Louise Gluck’s 11th volume of poetry is a litany of contrasts and their affect the human condition: mountain and meadow, fog and light, village and city. The poems are pinned to the cycles of light and dark, sun and moon, soul and body. When she makes a conclusion, she finds one no better than the other. Take the city-country mouse split between rural and urban life. “Pastoral” opens with the sun rising over mountains and the mist that hide it. …but the sun’s behind it always/and the mist isn’t equal to it./ The sun burns its way through, giving the poem a tapestry of images all contained in one grand view.
She goes on to bring the view into perspective. No one really understands/the savagery of this place,/the way it kills people for no reason,/just to keep in practice.//So people flee–and for a while, away from here,/they’re exuberant, surrounded by so many choices–
But urban life, and its choices, make for hard measure: When they come back, they’re worse./They think they failed in the city, not that the city doesn’t make good its promises. What to blame for this failure? Upbringing and loss of youth, a certain destiny of place shared with their fathers. Gluck places her reason in the middle of the two. …no signal from earth/will ever reach the sun. Thrash/against the fact, you are lost.
As the vehicle of relevation, the sun breaks mist to reveal/the immense mountain. The moon, as revealed in the title poem, is meaningless but full of messages and its reflected sunlight also brings relevation: It’s dead, it’s always been dead,/but it pretends to be something else,/burning like a star, and convincingly, so that you feel sometimes/it could actually make something grow on earth. So that the reader makes no mistake, she defines her image in the following, single-line stanza: If there’s an image of the soul, I think that’s what it is.
If this seems a bleak vision, it is. Gluck offers only small solace, that of growing thing for ourselves, children or lettuces. In “Village Takes,” she gathers firewood and prepares against the darkness that will overtake her. If there is a natural way to deal with this darkness, this mortality, it is in seeing behind things, seeing through darkness “which result from deprivation”, as bats do. The poem of that name scolds, man the ego, man imprisoned in the eye,/there is a path you cannont see, beyond the eye’s reach and suggests to make a place for light/the mystic shuts his eyes–illumination/of the kind he seeks destroys…
“Earthworm” also operates to advantage in darkness and extols it. …to walk on top of a thing is not to prevail over it–/it is more the opposite, a disguised dependency. Throughout this collection, Gluck tears at certainties, suggesting the enlightened position is not one of light. The worm asks: What is your word? Infinity meaning/that which cannot be measured.
By placing her title poem at the end of this collection, Gluck has plenty of space to develop her themes and symbols before drawing them together, thus bringing added weight to those two-and-a-half pages that seem to contain all that came before. Her consistency of image, even as the images develop layer upon layer of meaning, is impressive, and their frequent use in these 41 poems, without tedium, speaks to her skill. Even when they don’t appear in the culminating final poem, her metaphors develop a single impression. Stealing, burning leaves, cleaning clothes and other simple acts mark passage. The world, as it is, is framed through windows. As the poet ages, she develops feeling for her body as hse had for the bodies of others. She writes in “Crossroads, “now that we will not be traveling together much long/I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,/like what I remember of love when I was young–.
Gluck use description and explanation in equal and equally effective manner. Her language is matter of fact, it cadences and musical qualities striking with visual and aural sense: To me, it’s safe. The sun rises; the mist/dissipates to reveal/the immense mountain. You can see the peak,/ how white it is, even in summer. And the sky’s so blue… In reminding us of the simplicity of her village, the place where her life is sheltered, she reminds us of the complications of life. We wish we were able to see them as purely, as calmly, as deeply as she.–Cabbage Rabbit