Louise Glück

Louise Glück Air Date: December 26, 2009

Hello Aaron! I’d like to introduce you—or maybe re-introduce you, today to the work of a poet named Louise Glück. It’s spelled G-l-u-c-k but you pronounce it Glick—There’s an umlaut over the u. Gluck was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She is the author of many books of poetry, most recently, Averno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry.

You may know her as the United States poet laureate in 2003, or possibly as the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Wild Iris. It’s that book I want to talk about and read a little from. I think it’s an amazing achievement. The poems are strange little things, speaking in the voices of flowers and of God, as well as of the human poet. Who would try to speak like a flower, with the point of view of a flower, without falling over into sappiness? Who would try to have God’s voice? But she does it, and in each poem, perspective is one we wouldn’t expect. There’s no sentimentality here. Each poem startles us out of our customary way of seeing the world.

In the book, there are a number of poems with the same title, called simply Matins, or Vespers, so that the book seems like a Catholic prayer book, marking the passage of a day in prayers. But oh my, the prayers are not what we expect!

Let me read you this one, as an example. It’s called “Vespers” and it’s near the end of the book. Remember, the poem is a prayer. She’s speaking to God:

End of August. Heat like a tent over John’s garden. And some things have the nerve to be getting started, clusters of tomatoes, stands of late lilies—optimism of the great stalks—imperial gold and silver: but why start anything so close to the end? Tomatoes that will never ripen, lilies winter will kill, that won’t come back in spring. Or are you thinking I spend too much time looking ahead, like an old woman wearing sweaters in summer; are you saying I can flourish, having no hope of enduring? Blaze of the red cheek, glory of the open throat, white, spotted with crimson.

Whoo! That’s not cheerful. The poem ends with an image that could be a slit throat! But look how glorious that image is—it’s the image of a flower blooming. Red and white with spots of red. full open. Beautiful. Doesn’t a flower flourish even though it has no hope of enduring?

A theme of the book, one of Gluck’s persistent themes, is that there is no hope. We’re doomed. The poems are dark, no question. But, as Dylan Thomas says in a poem of his, we sing in our chains like the sea.

The poems often seem short and easy in their language, but they remind me of the simplicity of Robert Frost’s poems—they only LOOK simple.

Here’s the title poem. Do you know what a wild iris looks like?

[Aaron: answers] This iris is describing what it was to come out of the dark earth. It’s describing how terrible it is, to be buried all winter, being conscious of being buried, waiting. Then the rising out of the earth, the speaking in the only voice a flower has, its bloom. It’s uncanny how Gluck makes us feel as if we ARE the iris, and actually, we realize that we ARE, like the iris, the consciousness that waits to speak our own voice.

The Wild Iris At the end of my suffering there was a door. Hear me out: that which you call death I remember. Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting. Then nothing. The weak sun flickered over the dry surface. It is terrible to survive as consciousness buried in the dark earth. Then it was over: that which you fear, being a soul and unable to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth bending a little. And what I took to be birds darting in low shrubs. You who do not remember passage from the other world I tell you I could speak again: whatever returns from oblivion returns to find a voice: from the center of my life came a great fountain, deep blue shadows on azure seawater.

I don’t think anyone has ever described the bloom of an iris better than that: a great fountain, deep blue shadows on azure seawater. I can’t look at an iris now without seeing a fountain.

Then listen to this one in the voice of a trillium. You know what those look like—

Aaron breaks in and says what they look like.

We have those all over around here in the spring. There are thousands near our cottage at Central Lake. They grow in the deep shade. Gluck uses the voice of the trillium to go back to her often-recurring thought, that we need to be aware of the presence of death, and of grief, to fully live our lives.

Trillium

When I woke up I was in a forest. The dark seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees thick with many lights. I knew nothing; I could do nothing but see. And as I watched, all the lights of heaven faded to make a single thing, a fire burning through the cool firs. Then it wasn’t possible any longer to stare at heaven and not be destroyed. Are there souls that need death’s presence, as I require protection? I think if I speak long enough I will answer that question, I will see whatever they see, a ladder reaching through the firs, whatever calls them to exchange their lives— Think what I understand already. I woke up ignorant in a forest; only a moment ago, I didn’t know my voice if one were given to me would be so full of grief, my sentences like cries strung together. I didn’t even know I felt grief until that word came, until I felt rain streaming from me.

