Ask 10 young American women who read poetry to name the living poet who matters most to them, and nine will probably answer: Louise Gl ck. The same ratio holds, more or less, among poetry buyers, Pulitzer judges, professors of the stuff and the various taste-makers of American verse. Gl ck has won major accolades, like the Pulitzer Prize, the Poet Laureateship and a professorship at Yale. She regularly gives standing-room only readings to deafening applause.
I think she matters more in little ways, in the personal connection she has made with many readers: In a tape of Gl ck reading her work I was once lent by another young woman, and which I sometimes listen to as I drive; in the several times other poetry fans have pressed her books into my hands, telling me how much a particular poem has moved them; and in the way a huge reproduction of her poem "The Wild Iris" once graced the entire window of a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Gl ck is not only a major American poet, but a Jewish poet, though she is rarely read that way. I kept thinking about how Jewish tradition seeped into her poems, lightly and also deeply, as I read her new collection, Averno. Not that there are any references to rabbis or Jewish symbols here - Gl ck is in no way an overtly Jewish poet. She looks to the natural world for her symbols, like the moon and the flowers and the stars, as she has in her previous books, and she draws heavily on mythology, as she has in her other volumes. Averno even gets its title from the small crater the ancient Romans believed was the entrance to the underworld - it's not a Jewish idea in the least.
And yet while reading this collection I felt the echoes of very old questions, rabbis' questions. That's because the poems in Averno are not only personal - a diary of a life, delivered in spare, often brutally honest lines - but also a reaction to the fire of the 20th century. Gl ck, who once lost a house she was living in to fire, who carried a German last name, who named her son Noah, braids the theme of the fire in her own house into the fire of the world.
THE POEMS here are about getting older, and what life looks like as the poet gets closer to the end. They openly ask what the meaning of life is, and where the soul is going after it all, and in those questions of purpose they sometimes seem to be interested in the same topics the rabbis are interested in. Amazingly, a few of the answers seem to recall the rabbis' phrasing. And there's something else here that made me wonder about Averno, that book born in the underworld, as a work of Jewish literature - the constant interest in the aftereffects of violence.
I suspect Gl ck's poem "October" will resonate with many readers of this newspaper who have lived through terror and war, who have seen both fire and periods of seeming calm. Here is one part:
Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.
Later in the poem, as the change that violence brings becomes a refrain, things start to seem a little biblical:
It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.
There it is, the "test," the rabbinical idea that God tested Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac. And then, in the next section, comes something that echoes the rabbis' dictum that one is not obligated to finish the work, but one is not free to ignore the task entirely. Here Gl ck writes:
It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
I jumped when I read that phrase, "here I may be of some use." This feeling of being "of some use," the sense that the poet matters to the world, is what makes this book hopeful. For those familiar with Gl ck, the surprise of Averno is that it constantly concludes that life is good. This is not something that comes lightly for a woman whose house burned down in a fire, who has written of the end of her marriage and who seems to have struggled with depression and periods of long silence between collections. After all those sad poems, those relics of depression, and all those musings on how nature does not have the "warehouse of memory" that humans do, that nature forgets fire, Gl ck admits here that the "night was in my head."
What appears to be disaster and destruction, Gl ck discovers, can actually bring a deeper appreciation of the beauty of life. In these poems, fire is a clarifying force. Gl ck threads the idea of fire throughout the book, making the fire a way of seeing. In that same poem, "October," which stretches over 10 pages, she writes it plainly: "the fire becomes the mirror." And then at the end of the poem, she elaborates:
From within the earth's
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness
my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?
The poems move like that, between great fire and great peace, between the sense that life is a battle and a beauty, night and a place illuminated and made lovely by the moon and the stars.
There are also many poems about a tense waiting, about the space between battle and beauty, which may also be familiar to those who have lived through the periods of quiet between attacks. There is a numbness, Gl ck knows, to that waiting:
Time passed, turning everything to ice.
Under the ice, the future stirred.
If you fell into it, you died.
It was a time
of waiting, of suspended action.
I lived in the present, which was
That part of the future you could see.
The past floated above my head,
like the sun and the moon, visible but never reachable.
It was a time
governed by contradictions, as in
I felt nothing and
I was afraid.
Despite the numbness and the fear, this book is a prayer to the future. It's a book written by a poet trying to write a great book, to leave a work that will have some effect. I got the sense that Gl ck wants readers magnifying her poems and hanging them in windows, and she wants, like the rabbis, to light a path. She writes:
we poets give ourselves absolutely,
making, in silence, omen of mere event,
until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.
There is a size and scale to this book, a huge hope in it. Sure, there is ambition in poetry like this, always. But when Gl ck writes of having the world reflect what the soul deeply needs - that seemed to me something different, something beyond the personal and cathartic, something that is simply a rewording of the ancient goal of repairing the world.
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