Louise Gluck’s Poetry: Whole But Not Final

Lots of hits in the last 24 hours on my earlier blog post about Louise Gluck. Being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature tends to have that effect… She’s a fascinating writer, always experimenting, but Anne Carson or Claudia Rankine would have come before her on my list. But given the obvious interest in her work, I’m posting here the text of the review I wrote for Poetry London in 2014 of Gluck’s last (ie. latest, though 6 years old now) book, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Carcanet). The review was paired with Michael Longley’s The Stairwell (Cape, 2014).

Louise Gluck’s comments on George Oppen remain one of the best ways into her own poetry. In praising Oppen, she declares her own hand: “I love white space, love the telling omission [. . .] find oddly depressing that which seems to have left out nothing. Such poetry seems to love completion too much, and like a thoroughly cleaned room, it paralyses activity” (Proofs and Theories, Carcanet, 1994). The homely metaphor here is also characteristic. She shares with Oppen (and surprisingly with Longley) a preference for what is singular, common, small, for “solid nouns”, a language restored “to natural health [. . .] for common use”, rather than a Stevensian “hermetic patois” (‘On George Oppen’ ). So her style has been variously called spare, stripped down, deflated, thinned (especially so since Ararat (1990)). Yet the miraculous paradox her poems evoke is suggested by a further observation from 1994, that “precision is not the opposite of mystery”. Gluck’s dreamlike, enigmatic narratives are all the more powerful – convincing one might say – precisely because of the directness, plainness of her language.

It’s appropriate then that in her new book one of the protagonists paints canvases which are “immense and entirely white” (‘The White Series’). There is mystery enough in this new collection which (as often with Gluck) gestures towards a narrative but whose narrators switch gender, are much concerned with parents (who have perhaps died in a car crash), a caring aunt, a brother (perhaps a sister). These are scenes from (at least one) life. The dominant voice is that of a male artist who, after a career interruption, begins to paint white on a visit to America. He takes on a nephew as a companion as he approaches death. In ‘A Summer Garden’, he discovers a photo of his mother slipped into a translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and a studied, fin de siècle fastidiousness over language surfaces in many poems. Gluck’s novelistic skills in drawing a world in a few strokes and character in even fewer are evident, though once again action is missing; Gluck’s characters, whether male or female, are passive.

Like Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, Gluck’s figures contemplate mortality while turning over their past. Though less obviously personal and less contented, as with Longley, the term nunc dimittis seems appropriate. The loss of parental figures is a recurrent trope and in ‘An Adventure’ love too is stripped away in a vain hope of “profound discoveries”. Poetry is lost too, again anticipating “the vast territory / opening to us with each valediction”. In A Village Life (2009), such a via negativa was doubted as “illumination / of the kind [that] destroys / creatures who depend on things” (‘Bats’) and here too it seems ineffectual. The quasi-Victorian cosiness evoked by the book’s title is exposed as false as remembered days “become unstable”, time leaps to and fro, seemingly at random and, if the soul travels at all, the puzzle remains that it always returns “empty-handed”:

[. . .] there is no perfect ending.

Indeed, there are infinite endings.

Or perhaps, once one begins,

there are only endings.

                                                                        ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night’

This is a bleak world not unfamiliar to readers of Gluck. In 1985 she asked, “Why love what you will lose?” only to answer, “There is nothing else to love” (From the Japanese’). Here, her real subject is the way we create our own meanings. ‘Afterword’ reflects on an earlier poem in the collection, suspicious of the “instinct / [to] discern a shape, the artist in me / intervening to stop traffic, as it were”. A meeting with an old woman yields the anticipation “that some important secret / was about to be entrusted” but on reflection her words are “pointless” (‘A Sharply Worded Silence’). Gluck (again like Longley) has used Homeric and Greek mythic material to ironise her more contemporary subjects. Faithful and Virtuous Night instead makes reference to T H White’s The Sword in the Stone to evoke the same kind of focused, watershed moment, indubitably saturated with meaning that the events of her narrator’s lives lack. Even the analyst’s couch offers nothing more than “my ingenuity versus / his evasiveness: our little game” (’The Sword in the Stone’).

In recent years, the Italian settings of Averno (2006) and A Village Life have seemed to warm Gluck’s empathy, developing a more dramatic quality to her work in portraits less obviously autobiographical. This new collection perhaps reverts, but still she engages and moves her readers and there do seem to be eventual gains along this apparently bleak road. These lie in the poems’ openness, the way they seem capable of encompassing such varieties of experience, of saying ‘yes’. Of Oppen, she wrote that his work had the power to seem “simultaneously, whole and not final, the power to generate, not annul, energy”. As in sitting before a Samuel Beckett drama, the paradox is we are not drained of energy by the apparently fruitless search for meaning, but are thrown back onto the road all the more attuned to the clues, to the activity demanded of us. In his last days, Gluck’s artist has his nephew sing Jacques Brel’s ‘The Old Folks’ (“The little cat is dead and no more do they sing“) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Hills are Alive’. The insight is that “we do not, in the main, need to choose between them” (‘The White Series’).

To end at the beginning, Faithful and Virtuous Night opens with ‘Parable’ in which, “as St. Francis teaches”, a group of people divest themselves of worldly goods, better to focus on their goals, better to move unencumbered towards them. But the direction of travel is unclear, as is their purpose. Much debate ensues; time passes. In the background, perhaps we hear Brel’s “old silver clock” ticking. The group grows old in debate and their ageing (some believe) is their true purpose, while others believe the passage of time is the truth they hoped to be revealed. Both seem satisfied and perhaps we need not choose between them, only admire Gluck’s precise evocation of the mystery.

How Poems Slowly Get Written – from haiku to abecedary

Bloodaxe poet, editor and tutor, Chrissy Williams, set up and edits PERVERSE poetry. Her site’s strap-line for publication is that she’s looking for “deliberate, obstinate, unreasonable or unacceptable poems, contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice”. A willful outlier, in other words, looking for experiments and/or orphans. Some of you – if you subscribe to her site or keep an eye on social media – may have seen three pieces I’ve written which PERVERSE published last week. These were the opening three poems from a sequence of twelve and the Note published with them by PERVERSE explains a good deal (I’ll put the poems themselves at the end of this post).

Note: these poems are from a sequence in the form of an abecedary, a calendar of 12 pieces. Carolyn Forche’s ‘On Earth’ first interested me in this form. She associates its inclusiveness (from A-Z) with the pleroma, the fullness of God’s creation, the One. The fullness I have aimed at in this case was the difficult last years of my parents’ lives. Drawing on notes I made between 2016 – 2018, the disjointed nature of this particular totality reflects their growing illness and confusion; but I hope the whole exudes what it was written with, love.

On the theme of ‘how poems come to be written’, today I’m posting images of a couple of the pages from my notebook of the time. You’ll see phrases and images which made it through to the final poems. As can perhaps be seen from the scribbles, what I had originally in mind was something close to the form of haiku. I’d been reading and admiring Masaya Saito’s book of haiku called Snow Bones. This had just been published in 2016 by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (I think maybe I’d bought the book at the Poetry Book Fair that year). Snow Bones consist of four narrative haiku sequences, spoken by several different voices. Saito writes in both English and Japanese (these poems are all in English). Two of these sequences focus on the death and funerals of parents and what I admired was the way in which the compression of the form allowed the poet to express the powerful emotions of love and grief. Between 2016-18, my mother and father were going through a decline in both mental and physical health, eventually moving into a care home, sadly both dying within 18 months of each other. So I had my own powerful feelings to deal with and one of the ways of coping was to try to write about these experiences.

Here’s a couple of pages from Saito’s book. You’ll see he does not approach the haiku form in the rather rigid syllabic way that we often think of it. Also I liked the way in which – of the 3 lines – he always sets one off, either opening or closing. This creates drama and tension even within such a short space.

So then here’s a page from my notebook of the time – the crossings out indicate that I have used the text going forward. Initially I tried to maintain my hopes of a haiku sequence. I can see here phrases that made it into the final poem (in such a different form): the box of Quality Street chocolates, the days passing as at a level crossing, the introduction of a new care plan while they were still living at home. I remember taking a dozen or so of these haiku pieces to a writing workshop. The response was polite, even some enthusiasm, but I felt this was in part a response to the personal nature of the subject matter as much as to the success of the choices I’d made as a poet. (These are always very difficult moments in a workshop – depth of involvement on the writer’s part often makes more cool, critical observations hard to bring forward).So I wasn’t sure. The texts stayed in another notebook. This is what happens (for me at least). I’d then often be browsing back through the notebook at those bits of text not yet crossed through as having been advanced to the next stage. I’m re-reading to see if there remains any life in these fragments left in limbo. I kept reading these haiku and thinking there was a lot of good writing, but they had certainly not found their right form.

Here’s another image of an original page.

The fourth haiku here I still like:

The phone’s numerals are very big

the size of Scrabble pieces

a language you once knew

In the final poems, the image of a “language” re-emerges rather changed. The sixth haiku poem here has an image of “a shrew its paw caught in a trap” which is itself an echo of a line from the previous page (“The scratching of a mouse trapped”) – the relevance of these recurring images of entrapment is obvious given my parents were pretty well confined to their house by physical weakness and mental uncertainties. Such images surface in the final poems, in the first poem’s opening quatrain, as “a mouse’s paw caught in the trap”.

I don’t remember when the final choice about these poems was made – the one that decided an abecedary form would be appropriate. Those who have followed this blog for a few years will have heard me ruminating on this form before and on my discovery of it via Carolyn Forche. In rational terms, I felt the systematic coherence imposed on phrases by the alphabetical sequence would be effective in an ironic way because most of the fragmented material I had assembled spoke to an incoherence rooted in the way my parents were now living. Is it too much to say that I was hoping to piece things together for Mum and Dad in a way that they were unable to themselves? There are other (more conventional) poems about my parents in my most recent full collection, The Lovely Disciplines.

The re-shaping of the text worked (to my mind). Assembling something like this is a thrilling balance of chance (the sequence of the alphabet) and choice (the poet retains the right to trim and edit phrases). The title I’ve given the sequence comes from the last haiku in the first image above:

A large print calendar

days crossed off behind

ahead no footprints in the snow

I remember buying them a large print calendar so they could follow the days passing more easily. Often – but not always – they’d cross through the days passed. When we cleared the house eventually, the calendar was still hanging up, the crossed off days having stopped at a certain point; the future days left blank and pristine. The walls of the house have not been literally demolished. But it has been sold on to another family and so for me and my brothers the walls might as well have been demolished. The lives lived out there are gone, except for what we can remember (some of which can be written down).

Here are the three poems in the sequence (from A to I) that have so far been published:

from Notes on a calendar (hung on a demolished wall)