Here’s another, one of my favorites. Now when I call a poem one of my favorites, what I usually mean is that, first of all, it grabs me, makes me see something in a way I hadn’t before. It doesn’t always make me happy. Some of Gluck’s poems are like a fingernail on a blackboard to me. But they feel very true and they’re very skillful. Of course because I’m a poet, I’m always aware—and jealous—of someone else’s great skill.

This poem is called “The Red Poppy.” Again, the poppy’s speaking. The poppy takes the sun for a huge heart. The poppy opens fully to that huge heart. The poppy is speaking to humans, who used to be as simple and clear as a poppy before we became fully “human,” meaning, I take it, all caught up with our minds. If we could open fully now, we’d feel the sun.

The poppy is speaking to us after the full bloom, when it’s shattered. It can only speak—and the same thing is true of us, the poem insinuates—after it’s been shattered. The speaking is a sign of being separate from our original, open and clear mind.

Well, here’s the poem.

The Red Poppy The great thing is not having a mind. Feelings: oh, I have those; they govern me. I have a lord in heaven called the sun, and open for him, showing him the fire of my own heart, fire like his presence. What could such glory be if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters, were you like me once, long ago, before you were human? Did you permit yourselves to open once, who would never open again? Because in truth I am speaking now the way you do. I speak because I am shattered.

Here’s another one called Vespers, another prayer. The speaker has planted a fig tree in Vermont—not a good idea. It’s died. The fig tree becomes for her a symbol of all the things she’s gone without. And yet she’s gone on praising, which ought to earn her a place at God’s right hand, she says. That is, if she still believed in God.

Vespers

Once I believed in you; I planted a fig tree. Here, in Vermont, country of no summer. It was a test: if the tree lived, it would mean you existed. By this logic, you do not exist. Or you exist exclusively in warmer climates, in fervent Sicily and Mexico and California, where are grown the unimaginable apricot and fragile peach. Perhaps they see your face in Sicily; here we barely see the hem of your garment. I have to discipline myself to share with John and Noah the tomato crop. If there is justice in some other world, those like myself, whom nature forces into lives of abstinence, should get the lion’s share of all things, all objects of hunger, greed being praise of you. And no one praises more intensely than I, with more painfully checked desire, or more deserves to sit at your right hand, if it exists, partaking of the perishable, the immortal fig, which does not travel.

And then here is God speaking in a poem called “End of Winter”. Again, the God of this poem is not what we’d expect. He is full of grief, full of goodbye, having let go of humans, leaving them to be born into this fleeting and very tangible world.

Over the still world, a bird calls waking solitary among black boughs. You wanted to be born; I let you be born. When has my grief ever gotten in the way of your pleasure? Plunging ahead into the dark and light at the same time eager for sensation as though you were some new thing, wanting to express yourselves all brilliance, all vivacity never thinking this would cost you anything, never imagining the sound of my voice as anything but part of you— you won’t hear it in the other world, not clearly again, not in birdcall or human cry, not the clear sound, only persistent echoing in all sound that means good-bye, good-bye— the one continuous line that binds us to each other.

Isn’t that a fine and unsettling poem?

Okay, one last poem—and maybe you’ll want to go order The Wild Iris for yourself, Aaron, if you don’t have it already. This one is another called Vespers, an end of the day prayer. This one could be spoken by someone trying to grow tomatoes in northern Michigan! It’s a complaining poem, complaining about the huge responsibility of being human, of not knowing the whole picture, of seeing the foreshadowing of trouble and having to live with that anyway.

Vespers

In your extended absence, you permit me use of earth, anticipating some return on investment. I must report failure in my assignment, principally regarding the tomato plants. I think I should not be encouraged to grow tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold the heavy rains, the cold nights that come so often here, while other regions get twelve weeks of summer. All this belongs to you: on the other hand, I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly multiplying in the rows. I doubt you have a heart, in our understanding of that term. You who do not discriminate between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence, immune to foreshadowing, you may not know how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf, the red leaves of the maple falling even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible for these vines.

Louise Gluck’s poems stand outside the “confessional” or “anecdotal” mode. You know what that mode is—those poems depend for their intensity on telling a story to keep our attention. But Gluck’s poems are also intensely personal—you can feel that in the poems. They’re personal and they’re lyric—they stand in one place and sing. What I admire is the strength of the line, the diction, the rhythm, the perfectly realized mood of the poems. They’re not like anything else.


Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry