A Village Life byLouise Glűck
reviewed by Elaine Terranova
A Louise Glűck poem is unmistakable. Brilliantly honed, gem-like, always with an unexpected turn. Simple but elusive. Personal but not confessional, so sure in itself, not a plea for sympathy. Often heart-wrenching, devastating poems, and even then, with an edge of humor, like what schadenfreude should mean but doesn’t. Ten books of them, and now an 11th. Taken individually, each collection has an arc—you wouldn’t mistake an ending poem—and yet there’s a forward-going motion: an impulse that surfaces in one book is likely to spill over into a later one. For instance, you can follow the trail of flowers. "Brenende Liebe" in The House on Marshland foreshadows roses again in Ararat’s "Birthday," in which the flowers keep arriving ten years after the sender’s death. And then a whole book where flowers have their say, The Wild Iris, Glűck’s Book of Hours, reminiscent of medieval prayer books illuminated with foliage and blossoms. Some of the poems are framed as matins and vespers, appropriate to the time of day, beseeching or thankful. In others, flowers explain themselves and give advice; the life cycles of flowers, after all, can be measured in hours. God answers the prayers, sometimes in the voice of an impatient parent: "you were like very young children,/always waiting for a story./And I’d been through it all too many times;/I was tired of telling stories."
The Triumph of Achilles too begins with a flower. "Mock Orange" reads like a cry in the night. So narrow side to side, yet it turns like a gyre, examining every aspect of the situation. It can be taken as a great poem of female consciousness, suggesting the trade-off in yielding to sexual desire, "the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth," which brings to mind a line from "Dedication to Hunger" (Descending Figure): his kiss "might as well have been/his hand over her mouth." If in "Mock Orange" the speaker is more complicit, the intoxication of the flower is partly to blame. But not just the woman, we are told, both parties are affected by the lie, that there can be true union. The Triumph of Achilles might in fact be chronicling the course of a honeymoon, with its sensuality and dreaminess, the scenes of a marketplace and other associations to travel, "couples ahead/choosing souvenirs." As the setting changes, the myths of the place emerge, Daphne and Apollo, for one, and in the title poem, Achilles’ hollow triumph, reinforcing the danger involved in loving.
Only the earliest books, Firstborn and The House on Marshland, can be thought of as collections of individual poems. Descending Figure is more associative. With its poems relating to the mirrors of sister, lover, child, it's a study in identity and self-presentation. And at least as erotically charged as The Triumph of Achilles:
Today above the gull’s call
I heard you waking me again…
I feel its hunger
As your hand inside me,
so common, unmusical—
In fact, Descending Figure uses the f word before The New Yorker thought of doing so. Still, the poems develop in the short, tight lines of Glűck 's work thus far. With The Triumph of Achilles though, a whole world opens up. Myth becomes a major strategy. The lines begin to expand and contract, an accordion of consciousness. And from that time, a grand design seems to be established: each book with a different purpose, following a different literary model. Ararat is biblical, a postdeluvian family narrative, wife and daughters, into the next generation, still vying for the love of the dead father. In Meadowlands, the mock epic breakup of a marriage is enacted against a backdrop of the Odyssey. And Vita Nova invokes Dante’s long poem about starting a new life. The book ends with these self-referential, tongue-in-cheek lines, "I thought my life was over and my heart was broken./Then I moved to Cambridge."
In the collection Meadowlands, the couple’s relationship, even in the end stage, is cemented by talk because it’s how you know the other person, even in the dark. Funny, bitter little dialogues occur:
Look what you did—
you made the cat move.
But I didn’t want your hand there.
I wanted your hand here.
You find such poems as well in Vita Nova, "Timor Mortis," "Mutable Earth," and "Inferno," but in that book, it is the self questioning itself, no indentations showing character change needed. A Village Life moves from dialogue to dramatic monologue, and with its pastoral theme, brings to mind Virgil’s Eclogues. Glűck’s lines here are more consistently long, like the Latin, and the poet appears from time to time, as Virgil does, a figure apart who has assembled the narratives of villagers, sets the scene, and keeps watch. In an interview, Glűck says of A Village Life, "There’s something in these poems that I’ve been unable to put my finger on….And it strikes me that the book has something in common with 'Landscape,' a poem in Averno." The first section of "Landscape" pictures a traveler, his horse, a dog, and an uncertain future. The configuration is reminiscent of Dürer’s etching, "The Knight, Death, and the Devil"; behind are mountains, and within range, the narrator, who appears in the poem but is not involved in the action, in fact is separate from it, placed here almost accidentally. She might be looking at an etching. "Landscape." It already has the idea of art. The close description yet undocumented connection are aspects of ekphrastic poetry, and I can understand how Glűck connects it to A Village Life for likewise, the poems in this book might be taken from scenes in a family album.
