Ancient and modern meet in the haunting poems of Louise Glück, says Maureen N. McLane in the review of “Averno” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006; 79 pp.), published in The Washington Post
#1 Reading Louise Glück is excruciating – and this is a compliment. A poet of taut intensities, she walks a high-wire between the oracular and everyday, the absolute and the ephemeral, the monumental and the delicate. In her latest book, Glück ushers us into the realm of the dead: Averno is the lake west of Naples that, according to the Romans, was the entrance to the Underworld. Taking up the myth of Persephone – the story of Demeter’s daughter initiated (or abducted) into sex by Hades, lord of the Underworld – Glück explores death, memory, sexuality, family and, most profoundly, “soul-making,” as Keats put it. The poet moves through “All the different nouns – / she says them in rotation./ Death, husband, god, stranger.”
Glück is less interested in family romance or sexual trauma than in our mortality and our decisive alienation from nature. In a remarkable opening sequence, “October,” she evokes our precarious attachment to the Earth in a ceaseless rhythmic interrogative: “Is it winter again, is it cold again/ … wasn’t my body/ rescued, wasn’t it safe/ … weren’t we necessary to the earth,// the vines, were they harvested?” Glück emerges here as a romantic poet – a 21st-century American heir of Wordsworth and Shelley. Like them, she interrogates the world and finds it inadequate to the mind; and like the Romantics at their most skeptical and chastened, she treats myths not as consolations but as probes for thought. Of the Persephone myth Glück writes: “You are allowed to like/ no one, you know. The characters/ are not people. They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.”
Alert to mythic structure, its fissures and tensions, Glück analyzes and doesn’t merely recycle mythic motifs. “Spring will return, a dream/ based on a falsehood:/ that the dead return.” Instead of hymns to the sun, we get a blistering critique: “That’s what/ the sun meant: it meant/ scorched – “
Usually when poets turn to myth, I get anxious, anticipating yet another banal poem tricked-out with fancy Greek or Roman names, the poet relieved of invention by old plots dutifully retold. Too often myth serves as bogus prop, a bid for high seriousness, cultural capital and poeticity. It is easy to invoke dead gods and old stories, hard to make live poems out of them. Anne Carson manages this latter feat, and Glück does, too.
Glück’s death-haunted poems are electrically alive, even as they conjure a trance-like state. Unfolding in sequences, the poems are often stationed in interzones or on thresholds. Persephone famously spends part of every year in hell: This period is winter, and this is also, in some accounts, death. The myth allows Glück to explore something increasingly prominent in her work: an eerie, almost posthumous voice and stance. We hear “The sound of the sea – / just memory now”; we see
was bleached, like a negative; the light passed
directly through it. Then
the image faded.
The poems track this astonishing eclipsing of the world and the mind; they follow consciousness sundered from its host body: “Then the music began, the lament of the soul/ watching the body vanish.” These are poems of severe, albeit beautiful, renunciation: no affirmative epiphanies here. What revivification there is comes with a cost, a darkening: “The light has changed;/ middle C is tuned darker now.”
The horizons for seeing, for hearing, for dwelling have changed: We are geared toward the adjective, the adverb, decisive shifts in verb tense. “Winter will end, spring will return./ The small pestering breezes/ that I so loved, the idiot yellow flowers …” These are poems obsessed with temporality, aging and the accompanying vertiginous change in perspective. As if anticipating her critics, the poet presents herself in the stunning title poem as an aged person whose children find her concerns tiresome:
The old people, they think –
this is what they always do:
talk about things no one can see
to cover up all the brain cells they’re losing.
In her austerity and occasional declarative boldness, Glück runs the risk of appearing as a vatic priestess, intoning bleak and gnomic truths in stark lines. Yet a mordant colloquial humor has always leavened her aesthetic, as in her terrifying yet touching portrait of a besotted Hades, who considers the sensual Persephone: “If you have one appetite, he thought,/ you have them all.” In previous work, Glück’s mix of the contemporary and the archaic could occasionally seem forced – as if everyday bourgeois tribulations were straining for world-historical importance. Here, as in her magnificent Meadowlands (1996), the fusion of ancient and modern is haunting and exhilarating. “Make it new,” Ezra Pound said. She has.
When Homeric heroes are granted the rare privilege of seeing the gods face-to-face, the gods must first remove the mist from their eyes: In Greek epic, mortal vision – human vision – is by definition occluded. Whether deliberately or through brilliant poetic intuition, Glück echoes that ancient trope: “I want to shout out/ the mist has cleared.” It is as if she has written our collective epitaph, and not only that of herself as a poet: “A few years of fluency, and then/ the long silence.”