A Village Life

Louise Glück



Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Louise Glück’s poems are really good at feeling bad. In “Retreating Figure,” the best poem in her Pulitzer-winning collection The Wild Iris, Glück imagines what God might say about His absence. Her best known poem remains “Mock Orange,” a one-page lyric in which she says of the flowers in the title, “I hate them. / I hate them as I hate sex.” Ararat, the book she wrote between those two strange intensities, is my favorite work of hers. The plainspoken tendency in American poetry is never sharper nor darker:

My sister and I reached
the same conclusion: the best way
to love us was to not
spend time with us.

(from “Animals,” Ararat)

Ararat centers around mourning the death of the father; I intentionally don’t say Glück’s father. Glück always means the definite article and the declaration of importance the word the implies. In a Glück poem, you feel what you’re told to feel, on the double. I mean that as praise. Glück can be amazing, a catharsis machine, the true minimalist who gives not as little as possible but as little as necessary.

Where I start qualifying my praise is where she cuts short investigating what prompts all the depressing rage:

Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was&#8212
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.

(from “First Memory,” Ararat)

It might have meant both those things, actually. There’s no room in Glück’s decisive poetics for ambivalence, though&#8212especially when it comes to emotion&#8212and that puts a limit on how profoundly she can affect readers. 

A Village Life is Glück’s eleventh book. The anxious insistence on isolation has achieved its aim. The conflicts at the heart of her best work are dormant here. The speakers of these poems are wistful, detached, not overpowering or freaked out. This passage from “Before the Storm” is typical:

No sound. Only cats scuffling in the doorways.
They smell the wind: time to make more cats.
Later, they prowl the streets, but the smell of the wind stalks them.
It’s the same in the fields, confused by the smell of blood,
though for now only the wind rises; stars turn the field silver.

For the longest time I thought Glück stood for everything I couldn’t tolerate in American poetry. What little of her poetry I’d read struck me as not only premeditated, but also arrogant. She clearly rejected joy, happy surprise, I’ve already mentioned sex, not to speak of the small pleasures&#8212unexpected turns of phrase, stray details. Eventually it dawned on me that she might be writing with something other than pleasure in mind. Something greater, to her mind.

One night that summer my mother decided it was time to tell me about
what she referred to as pleasure, though you could see she felt
some sort of unease about this ceremony…
(from “At the River”)

Glück can be seen as part of a broader trend in American culture&#8212the cult of the aspirational insult. You may have heard about it in coverage of Neil Strauss’s dating manual, The Game, in which hapless men are instructed to get the attention of attractive women by insulting them. The more attractive the woman is, the greater the insult has to be. It’s called negging. It works on men too. For that matter, it can work on a whole society at once.

Does negging lead to a close connection, a truer understanding, real love? Is that question for real? What it leads to is power. To some extent, you can see patterns of negging in the work of a lot of writers enjoying critical favor now, especially the poets&#8212what is Frederick Seidel but a walking neg? but there are more than traces of this withholding tendency in less controversial and arguably greater, more successful writers, from to Anne Carson to Franz Wright. This is to say that in itself negging as a literary strategy is neither good nor bad. When it’s the only emotional color available to a writer, though, it’s bullying.

After The Wild Iris, Glück’s work takes a turn for the vague. In The Village Life, she’s still got the will to pass off her brutal streak as candor:

No one really understands
the savagery of this place,
the way it kills people for no reason,
just to keep in practice.

That’s fine. But the commanding tone loses its credibility when she uses it to speak untruths:

But no signal from earth
will ever reach the sun. Thrash
against that fact, you are lost.

If you think signals from earth radiating away from the earth reach the sun constantly, please be assured you are not lost.

The command that we associate with Gl&#252ck is a product of will and ingenuity. We believe her, when we believe her, even when we have no way to know whether she’s right, because she makes a point of stopping short, of heading off questions. It’s all or nothing, which is great when the bets pay off, disastrous when they don’t. The lines quoted above are among the shortest in the book. It may be that this is her way of signaling that in these poems she’s trying to speak in voices other than her own. It doesn’t work. The price of developing a commanding voice over several books is that now she always sounds exactly like herself.

A few themes recur&#8212moldy produce, men who alternate between complete availability and total withdrawal, adolescent pre-sexual flirtation, disappointed hopes. “In the Café” is the most like her best work, a narrative about a man who “falls in love a little too easy,” a serial monogamist vampire who becomes not what his lovers are, “but what they could be / if they weren’t trapped in their characters.” Afterwards, when the women complain to their next lovers about “how amazing it was, / like living with another woman, but without the spite, the envy,” Gluck’s follow-up is everything we want from her:

And the men tolerate this, they even smile.
They stroke the women’s hair&#8212
they know this man doesn’t exist; it’s hard for them to feel competitive.

And she’s entitled to mourn the loss of youth, as in “Walking at Night,” which begins “Now that she is old, / the young men don’t approach her” and ends recalling “the body she had as a young woman, / glistening under the light summer clothing.” The subject comes back again in “Crossroads,” where the speaker addresses her body, “it is not the earth I will miss / it is you I will miss.” Fair enough. But does she have to be a spoilsport and remark to someone in love, “Just be glad you were in bed, / where the cries of love drown out the screams of the corpses.” Do we still have to listen?

Reading A Village Life, I had the sense that no one had the nerve, or maybe the necessary affection, to say that the problems with this book are not trivial. Surely someone among the advance readers, hearing Gluck’s rhetorical questions, must have said no?

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9 Responses to “A Village Life”

  1. D. E. Steward Says:

    There are many varieties of poetic alienation, and as Jordan Davis argues convincingly, Louise Glück’s brand is not one of the most effective. The last time I heard her read I felt that she would have been capable of throwing a live grenade out into the audience.