Up until now, description has not seemed so important to Glűck. In their immediacy, her poems have the impact of an electric current. Analytical and psychologically oriented, they delve into the unconscious, and going deep enough, hit myth. When the rare simile or metaphor seems necessary, Glűck is likely to produce it by paring down to the exact and indisputable word: in "Illuminations" (Descending Figure), "my son squats in the snow in his blue snowsuit. All around him stubble, the brown/degraded bushes"—clearly, what winter does is degrade. This technique appears as well in A Village Life. In "March," for instance, "the season of discoveries/is beginning. Always the same discoveries, but to the dog,/intoxicating and new, not duplicitous." That word "duplicitous," looking both ways, promising but not delivering. And the poem’s last word, "You ask the sea, what can you promise me/and it speaks the truth; it says erasure." Yet, generally, the poems of A Village Life are more leisurely and descriptive— Glűck is so much not at a fever pitch here—
This time of year, the window boxes smell of the hills,
The thyme and rosemary that grew there,
Crammed into the narrow spaces between the rocks
And, lower down, where there was real dirt,
Competing with other things, blueberries and currants
Although the villagers share a boundary, they are people you'd find around you anywhere, neighbors, workers in auto body shops, on farms, in factories. A Village Life is a working class life. In its way sociological, even political, the book takes into consideration the relationship these people have to power: employers ("Olive Trees"), husbands ("Marriage"), priests ("Confession"), doctors ("A Slip of Paper"), anyone who can control their fate. As in a folktale or a story by Dűrrenmatt, the population is born and grows up in the village, then is likely harvested to the city, moving away in necessity or disgrace, with that incentive to return in triumph, to show "them." A democratic story, an American story of a hundred years ago. And just where is this village? I don't picture it Japanese, despite the cover painting. It's a Manchurian Candidate of villages. Everyone can see his/her family's ancestral home, where an earlier generation peeled off to make a new beginning. Mine is a shtetl in Hungary, so I place it in Mitteleuropa. Glűck might too. In "Legend," from The Triumph of Achilles, a grandfather leaves a village in Hungary for New York: "From the factory, like sad birds his dreams/flew to Dhlua, grasping in their beaks/…scattered images, loose bits of the village." Glűck knows village life herself. From "Paradise" (Ararat), "I grew up in a village: now/it’s almost a city." Even the word "village" is steeped in nostalgia. It conjures a sense of longing.
But the village can also be where you remain, the endpoint, like the goal or finish in a game. It might be the global village McLuhan predicted—which has practically come about. Or a reference to that mysterious TV show The Prisoner, where the hero, No. 6, awakens in the Village over and over without knowing where he is, except that it's a prison. Gluck’s village can be too. Again, in "March," "fate…locked her up in the hills, where no one escapes," where the person is confined as well as protected. Potemkin village, model for a train set, but the poet's eye is like a train tracking the enclave. As in Freud's "uncanny," Glűck plays with uncertainty, a world behind the world. "Heimlich" (homey) as the village is, its odd juxtapositions of time and place take us away from the real or what we can know for sure, the familiar and the unfamiliar coexisting. Yet, or perhaps because of this, the book captures the essence of "village."
In a similar way, the young people in the poem "Midsummer" lose their identity when they strip off their clothes and their ordinary lives, and are recast in water like molten metal, effigies of themselves, hardened into something new. The poem begins with a statement, "On nights like this we used to swim in the quarry." I picture a sepia photo, old-fashioned summer clothes thrown off and crowning the slope leading down to the pool. The boys devise a game to take off the girls clothes, "the girls cooperating, because they had new bodies since last summer/and they wanted to exhibit them, the brave ones/leaping off the high rocks/bodies crowding the water." That turning and turning over the idea, as in "Mock Orange." "And" and "but," adding information or taking it away: "AND the girls cooperating," "AND they wanted to exhibit them." "The rocks were dangerous,/BUT in another way it was all dangerous." The unpopular ones would "pretend to go off with each other like the rest,/BUT what could they do there, in the woods?" There are sound echoes here, the iambs and anapests rocking and then running ahead. And the longer lines are likely to come down on a short one where something is explained or emphasized: "buildings in cities far away," "fate would be a different fate," "wanting the heat to break." And cadenced repetitions, "buildings…/buildings," "nights…/nights," "After…/after," "terrible…/terrible" leading us on, sound and sense shaping the idea, like the "r" sounds of the fourth stanza: "we were all together./After the evening chores, after the smaller children were in bed," the murmur of summer.
The unexpected smoking of cigarettes brings the scene closer to the present. Buck bathing in Vermont? But the terrible,terrible consequence, the baby coming out "of all that kissing," that's ubiquitous. The biblical "ands" and the peach, like forbidden fruit, that the boys and girls eat on the front steps in the evening, tasting so good, "it seemed an honor to have a mouth." The poem goes on,
You will leave the village where you were born,
and in another country you’ll become very rich, very powerful,
but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though you
can’t say what it was,
and eventually you will return to seek it.
The collection includes two poems titled "Bats," two titled "Earthworm," and two, "Burning Leaves." Glűck has done this before, in Averno, for instance. They could be considered "takes," as in a movie or a jazz performance, another way of exploring similar material, of creating resonance. In The Triumph of Achilles, "Song of the River" tells us, "Once we were happy, we had no memories,/For all the repetition, nothing happened twice." And nothing happens twice in A Village Life. The second poem of the same name or reuse of a word or phrase is a lament, a commentary, not the same thing again at all.
The human speech in Village is informal, marked by contractions. The higher diction belongs to the bats and the earthworms. They are more prescient; you could think of them as our monitors. The bat instructs us how to see the world, how to pick up signals that provide superior intelligence. In a similar fashion, the earthworm poems show what's underneath our world, what awaits us. The earthworm speaks to tell our fortune. The first "Earthworm" explores the body/mind dichotomy. The second brings in Buddhism and foreshadows the Zen koan in the title poem at the end of the book. If the people are busy doing things, kissing, having babies, tilling soil, assembling goods, the earthworm is busy undoing. So many de- and dis- words: dichotomy, delusional, devoid, detached, disdain, destroy, declines. Like the flowers in The Wild Iris, the bat and the earthworm know more than we can. They fathom our motives and our weaknesses; creatures of darkness, like Tiresias, they see without the need of eyes. With their sophisticated diction, they are the philosophers:
There is a path you cannot see, beyond the eye's reach, the philosophers have called
the via negativa: to make a place for light the mystic shuts his eyes—illumination
of the kind he seeks destroys creatures who depend on things
which is what we are.
In "Noon," the sun is shining down but the heat isn’t intense yet. The couple here are still children, not really a couple. It’s summer. "School’s over." The two children are free, meaning separate from each other, as well as at liberty. Glűck characterizes adolescence as so indeterminate it gives them the choice: "They know at some point you stop being children, and at that point/you become strangers." The long line explaining, the short line following, aphoristic, a punch line. What ties the children together is talk, not yet touching, which they both fear.
In "Threshing," Glűck creates a scene of genial male camaraderie, maybe a kind of bravura, the joking and competition, where the sexes seem as separate as the rhythms of the day. It's time for lunch. The workers are clearly delineated, in the sun, pausing at their labor. Threshing is after all meant to separate wheat from chaff, what is important from what is not; thus, the reality of the workday is separate from the illusion of love, which is a mystery of night, a dream. Haven’t we seen villages structured this way, in Sicily, in Greece or Turkey, or farther East, the men in the sun, in public places, the women, cloistered, as if held in reserve?
The predominant mood of the collection, loss and longing, is struck in "Before the Storm," which comes early in the book. The poem announces incipient danger. An imprecation, maybe the Bible is speaking here, "Better look at the fields now." We are reminded that nature is stronger than a creature’s designs, that it unmoors you, even after you've gone "home to the village," as in "Noon," to get your bearings. Mice, a fox appear, presentiments of change, threats. A sheep is lost, "and not just any sheep—the ram,"— Glűck never wastes words—"the whole future." The ram, the male principle, instrument of increase. And isn’t that the intent of the pastoral, to make more? "Everything’s settled now," we are told, "the world as it was cannot return."
The village is gone, over, history. All Glűck’s books taken together chart the course of a life. The last, Averno, opens the seam of the underworld. A Village Life can be thought of as a look back at a lost world. How can you confront these vivid tableaux vivants and not want to go home—wherever that is? You see yourself in the predicament of the villagers, stubbornly human despite the indifference and finality of nature. In A Village Life Glűck extends that personal searchlight into the soul (she is one of the few poets since Rilke who can use the word "soul" convincingly) like a novelist or playwright, entering the lives of others. She might be saying, this is the way the earth will seem as you leave it, with all its miniaturized attractions. The motion of this powerful book is backwards, toward a return or reconciliation, but you want more of this voice, more of this conversation.