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.

Things of the Earth: Joaquin Giannuzzi’s Poems

Here’s a game: search the little haystack that follows for the several needle-reasons why I wanted to blog something this week about the poetry of Joaquin Giannuzzi.

In a review in Poetry Wales, Nia Davies praises Giannuzzi’s “singular, destabilising and pessimistic, but humane take on the world” and, in part, she links this to the turbulent political landscape of Argentina through the twentieth century. This is poetry “always aware of the presence of violence behind a wall” though Giannuzzi is probably a less explicitly political writer than this suggests. The violence he sees in the world is a harshness even beyond politics and his humanity lies in a hard-won sympathy that we all inhabit a world in which human endeavour has become something of a “mockery”, death the only certainty.


Giannuzzi was born in 1924 to a family of Italian immigrants in Argentina. He chose journalism as a career and his observational gifts are obvious, poems often focusing on individual objects or people. He is a poet of disengagement, the objective gaze (as much as that is ever possible) though what is revealed is in part the poet’s response to what he sees, in part an ironic detachment from it. These are points made by Richard Gwyn (who also links him with Samuel Beckett) in a selection of his brilliant translations of Giannuzzi’s work from 1977 on, A Complicated Mammal (CB Editions, 2012). It was reading with Gwyn in Wales a few weeks ago that first brought Giannuzzi’s work to my notice.

The title ‘Garbage at daybreak’ says a lot about Giannuzzi’s approach. There is the distancing effect of reporting that a “sociological interest” brings the narrator to examine the garbage bins though what he learns is that “things don’t die but are murdered”. His listing of items begins obviously enough but takes a more troubling turn with “a doll’s torso, with a dark stain” (that turbulent twentieth century again?) into a more metaphysical malaise suggested by the ambiguous phrase “rosy meadow death” (una especie de muerte en un campo rosado). The poem ends with a discomforting “comfort”, realising that “not even this excrement / is obliged to abandon the planet”. Why do we harbor such crap and ugliness? But what if we compelled it to be ejected, might we be left even more empty-handed?


It was while completing an interview about my own writing (to appear in Acumen Poetry Magazine later this year) that I found myself saying “I’d be happy to accept I am committed to the empirical. As a child, though very quiet and reserved, I don’t remember living in any kind of fantasy world: I would be observing things going on around me. I used to find objects when I was a kid – coloured stones, shells, lost coins – and I remember the pleasure when my mother would say, ‘You’re always on the look-out. You never miss anything’. To this day, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues”. From this, it’s obvious why I respond to Giannuzzi’s work and ‘Coffee and apples’ is a good example of what Gwyn calls Giannuzzi’s concern for “thingitude” or las cosas de la tierra (things of the earth). He locates the poem in an afternoon in June, a moment of uncharacteristic ease since the world “has become hospitable”, though this is immediately cast into doubt with the simile comparing this to “a truce”, a mere postponement of hostilities. But for a while the things of this world give off an allure of “radiance” and “steam” while the narrator sprawls on his “backside”. But the truce is indeed short-lived as the poem ends with a bomb blast, police arriving, all delivered in a tone suggestive of the commonplace.


Giannuzzi’s narrators are often solitary and self-critical. In another moment of what seems like ease, one turns accusingly on himself: “I sold out my youth”. The waste of time, sucking on the “ribs of aesthetics” has yielded nothing, not even (look how quickly the Absurdist gulf opens in the course of these three lines): “a personal system of language / I mean an act of writing / That my contemporaries might interpret sufficiently badly” (‘Self-criticism). What Giannuzzi does do is see things and poetry (argues the poem ‘Poetics’) “is what is being seen”.

There are rare moments of tenderness. In being aware of his daughter dressing for a night out, another narrator reaches for religious hyperbole as she evokes a second Eden, “a second perfection of nature”. What propels her to this is a “faith” he cannot share or even imagine and as she puts finishing touches to the creation of herself – especially memorable in the clicking of her bracelets closing – he sees her leave the room “and everything that I am not goes with her”. This treads a fine line between self-pity and an excoriating nihilism that risks wiping out his daughter’s youthful optimism: but it is a line Giannuzzi treads so skillfully, leaving the reader with the strange pleasures of a hard-headed modernist perception alongside a touching evocation of paternal love. Brilliant – especially so when it floated into my mind lying awake waiting for my just-eighteen-year-old daughter turning the lock downstairs, back from late-night clubbing in Shoreditch. She’s back safe and sound; that big world out there.


Gwyn notes that Giannuzzi’s narrators are often caught gazing through a window at the big world out there. In one case, what is observed is only an “indistinct appearance”, fragments, colours, a suffering, “tangled up in itself”. The poem imagines a million other similar windows, each framing its “failed theologian” and for Giannuzzi the adjective makes the point here; divinity is only present “by gloomy delegation”, though even that is probably too strongly put. Desertion, perhaps would be better, more truthful. Giannuzzi’s is not the best of all possible worlds, it is the “only possible” and ‘Theologian at the window’ ends by suggesting the human animal has little choice but to suffer “a corresponding headache”.

These are a great poems, short, modern, dark lyrics (that would knock most of the 2015 Forward shortlists into a cocked hat) by a poet compared by Jessica Sequeira in the Glasgow Review of Books to Montale, Auden, Pavese and T. S. Eliot. Richard Gwyn has done a magnificent job of translating him for us – the least we can do is go and buy it.

Joaquin Giannuzzi is interviewed (in Spanish) and reads his poem ‘La desaparición’: