impersonal narrator, the type of describing, supervising intelligence found in novels rather than poetry; and the long line she uses—expansive, fluent, and full—is the formal corollary of this novelistic point of view.

Yet her narrator speaks with the dry, measured melancholy of some of the great modern Mediterranean poets—the Italians Cesar Pavese and Eugenio Montale, the Greek Alexandrian C. P. Cavafy. And while Glück’s manner is novelistic, she focuses not on action but on pauses and intervals, moments of suspension (rather than suspense) in a dreamlike present tense in which poetic speculation and reflection are possible, for both Glück and the characters she imagines.

Commenting on her beginnings as a poet, Glück has described her ambition “to locate poems in a now that would never recur,” as a means “to get at the unchanging.” It is a paradoxical ambition: to evoke a present that is particular (never to recur) because it is unchanging. In these poems the “now” represents something central to our experience that is only available when we are undisturbed by the claims of others. The workers in “Threshing” have something like this experience. For them, the hour spent in the woods at midday is set apart; they enjoy a freedom in that interval that, in contrast to the tense hours they spend in the dark beside their wives, “was reality.”

Or take the man and woman in “In the Plaza.” Watching him as he watches “the girl,” Glück’s narrator explores the erotic space in which two minds interact. The man is under the woman’s power, and she under his, so long as she has not observed him; once he wins her attention and she falls in love too, she will withdraw into her own “private world of feeling,” a stubborn match for his, and become “so little use to him / it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.”

The interval Glück focuses on in “In the Plaza” is charmed because it precedes action. Action, when desire is carried into deed, is brutal. This is the theme of “Hunters.” Here the lovers of “In the Plaza” (or others like them) have advanced to bed, while on the street below, the village cats go hunting mice. Although there is “still plenty to hunt,” the summer is ending, and their instinctual awareness of approaching winter sharpens the cats’ appetites. When a cat kills, its prey is a “rat”: by choosing “rat,” rather than mouse, Glück brings out the predator’s disdain for its prey, and suggests that predator and prey are a couple, a rhyming pair. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, the lovers’ cries keep them from hearing the hunters outside, but these cries, just as reflexive, just as intense, coexist with and include the animal melodrama. Someone or something is dying there too.

“Sunset” draws a close to this group of poems. The sunset is coordinated with a worker’s autumnal task of burning leaves, a human-scale model of the great fire above. The leaves represent perhaps a lover’s love, a farmer’s work, or a poet’s poems, the once vibrant projects of spring. There is not much to them: the fire can be controlled, and then the ashes raked and order restored, while the sun goes down. Glück reminds us that the seasons turn, the sun will make the field grow again, and the end that that fire represents counts for little (it is “a small thing”). “But the death is real.” Glück makes us feel, in her imagined Italy, that it is this way with anyone’s love, work, or poetry.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.