As they have been for many, Louise Glück’s poems have been among the great gifts of my life. I never got to meet her, but by now that voice has become native to my thought — I quote the poems so often, and turn to them often in difficult times.
My long affinity for her has puzzled friends. Given the bleakness of much of her work, my love for her poems has been lumped in with other morbid fascinations. I was told at some point, “I feel like you’re weirdly obsessed with depressed old ladies and people who are about to die.”
That may be true. Many of the poems do seem to have lost everything. Her tone was so often that of the luminous clarity proceeding from total devastation. Frank, undecorated, even inhumane, they are poems we return to not for consolations from the world of things, but for the good company of a timeless mind — stark, but for that reason, permanent. For all their bleakness, they are a unique comfort.
It’s a different kind of consolation. In her refusal to compromise to romance or imprecision, she marked paths of dignity through extreme loss and pain. Even the most personal poems shy away from details of biography or identity, preferring the deeper resonance of the archetypal.
Though frank, the poems aren’t necessarily accessible. They demand serious attention and benefit from a familiarity with her voice. Here is my reading of a favorite of mine, “Vita Nuova,” title poem to the collection of the same name:
You saved me, you should remember me.
The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the ferryboats.
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.
When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same feeling.
I remember sounds like that from my childhood,
laughter for no cause, simply because the world is beautiful,
something like that.
Lugano. Tables under the apple trees.
Deckhands raising and lowering the colored flags.
And by the lake’s edge, a young man throws his hat into the water;
perhaps his sweetheart has accepted him.
sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes
and then unused, buried.
Islands in the distance. My mother
holding out a plate of little cakes—
as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age
hungry for life, utterly confident—
By the tables, patches of new grass, the pale green
pieced into the dark existing ground.
Surely spring has been returned to me, this time
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.From Vita Nuova
The poem reaches across a whole life. The bulk of it is a scene from childhood that seems to represent a very particular feeling of spring. This feeling had, in the instant, appeared very important — big enough, possibly, to set the tone for an entire life.
Instead it was lost, its “crucial sounds” and “gestures” ending up “buried.” It’s an odd but tender insight instantiated by what is the real miracle of the poem: the feeling’s unexpected return. It has reemerged in a dream in the form of enchanted images.
The nature of the feeling itself is — can only be — expressed in those images: laughter, apple blossoms, probably most crucially her mother, “holding out a little plate of cakes.” For unknown reasons, this memory has suddenly become available to her. Perhaps, in Blakean terms, the poet is finally experienced enough for innocence to return.
Some details feel mysterious. Colored nautical flags moving up and down, a hat thrown into a lake in a city in Switzerland. These gestures have a distance to them. She can only speculate what they mean. They suggest other languages remembered, but no longer quite spoken: sensuality, romance. The day by the lake has returned to her as itself, but she, of course, has changed. She receives its message this time “not as a lover but as a messenger of death.”
The caution is part of her precision. She is not a romantic; a picnic by the lake does not enrapture her in notions of transcendence or the redemption of her life. Instead it becomes a part of, “pieced into” what may very well be an image of her mind, the “dark existing ground.” Because the hope is qualified, we feel we can trust it totally. Spring hasn’t saved her. We don’t expect it to.
But a single day has survived decades; one related to the earliest love, and it is somehow enough to make this most exacting mind alter slightly, allowing for a patch of green so near the end of life. “Tenderness” is the poem’s final note — not the cynicism of experience, but an old, simple feeling. Amazingly, she finds she can still entertain it. It’s a vision of springtime I like, whose scents alone retain a kind of absolute hope which is not allowed in the realm of logic.
Louise’s work often addressed a single crucial question, maybe the one with which we most often turn to poetry: “Can I really, actually come back from this?” This being desolation, loss, often distilled down to the bare facts of mortality.
One of her answers: “Yes, but what returns is not what went away.” That’s from the opening poem of her last collection, “Winter Recipes from the Collective.” It’s a parable in which the speaker becomes stuck at a hotel because of the loss of a passport (again, actually, in a “small European Republic”).
Rather than trying to leave, the speaker inexplicably lets her whole life pass there, staying even once the passport returns in the mail. Like many of her fables, it requires a submission to its strangeness, and makes few concessions to the logic of plot.
Though I always loved them, it’s taken me a long time to appreciate Louise’s poems with relative confidence. They are never as straightforward as they seem. Reading “The Denial of Death” a few months ago, I realized that the last line completely baffled me. I thought one of us must have had a stroke, or that I had been wrong in assuming I knew how to read at all. For a few minutes at least, I was sure I would never come back from it.