Louise Gluck: Songs Of Innocence And Experience


Louise Gluck is one of America’s best contemporary writers of proesy – proesy being the term this blog uses for “modern poetry” – in other words, works that travel as “poetry” but are actually stripped of most of the defining or traditional features of that literary form.  For this writer, Proesy must be judged on its own merits, as its own art form, and not as or against Poetry, which is something else.

I’ve just completed reading Poems 1962 – 2012, the immense collection of the proesy written by Louise Gluck.  The book spans fifty years and at least ten previously published collections of Gluck’s work.  I applaud Gluck for organizing the work chronologically.  It is a privilege and sublime joy to view on one vast canvas the evolving work and worldview of a very good writer.

In the wide-ranging output wringed from the mind and heart of a great writer lies the entire human condition flayed and displayed, a dissection—a vivisection—of humanity.  Zola may have tried to approach the study of civilization and its contents and discontents as a scientist would approach the study of nature, but compared to a great poet, he was but a poker and a prodder.  In any field, a great artist is more physician than scientist, a surgeon and dentist and gynecologist all rolled into one, probing deep inside our body cavities, drilling until it hurts, excavating until we bleed, scraping the debris of a lifetime from our ribcages and inner-skulls—tickling us, hurting us—making us squirm from exaltation to collapse, from laughter to tears.  Ultimately, great art is about release— the misery and the ecstasy that erupts from us when our guts are struck by the sledgehammer wielded by one whose soul not only sympathetically resonates with our own— but who has the power to exquisitely express that sympathy.

Seeing Gluck’s work spread out before me in one volume was a bit like seeing a fallen river god whose rippling course through the world can be traced over the changing terrain as it stretches toward the unreachable horizon, carving and curving through the seasons:  the Spring of our youth, the Summer of our experience, the Winter of our wisdom.

Every age has its enthusiasms and its wisdoms, its lusts and its regrets.  But reading Gluck’s work chronologically, I nevertheless could spot the general trend of an artist growing older, of the passions fading like the colors of ancient paintings while the wisdoms swell as a pillar of ash hardening inside the dying fires of youth.

In Hesitate To Call (1968), when Gluck is young, she writes to a lover, “you live in me. Malignant,” ribaldly telling him that she once “saw you throbbing in my syrups.”   In Pomegranate (1975)  a still young Gluck tells of her complicated love interest: “First he gave me / his heart. It was / red fruit containing / many seeds, the skin / leathery, unlikely.”  In Abishag (1975) I think Gluck really has in mind herself when she writes “she has the look of one who seeks / some greater and destroying passion.”  Ah, the reckless hunger of youth…

In Undertaking (1975) Gluck exudes a poem of hope and of the potential of life:

“The darkness lifts, imagine, in your lifetime.  / There you are– cased in clean bark you drift / through weaving rushes, fields flooded with cotton./ You are free.  The river films with lilies, / shrubs appear, shoots thicken into palm. And now/ all fear gives way: the light/ looks after you, you feel the waves’ goodwill / as arms widen over the water; Love, //  the key is turned.  Extend yourself –  / it is the Nile, the sun is shining, / everywhere you turn is luck.”

But then, as the river of Time flows on, the life of the writer reaches a bend.  Middle age is approaching, and her poetry shows the change.  The world does not feel as cozy as it felt in her youth.  The theme of Distance begins to crop up.  We sense disappointment and isolation and forlornness, themes which will continue in her work.

Gluck writes in Lamentations (1980) of her new awareness of Distance and Isolation, both from lovers and from God:

“They were both still, / the woman mournful, the man/ branching into her body. //  But god was watching. / They felt his gold eye / projecting flowers on the landscape. // Who knew what he wanted? / He was god, and a monster. / So they waited.  And the world/ filled with his radiance, / as though he wanted to be understood. / / Far away, in the void that he had shaped, / he turned to his angels.”

In Marathon (1985), Gluck is disillusioned with the idea of each life having one true love and of the notion of life as the seeking out of soulmates, writing, doubtlessly after experiencing the demise of several deep relationships, that “the bond with any one soul is meaningless; you throw it away.”

By the mid 1980s and 90s, Gluck has, like so many of us, been forced to live through the breaking apart of the young self, and the reconstitution of the new self, the mature self, after many of the ideals and illusions of youth have been torn from us.  In The Reproach (1985) she realizes that “All my life I have worshipped the wrong the gods.”

Gluck has come to see that some of the fundamental values and theories and assumptions by which she lived her youth, were incorrect, and that like every youth, she has been misguided and misled (those words having evolved different connotations in English, misguided laying blame on the self, and misledlaying the blame on others).  In First Memory (1990), Gluck has had the epiphany that “from the beginning of time, / in childhood, I thought / that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.”

Speaking of the painful destruction of her youthful self, Gluck writes in Untrustworthy (1990):

“Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. / I don’t see anything objectively.”  […] “when a living thing is hurt like that, / in its deepest workings, / all function is altered. / That’s why I’m not to be trusted. / because a wound to the heart/ is also a wound to the mind.”

As any thoughtful and feeling person who has entered middle age must do, Gluck must rebuild her life from the ruins of her youth.   She manages to cobble together a new set of aspirations and reasons-for-living, but she knows she is no longer the same person as before the crash.  “And when hope was returned to me,” she says in a later work, The Garment (1999), “it was another hope entirely.”

Gluck has reached the pivot point, the time when one turns from immaturity to maturity; and it is not a completely pleasant turn.  In The Doorway (1992), Gluck admits the pain of middle age, the aching of fulfillment that is “midsummer”:

“I wanted to stay as I was,/ still as the world is never still, / not in midsummer but the moment before / the first flower forms, the moment / nothing is as yet past” […]  “the time directly/ / prior to flowering, the epoch of mastery//  before the appearance of the gift, / before possession.”

Like Yeats, much of Gluck’s best work is generated long after most writers of poetry or proesy have been abandoned by their gift.  Gluck, like Yeats, is thus granted the privilege of becoming a writer of wisdom and experience.  Of course, the work of both writers, by its nature, becomes laced with that melancholic strand of autumn, the time of life when the memories of youth become bittersweet and the knowledge of impending death is a weight we carry.

In Phenomenal Survivals Of Death In Nantucket (1968), the youthful Gluck could brazenly write that “I have been past what you hear in a shell.”  By Thanksgiving (1980) that prideful embrace of experience has given way to the feeling of being pursued by time:  “What doesn’t move, the snow will cover.”  What was, in youth, exciting exploration, has become, in old age, a forced flight into unknown lands:  keep moving, or die.

As Gluck matures, her themes of Distance, Isolation, and Death emerge more and more emphatically—themes which might not have been so easily spotted if her works had never been collected in a chronologically organized whole, for these deeper themes run subterraneanously and sporadically beneath her more abundant and superficial writings of day-to-day life (I hope to write a little about this side of Gluck in my next post).

In her work, October (2006), Gluck writes most blatantly about the razing of her youth and youthful ideals by the winds of time.  “A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind,” she says.  “It has left in its wake a strange lucidity.”  This is the wicked bargain of age:  the loss of the blinding light of youth, the gain of the dim light of experience.  As Gluck says in the same poem:

“This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring. / the light of autumn: you will not be spared.” […]  “This is the light of autumn, not the light that says/ I am reborn. // Not the spring dawn: I strained, I suffered, I was delivered./ This is the present, an allegory of waste.”

As far back as Metamorphosis (1985) Gluck was trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one, but in the defiant way of one whose back has not yet been bowed by Time:  “Now, after so much solitude, / death doesn’t frighten me, / not yours, not mine either./ And those words, the last time, / have no power over me.  I know / intense love always leads to mourning.”

However, by the time of Lament (1999), Gluck no longer attempts to put on a brave face when it comes to facing down murderous Time:

“A terrible thing is happening – my love / is dying again, my love who had died already: / died and been mourned.  And music continues, / music of separation: the trees/ become instruments. //  How cruel the earth, the willows shimmering, / the birches bending and sighing. / How cruel, how profoundly tender. //  My love is dying; my love / not only a person, but an idea, a life. //  What will I live for? / Where will I find him again/ if not in grief, dark wood / from which the lute is made.//  Once is enough.  Once is enough/ to say goodbye on earth. “

In old age, the passionate Gluck misses the joys that come with having a youthful body, joys that few if any of us can fully appreciate at the time of possession; in Moonbeam (2001) she writes:

“the sun rose, briefly, diluted./  And after what seemed years, it sank again/ and twilight washed over the shore and deepened there. / And from out of nowhere lovers came, / people who still had bodies and hearts.  Who still had / arms, legs, mouths.”

In Walking At Night (2009) Gluck sadly acknowledges that “now that she is old, the young men don’t approach her” and that “when they pass, they don’t notice her.”  She explains why being the invisible woman hurts on several levels:  “When you look at a body you see a history.  Once that body isn’t seen anymore, the story it tried to tell gets lost.”  “A terrible solitude surrounds all beings who confront mortality,” she says in Bats (2009).

Gluck always has a love-hate relationship with memories, enjoying their warmth sometimes, yet at other times pained by the hole they have burned in her.  In Prism (2006), one can hear her ambivalence concerning experience—experience that is painfully gathered, but can, nevertheless, provide a sort of shelter:  “Dirt.  Fragments of blistered rock.  On which the exposed heart constructs a house, memory.”

Writing in Summer Night (2001), a nostalgic Gluck writhes in her memories, twisting back and forth between fond remembrance and painful regret:

“Balm of the summer night, balm of the ordinary, / imperial joy and sorrow of human existence, / the dreamed as well as the lived– / what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?”  So much for the fond memories, but there are also misgivings:  “So many passionate letters never sent! / So many urgent journeys conceived of on summer nights, / surprise visits to men who were nearly complete strangers. / the tickets never bought, the letters never stamped. / and pride spared. And the life, in a sense, never completely lived.”

In Eros (2001), speaking of old age, Gluck remarks that “my heart had become small; it took very little to fill it.”  In The Garment (1999) Gluck says:

“My soul dried up. / Like a soul cast into fire, but not completely, / not to annihilation. Parched, / it continued. Brittle, / not from solitude but from mistrust, / the aftermath of violence.”

One can feel the inevitable weariness of age descending on Gluck by the time she writes In The Cafe(2009); here Gluck longs for the appearance of a rescuer who will pull her out from the piled debris of a long life (could that rescuer be Death?):

“It’s natural to be tired of earth. / when you’ve been dead this long, you’ll probably be tired of heaven./ You do what you can do in a place / but after a while you exhaust the place, / so you long for rescue.”

In Arboretum (2001), one of my favorite whole-length proesies of Gluck’s (which I’m tempted to quote wholly, but will refrain), Gluck reports, at the end of a life that started in such passionate activity, of the sad arrival of the passivity of the declining years:

“We had the problem of age, the problem of wishing to linger. / Not needing, anymore, even to make a contribution./ merely wishing to linger: to be, to be here. // And to stare at things, but with no real avidity. / To browse, to purchase nothing.” 

In our advanced and decrepit years, we humans can not fully be present, and yet we cannot fully bring ourselves to leave.  “We could not cure ourselves of desire, not completely,” the poem continues, “Our hands, folded, reeked of it.”  That is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of old age:  that desires linger even after the body and mind have knotted up inside the womb of death, after we have curled into the anti-fetus and float our last days through, not the throbbing syrups, but the chilling fluids:  helplessness, fear, weakness, loss, pain, cowardice.

You can sense the writer feeling the pull of That Farther Shore in Ripe Peach (2001):  “Fifty years. The night sky / filled with shooting stars. / light, music/ from far away–  I must be / nearly gone. I must be/ stone, since the earth / surrounds me.”

In the same poem, Ripe Peach, Gluck writes what I think is one of the best and most succinct passages every written in literature concerning the passage of a life (I get chills still now, just typing it out):

“There was

a peach in a wicker basket.

There was a bowl of fruit.

Fifty years.  Such a long walk

from the door to the table.”


more Hammering Shield on Gluck:

Louise Gluck:  Poet Of Quotidian Femininity 



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