The Fantastical Real

Louise Glück’s “Winter Recipes from the Collective” is a mysterious poem. It begins with factual, impersonal statements that have the patience and anonymous confidence of a fable. It is a surprise when a particular speaker emerges and addresses us intimately, the surprise being magnified by a line break: “But they had patience, these elderly men and women, / such as you and I can hardly imagine.”

The further, fragmentary information we get deepens the mystery. In this “collective,” food is prepared in a communal kitchen, and the art of bonsai is practiced in an arboretum. For “obvious reasons” the members of the collective are “encouraged never to be alone.” Are they in danger? If so, from what or whom? From themselves? From solitude itself?

In an essay titled “On Realism,” Glück writes: “It is entirely possible that I have never had an accurate sense of what is called realism in that I do not, as a reader, discriminate between it and fantasy.” Realist writing, “being by nature historical, confined to a period,” seems strange or even fantastical once that period passes. The fact is that the texture of reality, as expressed in our speech and manners, which are always historical, was improbable to begin with.

“Winter Recipes from the Collective” hovers in the space between realism and fantasy. The kind of details that in realist writing normally produce the effect of the real do the opposite here. The old women make “an invigorating winter sandwich” with ciabattini. That’s helpful: so we are in Italy, never mind the improbability of a sandwich made with moss. But then the speaker is a Jew whose parents ate “matzoh in the desert.” The practice of bonsai takes us to Japan or China, and the poem ends by quoting and translating Chinese.

The details don’t add up—and are meant not to. The point of this is not to stress that Glück’s theme is universal. She doesn’t need to tell us that “life is hard” everywhere human beings age and die. The point is to shift our attention from that fact to the way her speaker feels about it, which is a matter of tone. Tone is what the poem’s coherence depends on. Tone or more properly tones, which, in this poem’s muted, wintry palette, are as subtle and many as the colors of a Giorgio Morandi still life. One of Glück’s trademarks as a poet is a mordant wit, as expressed in this epigram: “In spring, / anyone can make a fine meal.” Playing off the prosaic, expository style of much of the poem is an intense, imagistic lyricism: “Shadows passing over the snow, / steps approaching and going away.”

Unfixed in history, lacking even specified gender, Glück’s speaker is disembodied and vulnerable, like a bonsai tree that has been “removed from nature.” Yet this modest voice rises to the sublime, as when the pruned tree that the speaker holds in “a porcelain bowl, given me by my grandmother,” is seen as “a pine blowing in a high wind / like man in the universe.” Think of the bowl as a poem, and the speaker’s holding of it as a discipline of care, while the empty wind of outer space blows around them.

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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