Sunday, October 25, 2020
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Louise Glück, Whisperer of the Seasons

Louise Glück, Whisperer of the Seasons
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Glück is an impersonal artist, whose poems, assembling around you, feel blindingly personal, like the seasons themselves.Photograph by Katherine Wolkoff

Louise Glück, who just won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, is our great October poet. (Robert Frost may be a distant second.) Consider the lyric “All Hallows,” from her collection “The House on Marshland,” from 1975:

Even now this landscape is assembling
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean. . . .

Does a more sinister opening exist in literature? The hills “darken”—we don’t know how dark they are, only that they’ll get darker. The oxen with their yoke belong in a sour sort of nursery rhyme or fairy tale; they sleep like obedient children. Meanwhile, a sentience gathers above the countryside’s ravaged bones. Glück arranges her details in neat, careful stacks; in the next line, sheaves are “piled at the roadside / among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises.” Gradually a space is cleared for a cool, sibyllic voice:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.

And a new character appears:

. . . the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here,
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

I often go to Glück for her moods, which shift, within poems and from poem to poem, but always seem pure and specific. In “All Hallows,” ambience predicts argument: after the shadowy hills and the empty fields, the pronouncement about “barrenness” confirms what we already know. By the time the woman materializes—with talking seeds, of all things—it’s almost as if the atmosphere is directing the action, like a current carrying the speaker to a place she didn’t intend to visit, a place she might not have wanted to go.

Seasons, our oldest metaphors, are also moods, structures of feeling. Perhaps this is why Glück turns to them, again and again, to divine the texture of our inner life. In the poem “Twilight,” a man marks, outside his window, the “green things followed by golden things followed by whiteness.” In “The Wild Iris,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, Glück studies the growth and decay of two gardens—her own, in Vermont, and an allegorical, Eden-like enclosure. In “Nostos,” the window-gazer is a woman, musing about time and apple trees, “as one expects of a lyric poet.” Readers might ask why one might expect a lyric poet to lash herself to the cycles of nature. Glück would claim to be refusing a fantasy. For her, the idea of escaping change is a form of romance—and romance, as she writes in her essay “Education of the Poet,” “is what I most struggle to be free of.”

The result is an ascetic style, well suited to both evisceration and incantation. Glück mistrusts “music, that quality of language which is felt to persist in the absence of rule”; it’s not surprising that she feels lured by the seasons, which are themselves rules, instantiations of cosmic order. October is just one example. Every season ends, or dies, and so brushes elbows with Glück’s principal muse, her ally against the romance of eternal life. “After all things occurred to me / the void occurred to me,” says the God of “End of Summer.” The void is always occurring to Glück, stalking her speakers through time, myth, and metaphor. The seeds in “All Hallows” evoke the story of the goddess Persephone, who ate six pomegranate seeds and was trapped in the underworld; her grief-stricken mother, Demeter, invented winter. Glück herself sounds like winter: chilly and severe, but possessed of a stark beauty. She is known for ferocious etherings (“I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean / your cold feet all over my dick,” she writes in “Anniversary”) and for lines of seemingly inexhaustible depth. In “Celestial Music,” “The love of form is the love of endings”; in “Nostos,” famously, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”

In “Nostos,” the invocation of childhood matters, too. That’s because the seasons are often a way of imagining youth and age: another preoccupation for Glück. In her lyric “Autumn,” from 2017, the speaker remembers a conversation with her sister: “Life, my sister said, / is like a torch passed now / from the body to the mind.” This is a variation on the end of “Nostos”: as children, the sister seems to suggest, we experience the world, and as adults our task is to understand it. But sometimes the transition—the migration of life’s richness from outside to inside, the hand-off of the torch—goes wrong. In the next section, there is a smell of smoke. “Old people and fire,” the sister comments. “They burn their houses down.” The poem blinks forward, and the speaker has a vision: “Stars gleaming over the water / The leaves piled, waiting to be lit.” Lit by what? The speaker’s imagination, perhaps. The world ignites the brain, and then the brain returns the favor. This, too, is seasonal.

Lately, I’ve turned to Glück, interpreter of seasons, to reconcile myself to the threats that come with forward motion. “Autumn,” despite its broadly gentle perspective, murmurs with worry. “Fall was approaching”; “the sun was setting”; “How heavy my mind is”; “You must find your footing.” Glück has always been a laureate of danger; she has a sixth sense for dread’s fluctuations. This is especially clear in “October (section I),” which tumbles through anxious questions, a cascade of disbelief: “Is it winter again, is it cold again, / didn’t Frank just slip on the ice, didn’t he heal.” Glück’s speaker has mended injuries and planted seeds, but her progress may have come undone. “Wasn’t my body / rescued,” the speaker asks, or pleads. “Wasn’t it safe?”

“October (section I)” is part of a book-length poem written in the aftermath of a national crisis. (The volume was published in 2004.) The beginning of that crisis, Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, occurred on another fall day, with a heart-stoppingly clear sky; the loss of the towers haunts lines like: “I can’t hear your voice / for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground.” As “October” begins, months or years have passed since some great blow, and the return of trauma finds a figure in the revolving seasons. The speaker’s shock at nature’s indifference fuses with a sort of survivor’s dream logic. The terrible thing has already happened—how could it be happening again?

That sentiment resonates in our present October, when disaster seems the rule, not the exception, and when time itself seems to have lost its bearings. (Didn’t we wash our hands, didn’t we read this headline?) Glück, whose art has always answered to a distant, almost planetary reasoning, is now, strangely, riding a wave of political timeliness. She is a poet of interiors; of having and losing; of desire and its regulation. “You want to know how I spend my time?” one of her speakers scoffs, sounding for all the world like a fed-up quarantiner. “I walk the front lawn, pretending / to be weeding.”

For anyone who needs it, then, there exists within Glück’s work a glossary of today’s moods: rage, vulnerability, despair, gallows humor, irritation, loneliness, an aura of intensity around the mundane. For Glück, these circuits of sensing and thinking—the inner seasons—enact a theory of life: we feel before we understand, and we understand very little. There’s something implicating about so much disembodied emotion, floating on the page like weather. Glück is an impersonal poet, whose poems, assembling around you, feel blindingly personal, like the seasons themselves. The effect isn’t exactly comforting, except in the way that being told the truth can be comforting—as if the wife, in “All Hallows,” rather than holding out her seeds, had simply explained that you are caught in the turning and swept toward darkness.



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