  2. Anita Clearfield Says:

    Your reviewer doesn’t identify with the content so pans the poetry…doesn’t seem like a very “literary” approach to reviewing.
    I don’t think Gluck is “negging.” She’s layering imagery that conveys an outsider’s look at a place — and even one’s life. Sorry it’s not “happy” enough for the the reviewer, but has more truthfulness in form (the wandering line that comes up against bald statements) than his fear that she doesn’t like sex enough.

  3. Alison Carb Sussman Says:

    I think Louise Gluck is a great poet. All great poets have their weaknesses. Perhaps you are judging her too harshly, too unfairly.

  4. Elizabeth Macklin Says:

    Ms. Davis is ahead of me on two counts, since I haven’t read either A Village Life (though I’ve read many of the poems that went into it, in magazines and journals) or the Neil Strauss “negging” book, either. (I hadn’t seen that term before; awfully ugly word, though.) But several sentences in her essay brought me up short and I wanted in the meantime to speak to them.

    * “After The Wild Iris, Glück’s work takes a turn for the vague….”—Can any book of poetry possibly have been less vague than Meadowlands (1997, five years after Wild Iris)? I wondered how she would square that, or if she might care to address it.

    * At the “no signal from earth / will ever reach the sun” point, does a literal-minded reading make for true “untruth” on Glück’s part?

    * I searched, and there were no rhetorical questions in any of the Glück quotes Ms. Davis makes use of; the only questions were her own, and they themselves seemed largely rhetorical.

    But, without reading Glück’s book, all this is quibbling, though also querying. My real mission is to read the book. Given the poems I’ve seen since The Seven Ages (2001), particularly the ones that address a kind of will, or bent, toward community, I have been wanting to get a sense of all of them together in one place; or a wholer sense in detail of what has been on her mind in the meantime. Exactly because she has seemed able to contemplate, and record, without being “freaked out,” and so has (to my ear) been “overpowering” for that very reason.

    In a way, the essay reminded me of reviews that appeared when Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye came out. In retrospect—sometimes even at the time—they looked more and more like blaming the messenger. As for Davis’s question “Do we still have to listen?” I felt that until I’d read the book, I could only answer, with some kind of impatience, No, of course not. Do as you please.

    Though it was a well-done, and in many ways a quite personal, review, I wished it had taken in a still greater overview of Glück’s work, and had moved more imaginatively within Glück’s own context. It did ramp up my curiosity, though, to the point of going out and buying the book, and thank you very much for that.

  5. Jeanette L. Miller Says:

    Jordan, you don’t seem to “get” Louise Gluck — the mythology, the willingness to experience and chronicle all of life — not just the pretty, little happenings.

    Not liking sex isn’t the point of “Mock Orange”. Believing that one can access the way to wholeness through another is.

  6. Henry Gould Says:

    If ‘Ms.” Jordan is right…

    maybe Louise Gluck appeals to those readers (& there are a lot of them) who were trained in high school to experience reading poetry as a form of punishment. ?

  7. Sabrina Love Says:

    I’m glad to hear this – I think Glück’s poems are trails.

  8. Keith Krugerud Says:

    In a world of constant suffering and struggling nothing in this life is easy. In a series of soon to be published essay, like for example in “Tributaries”, I focus on and present her apparent id,eas of travailing along these avenues, “like the Buddhists” who travel along their eight-fold path, enduring and witnessing changes and impermanence. To be sure, at her late age, both change and impermanence have a very sharp and sensitive affect. They must more and more poignantly cause anxiety and concern over “death and uncertainty”. But apart from that personal tragedy, life is full of misery. Everyone longs for happiness. But everyone is too preoccupied with daily activities in this world and too attached to objects both physical and mental. And since all these objects and activities in this world always change and are impermanent, no-body will ever find true happiness here and now. And yet, along these avenues she seems to find new ways of seeing things; then acts accordingly. Thus to truly understand this, she seems to receive this sudden jolt or inspiration that sets her on the correct avenue toward “Liberty” (VL 6) –she seems to see the cherub piss on her yet inspire her to leave this particular setting and head to a place within the hills and home. Indeed, this rather pessimistic view seems to correlate with the negative views found in Buddhism, seeing life as all suffering. But this view misses the point. To be sure, she views things both realistically and objectively. On the one hand, within this fountain setting, she reflects and envisions the meaninglessness of trying to find happiness in this world so unreal, so romantic. So, on the other hand, she follows the avenues in their reverse way, in their way to end the suffering. But, along the way and during this visit in her life, she still has to face the pain and disappointments within this mundane and cruel world. That is, she has to start from where she is. She must examine her own life very objectively. Hence, she seems to do just that through the various characters clinging round the fountain – she must see various aspects of her own life both past and present. Furthermore, she must recognize her pain. She sees all the good things in this life ending or changing: children grow up and face the world; love ones pass away; she loses vigor and youthful beauty. All these changes create new pains. And at a deeper level, she is aware of an all-encompassing pain. In each human being, this suffering dwells in his or her form, feeling, perception, phantasms, and consciousness. But recognizing all these negativities: views, emotions, sufferings, behaviors, she starts to see things more positively. And then she transforms the positives into perfection and permanence. To end, my only criticism toward “A Village Life”, is Gluck sees too evident on the concepts of Buddhism, not to mention an explicit statement “like the Buddhists” (VL 53).

  9. Jordan Davis: “Kale” « The Mookse and the Gripes Says:

    […] she sometimes sounds “arrogant” and “premeditated” to him, and depressing in the extreme (here). Unlike Glück, what Davis has done in this poem is celebrate something beautiful in as ordinary […]

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